The Spanish elections: a poisoned chalice for the ruling class

On June 26 Spaniards were called to the polls in an atmosphere of polarisation and expectation. These elections came after months of political stalemate, where no party was able to form a government. The polls predicted that the radical left coalition Unidos Podemos (UP) would do well, coming second, and that the parties of the establishment would take a serious hit.

However, the unexpected results gave victory to the conservative PP and put the centre-left PSOE slightly ahead of UP. This outcome has caused a certain amount of confusion and pessimism among activists and militants. Our task, however, is neither to laugh nor to cry, as Spinoza said, but to understand.

The results were as follows:

PP 33.03% - 137 seats (Dec 20, 2015: 28.71 and 123 seats)
PSOE 22.66% - 86 seats  (22%, 90 seats)
Unidos Podemos 21.1% - 71 seats (24.49%, 71 seats)
Ciudadanos (centre populists) 13.05% - 32 seats (13.94%, 40 seats)
ERC (centre-left Catalan nationalists) 2.63% - 9 seats
CDC (right-wing Catalan nationalists) 2.01% - 8 seats
PNV (right-wing Basque nationalists) 1.22% - 5 seats
Bildu (left-wing Basque nationalists) 0.78% - 2 seats
Coalición Canaria (Canary regionalists) 0.31% - 1 seat       

Election results - resultados2016.infoelecciones.esImage: Ministerio del Interior - Note: Unidos Podemos is the sum of Podemos-IU-Equo, ECP, Podemos-Compromís-EUPV, Podemos-En Marea-Anova-EU

The percentages and shares of seats have not varied fundamentally compared to the December elections. The results of Unidos Podemos are not what was expected according to all opinion polls, retaining the same number of seats but losing over a million votes. Overall participation was down by 3.3 percentage points, about 1.2 million voters less than in December 2015.

Unidos Podemos stagnates

Unidos Podemos closing rally Alicante - Jose CamoUnidos Podemos closing rally in Alicante - Photo: Jose CamoA combination of factors explains UP’s unimpressive results. The organisation of the campaign was unprofessional, with only a small number of poorly advertised rallies. The general political line of the campaign (particularly at the beginning) was one of appealing to PSOE voters on their own terrain with Pablo Iglesias openly stating that what he wanted was a “new social democracy”. In the only TV debate between the main leaders, Iglesias focused his intervention on appealing to PSOE leader Sanchez to strike a deal with them.

On several occasions, Pablo Iglesias declared that UP was the party of the “fatherland, law and order”. Of course this was meant as an attack on those who fill their mouths with the word “fatherland” and then keep their money in offshore accounts in Switzerland or Panama, and the references to “law and order” were meant as an attack on the rich and powerful who break the law and wreak havoc on working people's’ lives. Still, this kind of language did not go down well with a layer of left-wing voters and was a reflection of a conscious attempt to tone down the language in order to appeal to more “moderate” voters, when in reality the opposite is what was required.

A layer of UP voters (particularly some coming from United Left - IU) were probably put off by this kind of moderate language. Opinion polls showed that about a third of those who voted IU on December 20 were not sure of voting UP now (that would be 300,000 people). Others could not be convinced to vote this time round. The campaign became more radical in the last few rallies, particularly the closing rally in Madrid, where Pablo Iglesias delivered a very sharp militant left-wing speech and appealed to the traditions of working class struggle. The problem is that what he said did not go much beyond those people who were present at those rallies.

In Catalonia, En Comú Podem (the Catalan version of UP) came first, but the results were less than expected, barely maintaining what was won in December in percentage terms and losing about 80,000 votes. Here, Barcelona mayor Ada Colau had made a deal with the PSOE to run the council and has not dealt correctly with the tube and bus workers' strike, in addition to controversies regarding police violence against street vendors. All of this has played a negative role. In December many of the CUP (Catalan pro-independence anti-capitalist party) voted for ECP (UP in Catalonia), but not this time. Moreover, in the days before the elections, a scandal broke out with the revelation that the Minister of the Interior had, in 2014, pressured a senior police official to try to frame the Catalan nationalist parties with spurious evidence. This clearly rallied numerous voters behind the nationalist camp, particularly behind the left-wing ERC.

Unlike in December, the campaign was almost completely disconnected from the struggles that Podemos was born out of (15M, anti-austerity and anti-cuts campaigns, the anti-evictions movement). They did not feature in any of the election videos and were seldom mentioned in the debates.

Unidos Podemos closing rally Madrid - Jose CamoUnidos Podemos closing rally in Madrid - Photo: Jose CamoIn short, the campaign and the message were not radical and enthusiastic enough. The election program had been watered down since December. The whole of the activity of Podemos had concentrated on the electoral/parliamentary field. The last big mobilisation was the huge march Podemos called in Madrid in January 2015. It is true that the mood at the rallies, particularly in the last few days of the campaign, was radical and enthusiastic, with many Republican and red flags. But that was not the public profile of UP during the campaign and the mood on the rallies did not percolate sufficiently beyond those who attended the rallies and to the wider public.

Other, more accidental factors were probably also at play. The elections took place in late June, in a weekend that is a bank holiday in several Spanish regions. This meant that sections of the electorate were harder to mobilise, particularly the young, urban layers that are the bedrock of UP. The increase in postal voting indicates that many people were away, and some may not have voted at all because of this. It is likely that the youth vote dropped while it was the mobilisation of the elderly and the reactionary layers that propped up participation figures. Many people, especially the least politicised sectors, were tired after months of political deadlock. The sloppiness of the campaign and the triumphalism of the UP leadership, which felt confident it would score a good result, did little to mobilise its less committed voters.

It is against the general background of a more vacuous and moderate campaign (with “toothless debates” in the words of former Podemos leader Monedero) that political attacks against Unidos Podemos had a certain impact amongst some layers. Podemos leaders (though not so much those of IU) were reluctant to explain their position on Venezuela and avoided any questions on Greece and the fate of the Syriza government. Faced with a massive onslaught in the media, it was not enough to say that the right wing was using the issue of Venezuela as a smoke-screen. One should be able to explain the gains of the Bolivarian revolution, why they should be defended and the coup-plotting nature of the opposition. Regarding Greece, the main problem is that the leaders of Podemos have exactly the same program Tsipras had in January 2015 and their only defence against the idea that this inevitably leads to capitulation and cuts is the very weak argument that “Spain is bigger and therefore has more leverage vis a vis the Troika in order to renegotiate deficit reduction commitments”.

In looking at the disappointing results of Unidos Podemos one has to put them in the context of a situation where at no other time in the last 40 years has a party to the left of the PSOE won 5 million votes and 71 seats. The previous best result was that of the Communist Party in 1979, when it got 10% and 21 seats.

The PSOE holds on

Spanish Congress - Luis Javier Modino Martínez  CC BY 2.0Spanish Congress - Photo: Luis Javier Modino Martínez CC BY 2.0Nonetheless, taken at face value the resilience of the PSOE appears surprising. All polls and commentators were predicting its rapid decay, in line with other European social democratic parties. The word pasokización has been heard a lot lately. Still, while losing 120,000 votes and 5 seats, the PSOE managed to hold onto second position with the same percentage, which was in fact its main objective during the campaign. The PSOE continues to hold onto much of its base of support in small towns and rural areas and among the elderly, especially in Andalusia, where it won in the provinces of Seville, Jaén and Huelva. The claim by the PSOE - albeit false - repeated by the media, that Podemos was an obstacle to the formation of a left-wing government after December, also seems to have held sway among a layer of its supporters.

It is worth noting that the PP beat the PSOE in Andalucia overall, with the PSOE losing about 80,000 votes and the PP winning 120,000. This defeat in one of the PSOE’s last strongholds will certainly damage Susana Diaz, the regional president and figurehead of the party’s right wing who is at loggerheads with general secretary Pedro Sanchez.

The development of the current political process in Spain has particular features. Despite the sharp social and economic crisis of the past few years, the ruling class had a stable and reliable government under the PP between 2011 and 2015, which enjoyed an absolute majority. This means that other parties, namely the PSOE, have not been decisively put to the test, while discontent has been overwhelmingly directed against the hated PP. The PSOE only carried out austerity for one year under Zapatero in 2010-11. This contrasts with the PASOK in Greece, which implemented austerity for longer and then entered a coalition with the conservatives.

The five years of majority PP government have resulted in a combined and uneven development of consciousness. A large sector of the urban youth and working class, steeled in the mass struggles of 2011-14, is very militant and has come to the conclusion that only radical change will solve society’s problems, and stands behind UP. However, there is a more conservative layer of the working class that still believes that the fundamental problem is the PP and that a moderate, predictable alternative to the current situation is possible in the form of the PSOE. The panic generated around Brexit increased the conservative outlook of these layers. As we have already noted, Brexit will have reactionary consequences (at least in the short term) not only in Britain but across Europe.

The attempts by UP to change the persuasion of these sectors by moving to the centre has not met with any success. On the contrary, it makes UP seem inconsistent and untrustworthy in the eyes of many PSOE voters, and only dampens the enthusiasm of the core of UP supporters. A rapid collapse of the PSOE will only come about if it comes into office, when it will reveal its complete political bankruptcy. Otherwise, in opposition, its decline will be slower and more uneven, and cannot be accelerated by UP with the use of contorted rhetoric.

The Catalan question

In Catalonia, this result, which pushes away the perspective of a government of change in Spain committed to Catalan self-determination, will strengthen those who advocate that Catalonia should go it alone and that the struggle for a republic and radical change can proceed faster in Catalonia than in the rest of Spain.

There has been a clear shift in Catalonia from the bourgeois nationalist CDC to the more radical left-wing nationalist ERC, while En Comú Podem, which defends the right to self-determination (even if that should be implemented unilaterally without an agreement with Madrid) and contains sectors that are close to Catalan independence, is still the largest party in Catalonia. The call for a unilateral process towards independence will gain a lot of traction. Faced with a rabidly chauvinistic PP government, any moves towards independence will find itself on a collision course with the central government. The ECP should challenge the ERC to break its government alliance with the CDC and form a left majority in Catalonia based on an end to austerity and the right to self-determination. The outcome of this is unclear, but it will add to the enormous instability and polarisation that is coming.

The victory of the PP and the decline of Ciudadanos

The success of the PP, which grew by over 5 percentage points and gained 1,300,000 votes, and the relative decline of Ciudadanos, which lost 400,000 votes and 8 seats, are not hard to explain. The rise of UP, amplified by the opinion polls, threw most conservative and centre voters into the arms of the PP, the most consistent force of reaction in Spain. Spain has not only seen polarisation to the left, but, naturally, also to the right. Despite the absolute corruption of the PP, which is plain for everyone to see, rocked as it is by weekly scandals, it was able to rally behind it all the reactionary layers in society. Ciudadanos attempted to ape the PP as a squarely reactionary party, but is still seen as a less reliable right-wing force, and has lost its appeal among conservative sectors whose main concern is to stop UP.

What now?

A PP-Ciudadanos government now looks probable. No party wants new elections (neither do the masses) and, however complicated, this time round negotiations will probably result in some form of bourgeois government. The PP and Ciudadanos together have 169 seats. With the backing of the PNV and Coalición Canaria, plus one abstention, they would have a slim majority to form a government. Such a government will have to carry out brutal cuts from day one and will very quickly attract the hatred of the masses. The EU is asking for 8 billion euros in cuts for this year and the next, plus a possible two-billion euro fine for having breached deficit regulations. Rajoy eased up on austerity in the course of the last year with an eye on the elections, but will now have to redouble cuts and increase attacks on the working class, all in a context of global economic uncertainty. The Spanish bourgeois may have been popping champagne corks last night, but their victory is a poisoned chalice that will pave the way for further radicalisation in the future.

Rajoy has immediately said that it will seek the support of the PSOE to form a coalition government. That would give the Spanish ruling class the most stable government possible, with 254 seats if Ciudadanos were to be included, well above the 176 needed for an overall majority. From the point of view of the PP this would be their preferred option as it would mean sharing out the responsibility for implementing brutal cuts. However, it would be the kiss of death for the PSOE which would prefer to abstain in the second vote of government formation, allowing the setting up of a PP-Ciudadanos government, while at the same time staying outside. A grand coalition would be dangerous as it would leave UP as the only opposition party, preparing its rise to power later on.

The possibility of a left-wing government headed by the PSOE looks extremely remote. It might still be possible that PP-Ciudadanos may not get the necessary backing from the PNV, or that negotiations between the PP and Ciudadanos might break down, and the PSOE could then take up the gauntlet. UP has shown its commitment to a left-wing government, although they will set conditions that will be hard to stomach for the PSOE. Sánchez, the socialist leader, is kept in check by the powerful regional barons of his party, who are extremely hostile to any pacts with UP and would rather see the conservatives in power. More importantly, if Sánchez attempted to form a government he would need the support of ERC, CDC, the PNV and Bildu, which would in all likelihood demand in exchange a referendum on independence for Catalonia, which is an absolute anathema for the PSOE.

With Rajoy back in power and an unprecedented austerity programme, the divide between left and right will deepen. We will likely see new rounds of mass mobilisations and struggles on the streets and in the factories. In this context, UP will have an excellent platform in opposition. If it uses this intelligently, its bumpy ascent towards power is set to continue.

Consequences for the left

There will be internal consequences for UP from these results. In the previous months there was tension between Íñigo Errejón (the political secretary) and Pablo Iglesias (the general secretary) over the alliance with Izquierda Unida. For a long time Podemos had been dominated by the idea, defended by Errejón, that it "is neither left-wing nor right-wing" and that it should water down its rhetoric to bring people together. Errejón bitterly resisted any pact with IU. This wing was effectively defeated in the party after the agreement with IU was reached in the spring. Last night, in a press conference, Iglesias stated categorically that he does not regret the convergence with IU and will continue to defend it.

But this morning Errejón's wing had already issued a virulent statement in disagreement with Pablo Iglesias, openly questioning the continuation of the alliance with the United Left and launching a virulent and strongly worded attack against Monedero, who had written an article arguing that the campaign had been “toothless”, with an “empty discourse” and complaining that Podemos is lacking popular mobilisation and needs to go back to the streets. On the side of the United Left, those who opposed the agreement will now also feel stronger and vindicated in their criticism.

Marxists should defend unity between Podemos and IU, which had nothing to do with the bad results. In fact, Alberto Garzón, the leader of IU, was one of the most popular leaders of this campaign, even outshining Iglesias. The crippling division of the left we have seen in the past and the sectarianism between the activists of the different parties must be avoided at all costs. It is also possible that the underwhelming results could prepare a turn to the centre and further moderation with the excuse that "we were too radical". This would only serve to dishearten UP’s most resolute supporters and increase the hesitancy of those layers that are wavering between the PSOE and UP. Instead Unidos Podemos should go back to its roots in terms of both mass participation (which is only possible with democratic structures) and a radical program of opposition to the regime.

Under the hammer blows of the crisis and under a new PP government, UP can continue its ascent if it patiently explains that the Establishment parties have no solution to society’s problems, and that the only way forward is a root-and-branch transformation of society under a government of the radical left. Furthermore, we as Marxists have argued that such a program cannot be implemented within the limits of capitalism. Today, the implementation of the urgent measures that working people in Spain and across Europe need, can only be carried out through the expropriation of the capitalist class, so that the resources of society can be put under the democratic control of the many, not the few.