Last December, for the first time since the re-establishment of democracy in 1977, Spain’s general election failed to produce a working majority. The Socialist Party (PSOE) and the conservative Popular Party (PP) — the two parties that have dominated Spanish politics for thirty-four years — saw their combined vote drop from 84 percent in 2008 to 73 percent in 2011 to 51 percent in 2015. Two new political forces, Podemos on the Left and the new “center” party Ciudadanos, took 35 percent of the vote between them.
The results left only two real options: a coalition between the PP and PSOE, or a left government formed with the PSOE, Podemos, the Communist Party-led United Left (IU), and other forces. PSOE found a third way: they formed a “government of change” with Ciudadanos.
But Podemos refused to support the coalition or even abstain, making the proposed majority coalition impossible. New elections were called for June 26.
Unable to reach an agreement before the December election, Podemos and IU have now decided to stand together as Unidos Podemos (United We Can).
Assuming voting patterns stay the same, they are set for a historic breakthrough and will become the dominant force on the parliamentary left. Opinion polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will win at least 25 percent of the vote, the same number the two parties achieved separately six months ago.
Undermining the PSOE
Franco’s thirty-eight-year dictatorship ended in 1977 due to a pact between opposition sectors within the regime and the democratic opposition. This began a transition process that culminated in the PSOE’s landslide victory, with 48 percent of the vote, in 1982.
Over the next fourteen years the PSOE oversaw Spanish capitalism’s “modernization”: they dismantled most heavy industry, depressed wages, and liberalized labor law to allow greater “flexibility.” Further, it brokered Spain’s entrance to NATO (which the PSOE had previously opposed) and the European Union.
At the same time, it consolidated public services, particularly health and education. Although it never came close to the much-cited Scandinavian model, the measures were perceived as significant steps forward from the Franco years.
This, along with voters’ fresh memories of the regime, condemned the Right to a minority position in parliament. But corruption and constant attacks on working-class living standards finally undermined the PSOE’s support, opening the way for a PP government in 1996.
In 2004, the PSOE returned to power after a scandal involving the PP’s response to the March 11, 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid. The government blamed Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), a Basque separatist group, hoping to divert attention away from the attack’s link with the government’s support for the Iraq War.
The Socialists’ surprise victory put them in power just in time to preside over the Spanish economy’s slide into the abyss.
With unemployment rocketing to around 27 percent (over 50 percent for those under twenty-five), extensive cuts in public spending, an increase to the retirement age, and yet another labor-law reform that further undermined already precarious working conditions, the PSOE lost enough votes to allow the PP back in 2011.
Not surprisingly, PP leader Mariano Rajoy’s new government was even more vicious than the PSOE. It passed the costs of the EU bank bailout onto the backs of the mass of the population, savaged public services, and allowed real wages (already some of the lowest in Western Europe) to drop.
This, combined with rampant corruption inside the PP — normally in the form of lucrative building contracts — led to the two parties’ implosion last year.
Podemos’s spectacular arrival on the political scene must be put in the context of the 2011 15-M or indignados movement. 15-M represented both the rejection of austerity measures and a desire to completely renovate a corrupt and unrepresentative political system.
Around 25 percent of the population participated, in one way or another, in the occupation of the squares; at one stage a staggering 80 percent expressed sympathy for the movement.
15-M inspired, or was parallel to, a multitudinous resistance to austerity, most clearly expressed through the rank-and-file mareas (tides) in defense of public services, the two general strikes in 2012, and the anti-eviction movement Movement of Mortgage Victims (PAH).
Above all, it symbolized the rupture between large sections of young people and the political system that had so clearly failed them.
With the relative exception of PAH, however, many believed that the mass movement failed. By 2013 the level of mobilization had dropped significantly.
Many activists believed a political response was needed. Riddled with internal divisions and saddled with an antiquated image, IU was unable to provide this.
The completely unexpected success of Podemos in the 2014 EU elections, when it won nearly 8 percent of the vote, marked a turning point in the search for a radical political alternative. The new party made an even bigger impact in the 2015 regional and local elections.
Podemos, or the lists it supported, found itself either in government or as power brokers in several regional governments and many local councils, including Madrid and Barcelona.
From the start, Podemos’s leadership, centered on a group of talented young media-conscious university lecturers, have insisted that the new party aimed at forming a government rather than just be a movement of resistance like, supposedly, the “old” left.
Relying on the neo-Gramscian populist theories of Ernesto Lacau and Chantal Mouffe, they wanted to overcome the dichotomy between left and right and to take power during the “window of opportunity” presented by the twin political and economic crises.
Mass mobilization was no longer part of their strategy. Instead a new generation of representatives would transform the institutions of democracy from within.
Podemos’s electoral success has been accompanied by a gradual abandonment of some of the more radical elements of their original platform. They present moderation as a necessary step to broaden the party’s base and to carry out their proposed measures.
Thus Unidos Podemos’s fifty-point program excludes the Spanish left’s historic demands like an exit from NATO, the establishment of a republic, the nationalization of strategic sectors of the economy, or the cancellation of the debt.
While Unidos Podemos promises to repeal the labor reforms of 2010 and 2012 (but not previous ones) and to revoke the PSOE’s pension law, public spending will only increase to the level prior to the PP’s last round of cuts. They will finance increased spending by fighting tax fraud and by raising taxes 8 percent to meet the EU average.
Alongside these measures, Unidos Podemos has committed itself to renegotiating debt payments with the European Union. Finally, it promises to fight corruption, particularly the revolving doors through which former government ministers pass directly onto the boards of companies.
But where the coalition really separates itself from its rivals is in its recognition of the Catalan right to an independence referendum and its promise to allow a recall if it does not carry out its electoral program.
The most likely outcome of the June elections is a PP-led government backed by Ciudadanos and the PSOE. Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez has insisted that he will not govern with the PP.
But considering his refusal to work with Podemos after last December’s election, when the PSOE was the stronger party, he is unlikely to accept a government with Podemos as the dominant partner.
The PSOE is so wedded to big business and so-called national interests that its leaders appear willing to avoid any government involving Podemos at all costs. Unidos Podemos’s support for a Catalan independence referendum, which the PSOE says would undermine “Spanish unity,” is another insurmountable obstacle to any pact.
The PSOE can dress up its agreement with the PP as putting national before party interests. It may well be accompanied by the removal of Rajoy, whom the PSOE presents as responsible for the country’s many ills.
It is equally possible that Sanchez will step down in recognition of his defeat at the hands of the Left and be replaced with the Andalucian regional president Susana Diaz, who is more favorable to a broad coalition government with the Right.
Whoever ends up forming the new Spanish government, the European Union will force them to impose a new round of austerity measures in order to further reduce Spain’s debt.
Podemos will benefit in the short term from being in opposition to the governing coalition and not having to come to terms with the realities of holding office — realities that have rapidly exposed its counterpart Syriza’s limitations.
Podemos held Syriza up as a model during the first year of its existence; but this is no longer the case.
In fact, when pressed, Iglesias dismissed the relevance of Alexis Tsipras’s capitulation to the troika, arguing that such a scenario was impossible in Spain because of both the Spanish economy’s importance (it’s the fourth largest in the eurozone) and the Spanish’s democratic institutions’ greater ability to resist outside impositions.
But this begs the question: if Spanish institutions are already so strong, why is their radical overhaul — a central element of Podemos’s politics — necessary at all?
Podemos’s adoption of increasingly moderate policies, combined with its open identification with a romanticized version of Scandinavian social democracy, has led much of the far left to dismiss it as hopelessly compromised, or, worse, as part of the caste it was supposedly set up to combat.
Iglesias in particular has been the target of much vitriol on social media. But such a simple view does not help explain the new party’s significance within Spanish politics.
Last year’s elections showed that there is a large popular base for a renovated left, albeit a reformist left. Coalitions involving left nationalists and IU already scored important victories in Galicia and Valencia, as did a broad alliance with the red-green Initiative for Catalonia, IU, and the En Comú grouping in Catalonia.
In May, the fact that Podemos was more successful when allied with the broader list presented in the Madrid municipal elections than when they stood alone in regional elections highlighted the attraction of alliances that go beyond the left-populism expounded by Iglesias and others.
Iglesias effectively recognized this shift during last December’s election. While Podemos’s platform remained a fairly moderate version of social democracy, his speeches were full of references to the Spanish left’s shared heritage and ideals, such as their commitment to antifascism, the working class’s role in bringing down the Franco regime, and their opposition to the corruption of the rich and powerful.
Perhaps more significantly, in his inaugural speech in parliament Iglesias surprised everyone by attacking the PSOE over some of its leaders’ role in the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación, anti-ETA death squads active in the eighties. Iglesias immediately drove a wedge between Podemos and its erstwhile allies.
This shift in orientation is also reflected in the division between Iglesias and his “number two,” Iñigo Errejón, who continues to defend the transversal nature of the original project.
For instance, Errejón agrees that Podemos must work with other forces. But he insists that, in order “to found a new country,” their coalition should include more than those who “already considered themselves on the Left.”
Thus, according to Errejón, the coalition’s lists “reflect the ideological and social diversity in the Spanish state,” as it should not be forgotten that PP- and PSOE-voters and those who abstain are also “our people.”
Understandably, much of the radical left feels uncomfortable with Errejón’s politics. But that does not remove the necessity to relate to what is a widespread desire for change and social justice.
Clearly it is necessary to point to the real problems facing any government that within the context of a parliamentary democracy aims at even challenging the priorities of capital.
History is littered with failures to overcome the entrenched interests of capitalists. Tiptoeing around them, which is what Podemos’s leading figures are trying to do, or believing that this time things will be “different,” will not make these obstacles easy to overcome.
If, or when, Podemos and its allies overtake the PSOE, shock waves will be sent through Spanish politics. More likely than not, Iglesias and his party will find themselves at the head of the parliamentary opposition to another PP-led government.
But unless the party also maintains a commitment to mass mobilization, it will have little chance at resisting the next round of austerity — much less presenting a real alternative to it.