“I’d like Spain to get a stable government as soon as possible,” insisted president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, a few days ago. The reason why was explained by Eurogroup president Dijsselbloem: “Spain will have to present further adjustment.” European capital has already said that Spain’s budget is off-target and is demanding 10bn euro worth of additional cuts. However, forming the type of government the ruling class needs, is proving very difficult.
The December 20th elections produced an extremely fragmented congress in which no single party emerged with an overall majority. The rise of Podemos and its allied unity lists in Valencia, Galicia and Catalonia was a powerful blow to the two-party system which had provided stability to the ruling class for the best part of thirty years. This was the electoral expression of the intense period of class struggle of 2010-13, unleashed by the capitalist crisis and brutal austerity measures. As a result, all bourgeois institutions have become discredited. However, the push from below was not yet strong enough to defeat the two-party system and so we ended up with a very unstable situation.
Before the election, the ruling class heavily promoted Albert Rivera’s Ciudadanos (Citizens - Cs), the right-wing populist party, which they hoped could capture enough seats to allow a PP-Cs coalition to gain an overall majority. But during the campaign the right-wing credentials of Ciudadanos became more obvious, and the operation flopped. A coalition of Rajoy’s Popular Party (123 seats) and Ciudadanos (40 seats) does not reach the necessary 176 seats to give it an overall majority. A possible coalition between Pedro Sanchez’s PSOE (Socialist Party - 90 seats) and Ciudadanos (40) would not command an overall majority either.
In fact, the only real stable government the ruling class could form would be a “grand coalition” involving PP-Cs-PSOE. But this would mean binding all the main parties to a coalition of cuts and austerity, making them lose even more legitimacy. It would open the way for a new wave of struggle in the streets and prepare the further rise of Podemos in the following election (in the same way as the PASOK-ND alliance prepared the way for the electoral victory of Syriza).
As if all of this was not enough, any incoming government will not only have to deal with a very fragile economic situation, but also with the pro-independence challenge by the recently formed government in Catalonia. This further complicates the formation of a government in Madrid.
This situation has opened up splits within both the PP and the PSOE. There are authoritative voices within the ruling class calling for Rajoy to step down in favour of his deputy, Soraya Saenz de Santamaría, in order to make a grand coalition more palatable.
Within the PSOE there are powerful regional “barons” contesting the leadership of Pedro Sanchez (who presided over the party’s worst ever election results despite being formally in opposition). The PSOE leader in Andalucia (the only region where the party’s vote held up somewhat), Susana Diaz, has already come out against Sanchez and demanded the convening of an early party congress. She is in favour of allowing a PP-Cs alliance to rule by abstaining in the formation of government vote and then waiting until such time in which it would be convenient for PSOE to force early elections under her leadership.
A powerful factor in the thinking of the PSOE leadership is precisely the fear of a “pasok-ization” of the party - that any collaboration with the right wing could destroy the party, as happened with its Greek counterpart. For this reason Sanchez has raised the idea of a “government of progress” with PSOE adding its 90 seats to Podemos and its allied lists (which jointly have 69 seats). Sanchez has added that the PSOE will never vote for a PP government. Such a combination on its own would not have a majority and would require the support of the Catalan nationalists, the socialdemocratic ERC (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya - Republican Left of Catalonia) and the conservative DiLl (Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya - Democratic Convergence of Catalonia), which jointly have another 17 seats. To add weight to his proposal Sanchez travelled to Portugal to talk with prime minister Costa who is in power thanks to an agreement with the anti-austerity left of BE and PCP (who give parliamentary support to his government but are not part of it).
That however would be an extremely unstable coalition and one which would be very difficult to cobble together. First of all, Sanchez faces strong opposition from within his own party, as we have already explained. Secondly, in order to get support from Podemos, PSOE would have to offer substantial concessions on a whole series of social issues. But perhaps the most difficult stumbling block is the national question. An agreement with the Catalan pro-independence parties is unthinkable without offering them substantial concessions on the issue of home rule, something which the Spanish ruling class is extremely reluctant to allow, as the unquestionable unity of Spain is one of the pillars of the 1978 regime. This would also be an obstacle for an agreement with Podemos as the party and its allied lists in Catalonia, Valencia and the Basque country, have gained enormous political capital by promising a self-determination referendum during the campaign.
A possible alternative to involving the Catalan nationalists in such a pact would be to rope in Ciudadanos. However, one of the key issues of Ciudadanos’ campaign was precisely the defence of Spain’s unity and opposition to any referendum. It would also be difficult to present any agreement with Ciudadanos as a “government of progress”. In fact it seems almost impossible for PSOE to make a deal with Podemos and Ciudadanos at the same time, as this would mean looking to the left and to right at the same time on social and economic issues, and also simultaneously towards Spanish nationalism and self-determination. Not even a skilled political contortionist such as Sanchez can achieve such a feat.
The Podemos effect
The swearing in of the new MPs and the formation of the ruling bodies of Congress and Senate were already a source of conflict and allow us to see an outline of how government talks are progressing.
First of all, the arrival of the newly-elected members of parliament for Podemos and its allied lists (És El Moment in Valencia, En Comú Podem in Catalonia and En Marea in Galicia) created quite a stir. The old and stultifying atmosphere and protocol of Congress was broken by the newcomers who are the political representatives, in one degree or another, of the indignados movement. They represent opposition to the establishment and the unprecedented cycle of struggle against austerity of 2010-13.
They chose to take their oath as MPs in the different languages of their nations (Catalan, Basque, Galician, Asturian) and used unorthodox formulas in swearing loyalty to the Constitution (which is a legal requirement). Thus, some promised to “respect the constitution and work to change it”. A Catalan MP of En Comú Podem (ECP) promised “to work for the rights of the working class. We will overthrow your reforms!” she shouted as she gave a clenched fist salute while wearing a “working class heroes” T-shirt. “For the memory of our grandparents, for the future of our children”, swore another. “I will work for the Republic and the common good of the peoples”, said another of the Catalan MPs of ECP. “O povo e que mais ordena” [“the people rules”] said the Galician En Marea deputy Yolanda Díaz (who is also the leader of United Left in Galicia), using the slogan of the 1974 Portuguese revolution.
These are just gestures and of course, the MPs will have to be judged against their record in parliament, but symbols also have a certain importance and these were noted by the capitalist media. “An advisor to Chavez’s regime, a former member of ETA, several people who have been arrested for drug dealing and one accused of assault on a police officer. Some of Podemos’ “star” MPs” squealed the right wing La Razon showing a picture of dreadlocked Alberto Rodríguez, Podemos MP for the Canary Islands and Repsol worker. A right-wing journalist complained that Congress “stank”, in reference to the new MPs, while a PP leader said she didn’t mind dreadlocks as long as they had no fleas! Behind these comments we see the class hatred and the fear of the ruling class confronted by representatives of the movement of the masses sitting in “their” institutions, backed up by over five million votes.
More significant than the gestures during the oath-taking were the agreements by which the presidency of the chamber was formed. A member of PSOE, Patxi Lopez, was chosen as president with the votes of its own group and those of Ciudadanos, while Podemos and its allies voted for their own candidate, Carolina Bescansa. This was only possible because of the pre-arranged abstention of the Popular Party. A powerful gesture of agreement between the trusted main parties of the ruling class.
At the same time the PSOE allowed the Catalan nationalists of ERC and DiLl to form their own groups in the Senate, even though they don’t have the necessary number of senators, by lending them some of PSOE’s. Clearly they are courting their vote (or abstention) for a possible PSOE coalition government. Meanwhile, PSOE, Ciudadanos and PP all are refusing the Catalan, Valencian and Galician joint lists allied to Podemos to form their own parliamentary groups, even though they fulfill all the criteria.
Impasse of the system
The message coming out from all of these manoeuvres seems clear: PSOE does not really want nor can reach an agreement with Podemos, but wants Podemos to be seen as the party preventing it. In fact, PSOE leaders have made no concrete proposal as to what a hypothetical “government of progress” would entail in concrete terms and have also said that they are fundamentally opposed to a self-determination referendum for Catalonia. They are calculating that they can get political benefit from painting Podemos as “unreasonable” and preventing an agreement on the basis of sticking to “breaking up Spain”. Probably what Pedro Sanchez is looking for is a minority government with Ciudadanos, based on the abstention of Podemos and the Catalan nationalists.
Podemos and its partners have responded to all these manoeuvres by making it clear that they will under no circumstances allow a PP government, but at the same time present a parliamentary initiative called “Social Emergency Law 25”, which would guarantee a series of basic social rights. The three key points of this initiative are: restoring universal and free healthcare for all, stopping all evictions (and providing women affected by domestic violence alternative accommodation), and guaranteeing electricity and gas supplies to families in need. This initiative should unmask the real intentions of PSOE.
It is impossible to predict how the parliamentary deadlock will be broken. The ruling class in Spain and in Europe will exert pressure (is already exerting pressure), to reach a deal in order to guarantee the broadest and most stable government to continue carrying out the cuts and austerity measures they need. One thing they want to avoid at all costs is early elections, as those would most likely see Podemos surpass PSOE, creating an even more unstable parliamentary arithmetic.
The only way to break the deadlock in the benefit of working people is by taking the struggle outside of parliament. A joint call for a national mobilisation issued by the “Dignity Marches”, the Mareas (Tides - campaigns against cuts and austerity), Podemos, United Left and others would have a powerful response. The struggle could be organised around a simple platform of four or five points: repeal of the PP labour counter-reform, repeal of the amended article 135 of the Constitution which enshrines austerity, repeal of the undemocratic “gagging law” (Ley Mordaza), stop all evictions, reverse all cuts in healthcare and education.
For the last two years, since the launch of Podemos in January 2014, the level of mass mobilisation has diminished sharply. It could not be otherwise after a very intense cycle of struggle, and the attention of the masses has now focussed on the electoral field. This led to the eruption of Podemos in the May 2014 European elections, the victories in key cities in the council elections of May 2015 and now the blow to the regime in the December 20th, 2015 general election.
The attention now should be turned again to the mobilisation on the streets, for which the parliamentarians we have won should provide a voice.
The deadlock in the institutions is a reflection, albeit a distorted one, of the deadlock in society. The ruling class needs to continue its offensive. The EU demand of additional cuts worth €10bn is just the beginning. With the world economy heading for a new recession, the European economy will be hit hard. The centre of the euro crisis could rapidly pass from Greece to Spain.
The Spanish working class has already suffered a brutal “adjustment”. A recently published Oxfam reports paints a horrific picture of social conditions in Spain: it’s the OECD country in which inequality has grown most since the beginning of the crisis (with only the exception of Cyprus), 29.2% of the population is at risk of poverty and exclusion, average wages have collapsed by 22%, the richest 1% have accumulated the same wealth as the poorest 80% and where flight of capital towards tax havens skyrocketed by 2,000% in 2015 alone.
A new wave of cuts and austerity measures on top of all this will provoke an unprecedented social explosion. For this reason the ruling class wants a “strong” and “stable” government, “as broad as possible”. Working people should prepare to fight it with all their might.
In the last instance, the main idea which needs to be explained is that there is no alternative to austerity within the limits of capitalism.