Sanchez, the leader of the left of centre PSOE (Socialist Workers Party of Spain), thought that abandoning his attempts at forming a new coalition government after the April general election and gambling on a new one would achieve two things. It would weaken the right wing parties and push his left wing competitor Unidad Podemos (UP) into irrelevance. For a while after April, he had encouraged the idea of bringing the UP into an arrangement with a new government, but then cooled on the idea under pressure from his more moderate wing and in the face of the Catalan crisis. His move fell flat. The PSOE went down by 3 seats and lost around 800.000 votes. Podemos also lost ground, going from 42 to 35 seats and losing about 700.000 votes but was not removed from the central political stage.
Instead of smashing the right there was a recovery of the right of centre Partido Popular (Peoples Party, PP) with a rise from 66 to 88 seats, and a huge breakthrough for the far right Vox (Voice) party which more than doubled its seats from 24 to 52 and overtook the UP score with 15% of the vote. Vox will now receive more than a million euros in state funding which will help stabilise this new party. Many of its representatives and cadre come out of the crisis in the PP. These are people who are genuinely nostalgic of Francoism. Their election campaign focused on the threat of Catalan independence and racist scapegoating of young migrants for a rise in rapes and crime. It was no surprise that the Italian Salvini, who sings from the same songbook, was the one of the first to congratulate Vox.
At the same time, despite a full-blooded repressive offensive from the Spanish state, the Catalan Independence parties won a clear majority for the first time and the radical Left independence group, the CUP, took two seats. These are two anti-capitalist MPs and they could play a role in forging links between the independence struggle and working class struggle in the rest of the Spanish state which has been the weakness of the mainstream independence parties. In the Basque country there is no longer a single PP MP and the more radical Bildu Basque party took an extra seat.
The great white hope of some of the key business sectors, Cuidadanos (Citizens party) suffered a complete disaster. This current was supposed to be the modernizing, pro-business, anti-corrupt right of centre replacement for the PP but it imploded going from 57 seats in April to 10. As it moved away from a fake ‘centrist’ positioning to cheerleading the anti-Catalan offensive and ruling out alliances with the PSOE, its vote was eaten away spectacularly by the PP and the Vox.
So overall we have seen a moderate decline in the forces of left as a whole, a strengthening of the independence forces and a significant recomposition of the right with a new ratio of 20 % PP to 15% Vox. In general it signals a further stage of political instability in the Spanish state and a re-assertion of what our website, Socialist Resistance, has termed the rightward shift in the international political situation. The fragmentation and crisis of mainstream parties throughout Europe is a consequence of the profound economic crisis of 2008 that meant the scope for concessions to working people in terms of wages and social spending became very narrow as capital had to revitalise its profitability and reorganise after the banking crisis. Of course in the Spanish State the situation is exacerbated by the ongoing crisis of the constitutional arrangements established at the end of Francoism in the 1978 regime.
Podemos lost some votes to its split off, the new formation Mas Pais (More Our Country), led by Errejon the former Podemos leader. He had linked up with what at one time had been a progressive Madrid mayor, Manuela Carmena, and they had already managed to lose the capital city in the recent local elections. Now the new group did less well than it expected, winning just over 2 % and three MPs. There was always an element of personal egos around the split but Errejon was also a much more thoroughgoing supporter of the Laclau/Mouffe theories of left populism which aimed at some sort of national popular hegemony that was neither left nor right. If these elections show anything it is how such an ideology runs up against the concrete reality of a different nations existing within the Spanish state as well as the far right actually being able to articulate a more superficially ‘popular’ and reactionary idea of a Spanish nation. However his current did probably take votes from Podemos. Nevertheless it is difficult to see a long term future for such a group, the political space just does not exist for it.
Looking at the numbers neither the left nor the right can form a coalition government. The PSOE could play the popular front card framing a coalition as defence against the rise of the far right. There is the possibility that the PSOE will try and resurrect the ‘coalition’ that got rid of Rajoy and his PP government in a no confidence vote. But that was made up of the PSOE, UP and a host of independence parties. Given Sanchez’s uncompromising position in defence of the constitution and in upholding the repressive measures against the Catalan movement and its leadership, who remain on ten year jail sentences, it is difficult to see how easy it will be to recreate such unity. At the moment the official line is that the PSOE is dead against any deal or arrangement with the PP – although historically they have collaborated with the right wing, both during the transition from Francoism and more recently when they allowed a Rajoy government to be formed by abstaining. In any case, such a deal would give Podemos a huge fillip as it could challenge it from the left and the PP would be very wary of any collaboration given Vox is breathing down its neck. Another factor to be considered by the PSOE is the possibility that Cuidadanos, given its complete debacle, will be electing a new leader after the resignation of Rivera and it may become more favourable to an arrangement. Although its paltry ten MPs and the likely hostility of Podemos to any such deal makes this less likely.
There could be a political solution to the crisis if a PSOE government adopted clear anti-austerity measures, repealed the worst repressive laws and accepted the right of the Catalan people to vote in an independence referendum. Podemos has been in favour of such an approach and even with its losses is still the fourth political force. However in the preceding period it has tended to focus everything on getting Sanchez to give it some ministries rather than be clear about the programmatic red lines it defends in any negotiations. You have to have a clear political alternative if you want to survive as a political current or even to negotiate competently. This more moderate line is in contrast with the project of Podemos at its foundation as a force of constitutional change and break up of the 1978 regime. It runs alongside what has become a very top down structure and a big decline in the activity of the local branches. There is no reason why Podemos could not adopt an analogous approach to the Portuguese Left Bloc which allows the social democratic government to take office but agrees to propose and support only measures that defend working people. The Left Bloc refuses to take ministerial posts because this would limit its ability to campaign against government policies it disagrees with.
Any solution, whether the PSOE looks to its left and the moderate independence parties or to an eventual ‘arrangement‘ with the PP is likely to be extremely difficult and short term. This is even more the case when you consider the increasingly difficult economic situation in the Spanish state.
Dave Kellaway, 12 November 2019