Spain heads to the polls

04 May 2019

Spain heads to the polls on 28th April in a snap election which has exposed the political bankruptcy of all five main parties and threatens to propel the far right to power.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of the centre-left Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) had no choice but to call a third national election in three years when the budget proposed by his minority government was defeated in February.

The defeat was sealed when Catalan deputies, previously part of a coalition of small nationalist parties backing Sanchez, withdrew their support. The coalition was never built to last, having served its purpose as a temporary strategic alliance to overturn the conservative People’s Party (PP) government after its brutal repression of the Catalan independence referendum.

Ahead of the budget vote, Sanchez tried to buy off the Catalan deputies, promising a significant increase in public investment for the region in exchange for an abandonment of the demand for an independence referendum. The budget offer followed a bungled PSOE intervention in Catalonia, with Sanchez conceding an international mediator in talks between Barcelona and Madrid, only to break off all diplomatic relations in the face of a public backlash.

Unfortunately for the PSOE, the final budget vote coincided with the opening of trials for 12 Catalan political prisoners who he has refused to defend, bringing tensions to a breaking point.

Growing separatist discontent is closely linked to the development of the current crisis in Spain. A controversial 2010 Constitutional Court decision to overturn parts of a law guaranteeing Catalan autonomy came just after the last PSOE government pushed through a slew of savage cuts and a reprehensible rollback of labour rights.

The incursion on Catalan autonomy was painted by some as an opening salvo in an assault on the democratic freedoms of post-Franco Spain. Long opposed to the Spanish monarchy, Catalonia was a stronghold of republicanism during the Spanish Civil War and culturally oppressed by the Franco regime, but was nevertheless ushered into an era of rapid industrial development and is now the most economically dynamic and productive region in Spain. It is resentment based on the idea that Catalonia is being forced to “subsidise” other regions, which has been the crucial driver of a Catalan nationalist wave.

But it is also true that Francoist nationalism, never far from the surface under Spain’s fragile constitutional settlement, has become a renewed rallying point for the Spanish right. Pablo Casado, leader of the PP, has spoken of the need for a rightist bloc to defeat a new “Popular Front”, and the emerging far-right Vox party is styling itself the defender of Spain in the face of separatist destruction.

The rivalry between regional and Spanish nationalisms has kept an easy scapegoat close at hand; Spain has avoided the worst manifestations of anti-migrant and Eurosceptic sentiment sweeping Europe. Despite tacking to the right on domestic issues and sitting in coalition with the PP and Vox in Andalusia, the right-liberal Ciudadanos maintains a stalwart pro-EU line, and the PP’s Casado has been pictured rubbing shoulders with Angela Merkel and offering his services in a “Spanish-Germanic alliance”.

Far from being based in a global outlook somehow unique to Spaniards, as The Economist has recently suggested, this is easily explained by material interests. Spain’s long isolation under Franco and slow re-integration into Europe has meant that the EU still has much to offer it by way of accelerating economic development.

Spanish leaders have noticed that Brexit will leave a nation-sized hole in the ranks of leading EU economies. PSOE foreign minister Josep Borrell has been first out of the gate to assure EU leaders that Spain is ready to step in, commenting that Franco-German leadership is “indispensable but insufficient”. Sanchez has tied the parcel together neatly by drawing comparisons between Brexit and Catalan nationalism, both of which are “based on lies”.

He is right, but not quite in the way he probably intends. Like with Brexit, the causes of these popular eruptions are not unique, but rather have common roots in the global capitalist crisis. Radicalised middle class elements have found in nationalism a ready escape valve for their discontent when faced with the relative decline in their economic status under the crushing grip of austerity.

But Brexit was a vote demanded by a minority, which David Cameron chose to indulge. Afforded every democratic privilege, Brexiteers openly espouse xenophobic sentiment, have allied themselves with the most repugnant elements of the global far right, and see economic protectionism combined with American-style deregulation as a shortcut to a renewed world role for British imperialism.

Meanwhile, the Catalan demand for self-determination is the assertion of a fundamental democratic right which has been violently repressed by the Spanish state, inspiring a wave of militant resistance despite its co-option by right-nationalist parties at a parliamentary level.

The imperative for socialists to defend the right to self-determination was either never grasped or has been conveniently forgotten by Podemos, the once supposedly leftist party that leads the populist electoral alliance Unidas Podemos. Despite surging to 21% of the vote in the last election, the latest polls show Podemos losing up to half of its vote share, a sure route back to political marginality. Podemos’ collapse is driven by mass abstentionism among young supporters who have witnessed the party abandon anything that can even generously be considered a radical agenda.

Other supporters are returning to PSOE after an experiment with radicalism. They will not notice much difference – Podemos helped to bring the PSOE to power and has shamelessly backed them on continued austerity measures, parliamentary waffling over negotiations with Catalonia, and nearly every other major issue. The sad spectacle has come as no surprise to socialists who have long maintained that Podemos’ inevitable retreat into mainstream social democracy was stitched into its very foundation.

The academics who founded Podemos believed it was their destiny to craft a new “transformative social agent” by building a popular alliance of anyone driven by a “democratic impulse”. Famously developed by theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, this approach does not accept the existence of material interests or their bearing on classes; the only meaning is created through ideology and consciously constructed “discursive realities”.

Laclau and Mouffe’s followers have argued that this means a new progressive paradigm of unity can be built, so long as the correct intellectuals are around to craft its ideological expressions. Their project is for everyone, they insist. Indeed, with no one and everyone as the driving force of change, and ideology as completely neutral, their approach is nothing but an empty vessel for whoever can best harness popular discontent. Distinctions between left and right populism lose any historical basis.

But two can play at that game. Indeed suppressing a strategy based on the working class overthrowing capitalism in order to build a socialist future plays into the hands of right wing populism and worse. It is clearly the right, which is currently writing narratives and building realities.

The far-right Vox party is polling at a similar level to Podemos, couching its Spanish supremacist nationalism in language that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Podemos leaflet. It stands for “ordinary Spaniards”, national unity, provision of public services, a fightback against corruption. Of course, there is also the authoritarian centralism, commitments to rolling back abortion rights and protections for women against domestic violence, and virulent Islamophobia.

Choosing between left and right populism is a false choice for genuine internationalists. Yet there is everything to fight for. It is vital that socialist forces in Spain seek to redirect the anger and ferment away from a conservative national retrenchment and towards its real causes – the inevitable devastation caused by capitalist crises. They could provide a clear alternative to the silver tongued promises of social democracy and reorient Spain’s demoralised and disoriented left.

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