Dave Kellaway of Hackney Left Unity looks at the situation.
Si se puede! Yes we can. Podemos was the big story of Sunday’s general elections in the Spanish state. They were the main force breaking a two party system that has lasted more than thirty years since the post Franco transition. In all previous elections the centre right Peoples (PP) and the centre-left Socialist Party (PSOE) have taken between 70 and 80% of the vote. They have managed the country in the interests of big capital. Since 2008 they have both imposed austerity policies that have further worsened people’s living conditions: 25% unemployed of which 2 million are long term, up to 50% young people unemployed with many emigrating and 9 million in poverty. Health and education budgets have been slashed. Through all this these two parties have been involved in systematic corruption and have sought to hold on to the centralised Spanish state – against the desires of its various peoples in Catalonia, the Basque country and Galicia for more autonomy.
Podemos emerged only in January 2014 mainly as a political expression of massive mobilisations of the indignados and mareas movements which had filled the streets a few years earlier. It made a clean break with the traditional left which had been an integral part of what it called the corrupt political caste. Even the Spanish Communist Party coalition IU (United Left) had been contaminated with its alliances with the PSOE. Podemos emerged from the 600 or so local circles and benefited from the media success of its charismatic leader Pablo Iglesias. It did politics differently, its leadership wanted to use a new understandable political language, to move away from rigid left and right categories and to build a new national popular project that could form a government. Last night one commentator on Spanish TV said correctly that Podemos represents a whole generation who for the first time has experienced a worst situation than all previous ones since at least the transiton and its future prospects are not great if nothing changes.
Today it has 69 seats in parliament and is only one and half percentage points behind the PSOE in votes. The PSOE, like the PP, benefits from an undemocratic division of constituencies where rural areas can elect Mps with fewer voters than the urban areas. So the seat difference (90 to 69) exagerates the real difference in support. If you add the 3.7% of a much diminished IU who now have only 2 seats then the left of the PSOE have more popular support – this is a historic shift. Indeed the objective of overtaking the PSOE was a much more realistic target than some of the leadership’s talk of winning a majority. The vote was confirmation of what the Podemos rallies had been chanting remontada – we are coming back. Just a few months ago the polls had them as low as 12%. The media had been over-estimating the great white hope of key business sectors, Cuidadanos, which was clearly being sponsored as a right of centre group whose anti-corruption message could be a counter-weight to Podemos. Although it did increase its support its 13.9% is six points behind Podemos. Crucially its support does not allow the outgoing PP government to form a coalition with it.
Rajoy’s PP lost a third of its seats but got 28.72% of the vote so remains the largest party and will be given first go at forming a government. Considering the attack on working people, the level of corruption and his total support for a centralised Spanish nation it is surprising that it did not do worse. However the main opposition party was tainted with its lack of opposition to austerity and its support for the centralised state. Rajoy has also benefited from a small but significant recovery in the capitalist economy and his image as a bulwark against chaos goes down better among older voters who he has partially protected through not cutting pension payments. Also, despite the rise of Podemos the level of both social movement and labour struggles still remain low, particularly compared to the indignados period.
Fortunately the Podemos leadership moved towards a more positive relationship with the left nationalist currents over the last two years. Earlier on it wished to keep the Podemos ‘brand’ distinct and not mix it with other forces. It started to change its line in the local elections this year. Alliances in Catalonia, Galicia and Valencia brought it moore than a third of its seats yesterday. In Catalonia Podemos became the largest party. Iglesias now talks about plurinationality and came out in support of the Catalonia referendum which is rejected by the political caste. Catalonia will remain a key political question in the post election phase.
Sanchez, the recently installed and youthful leader of the PSOE blustered in his post electoral speech that the PSOE had made and will continue to make history. Nobody is fooled, this is a historic defeat. He said he is for dialogue. This may mean he is looking for some sort of PSOE/Podemos/IU/Cuidadanos pact or coalition. The numbers are there for a majority of this sort but it is difficult to see a political basis for this. Although Iglesias has moderated some of Podemos’s positions on nationalisation or the debt there is still a clear gap with the PSOE and an even bigger one on the nationalities question. Cuidadanos is even more against Catalonia autonomy than the PSOE. There is a risk for Podemos here. Iglesias still admires Tsipras and could be tempted by a chance to be in government.
The other political sentiment expressed in Podemos is to use the new political instability where no one can easily form a government to encourage the relaunch of social and labour struggles and to mobilise behind the demands for a new constitutional process since it is clear the post Franco transitional arrangements are dying. This approach focuses on moving towards a break with the existing political and economic system.
What has happened in the Spanish state is part of the same process Left Unity has identified and participated in. We salute its success today. The mainstream parties, including the left of centre ones, are managing austerity and creating the conditions both for resistance and for the formation of new left class struggle forces. In some places the break up of the traditional political systems have led to the rise of reactionary populist forces such as the National Front in France or more centrist ones like Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement in Italy. In both the Spanish state and Greece it has led to the most radical forces on the left. Even in Britain the Corbyn phenomenon reflects a radicalisation arising from the same sources rather than some inner dynamic within a Labour left. In Greece this force then split as it took government power and started eventually to manage austerity with a dented shield strategy. Hopefully the lessons of Greece have been digested in the Spanish state.