Spain: a government with feet of clay

After almost a year without a government, two inauspicious general elections, and the looming prospect of third elections, the incumbent Mariano Rajoy, leader of the right-wing People’s Party (PP), was made president at the eleventh hour with the support of the liberal party Ciudadanos and the abstention of the social-democratic PSOE.

The year-long paralysis of the Spanish political system has been temporarily resolved – but only through a Faustian bargain that will prepare the ground for a future explosion in the class struggle. This will be a weak and hated government of cuts and attacks against the working class, led by the corrupt and discredited PP with the connivance of Ciudadanos and the PSOE. This leaves the left-wing formation, Unidos Podemos, as the only genuine opposition to Rajoy.

Political deadlock

Antonio Hernando - www.congreso.esAntonio Hernando, spokesperson of the Socialist Group in the Spanish parliament - Photo: www.congreso.esThe general elections of December 2015 generated a political crisis of unprecedented proportions. The PP won the elections with a mere 28% of the vote, down from the 44% they had obtained in 2011, and very far away from the parliamentary majority needed to form a government. The other traditional force of the Spanish political system, the PSOE, took an even heavier blow, scoring only 22%. Since 1982, Spanish politics had been based on these two parties, which had periodically alternated in power forming more or less stable governments. The role of the PSOE was particularly important, since it provided the ruling class with a reliable escape valve for discontent against the conservatives. In December 2015, this arrangement imploded. The detonator was Podemos, an anti-austerity party set up in 2014 by left-wing academics and that had risen meteorically, scoring 21% of the vote in the December 2015 elections. The addition of the votes of the United Left (connected to the Communist Party) gave the parties left of Social Democracy a greater share of the vote than the PSOE. These results came after years of mass mobilisation against the policies of the Zapatero and the Rajoy government's, which saw the political awakening of millions of Spanish workers and youth. Indeed, the tension and fragmentation in the Spanish parliament are only reflections of the class polarisation that exists in society at large.

The hung parliament, which emerged after December left the PSOE as the kingmaker. They could either chose to side with the PP or try to form a government with Podemos and the Catalan and Basque nationalists. Their working-class base of support naturally preferred the latter, but their real masters, the Spanish and European capitalists, who for decades had been in control of the PSOE leadership, were terrified of this prospect, and put pressure on the socialist leader, Pedro Sánchez, to back Rajoy. However, Sánchez and his associates understood that supporting the conservatives amounted to political suicide. They have drawn some lessons from the experience of PASOK in Greece, which collapsed after collaborating with New Democracy. Therefore Sánchez turned his back both to the PP and to Podemos, proposing instead an implausible coalition with the small liberal party Ciudadanos, and asking Podemos to support it. This idea predictably floundered; it was only a fig leaf to cover the PSOE’s political cul-de-sac. Although Podemos’s leader Pablo Iglesias put forward an alternative plan for a left-wing government, this proposal was not backed by a mass campaign on the streets. Indeed, Podemos limited itself to parliamentary manoeuvres and statements, often contradictory in character, and failed to mobilise its rank-and-file. The media and the PSOE were therefore able to sideline and ignore Iglesias’ proposal for an alternative left-wing government, and paint Podemos (with some success) as sectarian and self-interested.

This stalemate led to new elections in June 2016. Despite the formation of an electoral alliance with the United Left, Unidos Podemos (the new coalition’s name) scored an unimpressive 21%. The wavering of Iglesias, who swung from verbal radicalism to moderation, the lack of mobilisation of the rank-and-file, and the ability of the PSOE to put the blame on Iglesias for the political deadlock led to a high level of abstention among the party’s supporters and to these poor results. Posing as a bulwark of stability, the PP was able to increase its support, rallying behind it all the conservative sectors of society, although it was still far from governmental majority. The PSOE held onto its 22%. Sánchez skilfully employed a left-wing rhetoric, posing as the only viable alternative to the PP, and exploited the moderation and inconsistencies of Iglesias. However, these elections did not change the situation fundamentally; the PP still had no majority and needed the PSOE to form a government.


The ball was once again in the court of the PSOE, which could chose to side with Rajoy or with Iglesias. At this point, the pressures of the ruling class and its media on Sánchez redoubled. Ciudadanos promised to support Rajoy and called on Sánchez to join them. Iglesias’ incendiary speeches in parliament, where he trenchantly revealed the hypocrisy and callousness of the different parties and their patrons in the stock exchange, further infuriated the ruling class. The bourgeoisie began to make open demands on Sánchez through its mouthpieces, particularly El País, displaying unabashed arrogance. The troika joined the campaign, easing the interim cabinet’s deficit targets to facilitate the formation of a new government.

Surprisingly though, Sánchez refused to buckle. He had bound his political future to his opposition to the PP, and was not ready to immolate himself politically. He even affirmed he would explore the possibility of a left-wing government with Unidos Podemos with the backing of the Catalan and Basque nationalists. This was probably a bluff, aimed to shore up support before the prospect of new elections. For the ruling class, however, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, particularly because any talk of bringing in the Catalan nationalists into a government pact would probably entail an independence referendum for Catalonia, an absolute no go for the Spanish establishment.  

A party coup against Sánchez was launched by former president Felipe González, who has close personal connections with the Spanish big bourgeoisie, and Susana Díaz, president of the Andalusian government, who stands on the right wing of the party. In a move reminiscent of the manoeuvres of the Parliamentary Labour Party against Jeremy Corbyn, half of the PSOE executive resigned. A federal committee meeting was called, where Sánchez was in the minority and was forced to step down. A few weeks later, he also resigned from his parliamentary seat. In a recent interview in the popular TV programme Salvados, Sánchez explained the pressures he had been subjected to, referring to direct threats from big Spanish capitalists such as César Alierta from Telefónica and the banks Santander and BBVA, and by Juan Luis Cebrián from El País and the Prisa media conglomerate. The crisis in the PSOE forced the capitalists to take off their masks and intervene directly to ensure the parties that represent their interests toe the line. The coup in the PSOE serves valuable lesson for millions of people on the real character of bourgeois democracy, which is nothing but the covert dictatorship of the big capitalists.

The interim leadership of the PSOE instructed its MPs to abstain in the second round of voting on Rajoy’s investiture on October 29, giving him the sufficient support to form a new government. Now, to give Rajoy’s cabinet some stability, they will have to collaborate in passing its most important measures. This move is likely to destroy the PSOE – the oldest party in Spain and the keystone of the 1978 political arrangement. There is enormous discontent and frustration among the party rank-and-file and base of support. Immediately after the internal coup, tens of thousands of members signed a petition demanding an emergency congress of the party to decide on the question of Rajoy’s investiture and some local branches saw tumultuous meetings voting motions against abstention.  Not only is the PSOE backing the hated PP, this has come after a dirty internal coup against the democratically elected party leader, adding insult to injury. Fifteen MPs rebelled against the leadership’s directives and voted against Rajoy, including the entirety of the Catalan Socialist MPs.

The embarrassing and treacherous capitulation of the PSOE now leaves Unidos Podemos as the only genuine force of opposition, and millions of former socialist voters could now turn to Iglesias. Indeed, the PSOE had continued to enjoy significant support among important layers of the working class, especially in small towns and among the elderly, who continued to see it as the principal left-wing alternative to the PP. These illusions are now being dispelled and the consciousness of these layers has been violently shaken.

The defeat of Pedro Sanchez does not close the crisis of PSOE as he has announced a tour of the country to gather support for his candidature for the leadership of the party, perhaps hoping to replicate Corbyn’s success. The party apparatus, however, has taken good note of the tactical mistakes of the Blairites in Britain and is unlikely to repeat them. They have already announced that a new congress will be delayed “until after a new political manifesto is drafted” and some have even hinted with doing away with primary elections to select the new leader.

The crisis of the PSOE is yet another episode in the global collapse of Social Democracy, which follows the wreckage of the PASOK in Greece, the debacle of Hollande in France, and the downfall of Blairism in Britain. The cause of this is the difficulty of engaging in class collaboration in the current crisis of capitalism, and the impossibility for Social Democracy to carry out policies that are even superficially different from those of the right wing. Moreover, the absolute co-option and corruption of the Social Democratic leaderships by the bourgeoisie in the years of tranquillity that preceded the crisis have completely detached the leaders of these parties from their working-class base of support, which they previously took for granted. These leaders are at a loss in the new period, unable to understand the situation and incapable of speaking to their constituencies. The smug and self-important attitude of Felipe González, Susana Díaz, or Antonio Hernando bears witness to this. The degeneration and decline of Social Democracy is of tremendous consequence for the class struggle, since the authority of these parties and their influence among the working class were an indispensable safety valve for the capitalist system.

The new government

The new Spanish government has feet of clay. This is a minority government with minimal popular support – the lowest in the history of Spanish democracy. It is born out of a treacherous Faustian pact between the PP, the PSOE, and Ciudadanos. The PP is an extremely reactionary party, an offspring of the Francoist system, based on obscurantist Catholicism and Spanish chauvinism. Today, it lives off the fear to change of the conservative and privileged layers of society, particularly the rural, elderly population. According to a recent poll published by the right-wing newspaper La Razón, the ruling party has a support of merely 9% among those aged 18-29. Staffed by absolute mediocrities, the PP is completely consumed by corruption. All levels of the party are affected by scandals, whose obverse, of course, is the greed of the parasitic Spanish oligarchy. Now the PSOE will rightly be seen as an ally of this reactionary, corrupt party.

Although the troika gave Rajoy some respite during the government crisis, it is now demanding its pound of flesh: it is asking for over five billion euros in cuts for the coming year, followed by another five billion in 2017. New rounds of cuts and attacks are to be expected. Significantly, the public pension fund is under enormous strain and is expected to go into deficit next year, and it is feared a major round of cuts to pensions might be in the offing. Moreover, despite all the grandiloquent talk of recovery, the economic situation for the Spanish working class and the impoverished middle class is extremely dire. Unemployment stands at 20%, and youth unemployment at over 40%. Almost a million families (720,000) have no source of income whatsoever. One in three children live under the poverty threshold. Only one out twenty new employment contracts is fixed and full time. One out five workers earns less than 300€ a month. Since 2008, over 400,000 families have been evicted from their homes, a process that continues untrammelled. The turbulent global and European economic situation leaves little room for optimism about genuine recovery. At the same time, Spain is the second most unequal country in the OECD (more than Greece), and the number of millionaires has rocketed since the start of the crisis (it increased by 10% only last year), as many employers are lining their pockets thanks to the pauperisation of the Spanish working class.

Carftel-Mafia-DemocraciaPhoto: Fair useThis will be an unpopular government that will face unprecedented resistance from the workers and the youth. Over the last two years the streets of Spain have been inordinately calm after the wave of protests of 2011-2014. This, however, was understandable: the years 2014-2016 saw a record number of local, regional, and general elections, and the masses turned their attention from the struggles on the streets to the political plane, where they now had a new point of reference in Podemos. There were hopes that an electoral road to social change could be found. The return of a PP government will lead to new mass movements. Indeed, on Saturday 29, the day of Rajoy’s instatement, as many as 100,000 people took to the streets in Madrid to protest against the new government as being “illegitimate”. The mood was extremely combative with the crowd shouting slogans like “Madrid será la tumba del fascismo” (Madrid will be the grave of fascism) and “Viva la lucha de la clase obrera” (Long live the struggle of the working class). This demonstration was organised by the small platform Rodea el congreso and had been demonised by the media and the ruling parties; El País referred to it as “an attack against democracy”. The fact that it ended up becoming a mass demonstration is a taste of things to come (See video below) . The trade union confederation UGT, notoriously phlegmatic and cowardly, has already spoken of calling a general strike if the PP continues the reactionary measures of the previous years. In short, the coming years will see new waves of mass mobilisations, perhaps even more militant and energetic than those of 2011-2014. And now, these movements will have a powerful voice in parliament and a political point of reference in the form of Unidos Podemos.

Protest - Santiago Donaire cuartopodervideos

Faced with mass protest movements, the unstable pact behind the new government could crumble, and Rajoy could fall before his four-year term is over. The connivance of the PSOE with the PP in particular could rapidly snap in a context of generalised discontent. The national question adds yet another element of explosiveness to the situation. The movement for Catalan self-determination has grown significantly under the hammer blows of the crisis and as a reaction to the chauvinistic PP government. The current Catalan administration is supposedly committed to declaring independence, although its demagogic bourgeois leadership does not seem keen to embark on the road of secession. However, the return of the PP government could radicalise the movement for independence and push it towards the left. The defence of Catalonia’s right to self-determination by Unidos Podemos will become even more crucial than it has been in the past.

Unidos Podemos

In these conditions, Unidos Podemos has enormous possibilities, but also faces daunting tasks. The betrayal of the PSOE has left the regime without any protection on its left flank. Millions of people will now be turning to Unidos Podemos. But to put itself at the head of popular discontent against the new government, it needs to follow a bold and consistent line.

In previous years, the party carried out a series of twists and turns, at times moderating and at times radicalising its rhetoric. Power was centralised in the hands of the national executive, and internal life in the organisation became ossified. This was related to the impatience of the leadership to win the elections at any cost, looking for shortcuts and pandering to the prejudices of bourgeois public opinion. It was thought that in order to win mass support, the programme and language of the party had to be watered down so as not to scare the middle class. This idea was promoted in particular by party leader Íñigo Errejón. In the interest of caution and moderation, power was concentrated in the hands of the party leaders and the rank-and-file was side-lined. However, this strategy was counterproductive: it made Podemos appear as untrustworthy and opportunistic in the eyes of the petty bourgeoisie and the least combative sectors of the working class, and at the same time it confused and demoralised the most militant layers of the workers and the youth, which are the backbone of Podemos, and it also disheartened party activists.

Currently, there is much revulsion in the party against this strategy. Pablo Iglesias in particular has come out against vagueness and moderation, clashing with his former collaborator Íñigo Errejón. The alliance with the United Left in June, to which Errejón had been hostile, was an important stepping stone in this regard. Iglesias increasingly refers to the traditions and historical symbols of the Spanish labour movement and has radicalised his rhetoric, delivering a series of mordant speeches in parliament. On the debate on Rajoy’s investiture, for instance, he began by commemorating the creation of the International Brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil War, and then went on to fiercely attack the “tripartite alliance” of the PP, the PSOE, and Ciudadanos. The party slogan has changed from sí se puede (yes we can) to the more militant luchar, crear poder popular (struggle, create people’s power), borrowed from revolutionary Chile.

Alberto Garzón across the fence - Jose Camo Garzón - Photo: Jose CamoAs part of an attempt to democratise party life, a round of regional leadership elections is being held in Madrid and Andalucia (where there are left wing slates backed by Pablo Iglesias standing against the moderate wing) and at some point there will be another national congress. There is also an attempt to connect the party to the labour movement and to mass mobilisations. Iglesias has affirmed that Podemos will participate in any general strikes that are called. Several prominent members of Unidos Podemos, such as Alberto Garzón, Juan Carlos Monedero, and Diego Cañamero attended the demonstration against Rajoy’s investiture on Friday.

These are steps in the right direction. Only a radical party that stands out from all the rest, with democratic structures and a vibrant internal life, and that is organically connected to the social ad workers’ movements can lead a successful struggle against the government. However, verbal radicalism is not enough. The struggle against the government both in parliament and on the streets needs a consistent programme, a consistent and comprehensive political alternative to the PP government and its lackeys. Although austerity has been trenchantly attacked, the only alternative put forward by Unidos Podemos has been vague and unconvincing talk of taxing the rich and cracking down on tax avoidance. The party leadership believes that austerity is a question of political will, and that progressive reforms can be wrested from the capitalists by exerting political pressure. However, austerity is not only a political question, but a structural feature of the system in conditions of deep crisis, of indebtedness, overproduction, and recession. The experience of the Syriza government serves as dramatic proof of this.

If Unidos Podemos were to take power, it would face the savage opposition of the capitalists and their agents in the parliament, the state apparatus, and the media from day one. Even the democratic demands of an Unidos Podemos government, such the right to self-determination for the Catalans, the Galicians, and the Basques; the struggle against corruption; the secularisation of the state; the elimination of Francoist symbols, etc., would face the frontal hostility of the reactionary Spanish establishment. Any worker that reads the hysteric propaganda of the bourgeois press against Unidos Podemos understands the violent sabotage such a government would face. Only revolutionary socialist measures and the mobilisation of the working class would be able to counter these attacks. The only way to end austerity, to increase pensions and wages, create jobs and improve working conditions, to invest in education and healthcare, is by expropriating the enormous wealth amassed by the handful of monopolies that run the Spanish economy, planning them in the interest of society at large and not of the profits of an elite of oligarchs. This is the only consistent alternative to austerity in the current epoch. Such an alternative would enthuse the rank-and-file of the party and serve as a beacon flare in the struggle against the government.