Only a few days ahead of the local and regional elections in Spain, the ruling class have used all the dirty tricks in the book. Both Popular Unity lists for municipal elections and Podemos (standing in the regions) have been slandered with links to “drug dealing Venezuela” and accused of wanting to bring about “a Cuban-style dictatorship”. But, why so much panic?
The elections will be an important test for the ruling right-wing Popular Party, which currently controls 10 out of the 13 regions holding elections (Galicia, Catalonia, the Basque Country and Andalucia have theirs on a different date). The party also controls the local councils of 8 out of 10 largest cities: Madrid, Valencia, Zaragoza, Seville, Malaga, Murcia, Palma de Mallorca, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.
These elections are rightly seen as a dress rehearsal of the forthcoming general election and the first chance the electorate has of punishing the PP and putting Podemos to the test. The previous election took place in 2011, as the government of social democratic PSOE had started to implement austerity cuts and collapsed in the polls. That was a prelude to PSOE’s collapse in the general election of November 2011, where the PP got an overall majority.
Those regional and council elections took place right after the explosion of the 15M indignados movement which made visible the accumulation of anger which had been building up and opened up a process of questioning of the whole system.
Much has changed since then in Spain. The PP government has implemented brutal policies of cuts, privatisations, destruction of labour rights and erosion of democratic freedoms - all as part of an attempt to make working people pay for the price of capitalist crisis. It has cut health care, education and other social spending to the bone in order to pay for the bail out of the banks. Despite all the cuts, national debt has climbed from 70 to 100% of GDP. These austerity policies have not even been successful in achieving its stated aim of economic recovery and job creation. Unemployment is still over 23%, with youth unemployment over 50%. Hundreds of thousands have seen their homes being repossessed by the same banks which have been bailed out with state money. Millions have fallen under the poverty line and have had to rely on food banks.
Meanwhile, the rich have gotten richer and the PP is mired in endless corruption scandals affecting it at all levels, from local mayors to regional presidents, all the way up to the national treasurer and the party’s national finances.
Unprecedented mass mobilisation
The last four years have also witnessed an unprecedented process of mass mobilisations. Spanish workers, youth and the population in general have fought in momentous battles against privatisation of health care, in defence of state education, against evictions and home repossessions. They have carried out two massive general strikes against attacks on basic labour rights. There have been neighbourhood based uprisings against police repression, a national march of miners in defence of jobs and all out strikes of refuse collectors, council gardeners and other groups of workers. The 15M indignados movement brought millions to the streets to protest against capitalism as an economic system which doesn’t work (“it’s not a crisis, it’s a swindle”), and against bourgeois democracy which has seen its legitimacy seriously eroded (“they don’t represent us”). The Dignity Marches brought hundreds of thousands to Madrid, organised mainly outside the structures of the two main union confederations UGT and CCOO, to demand "Bread, Jobs, Housing and Dignity".
At the beginning of this process, the movement expressed itself politically in three ways: first, a sustained collapse of the PP in the opinion polls, from over 44% in the elections of November 2011, to around 23% now. Secondly, the “opposition” PSOE did not benefit, but continued to decline, falling from 28,7% in 2011 down to 20-23% now. They had actually started implementing austerity cuts while in power and barely opposed any of the PP policies. Thirdly, the main beneficiary was the left wing coalition United Left (IU) which went up from 6.9% in 2011 to a high of around 15-16% in the summer of 2013. But then its growth stopped.
To many, IU was seen as too institutional and was marred by its participation in a coalition government with the PSOE in Andalucia, as well as giving outside support to a PP government in Extremadura. Its leaders in Madrid were also tainted by a corruption scandal involving politically appointed board members of regionally owned savings banks. At a time when a large section of the workers and middle layers had become radicalised by the impact of the crisis, IU was not seen as radical enough.
The rise of Podemos
These circumstances led to the emergence of Podemos (“we can”) which was launched in January 2014 and to everyone’s surprise went on to win 8% of the votes (1.2 million) and 5 MEPs in the May 2014 European elections. Podemos’ program was not fundamentally different from that of IU, but the party appeared as much more radical in its style and discourse. It challenged the whole of the 1978 regime, demanding that everything should be turned upside down. Thousands attended mass rallies and joined in the hundreds of local “circles” (branches) which sprung all over the country and abroad, amongst Spaniards forced to emigrate by the crisis. The party gave a political expression to the enormous process of mass mobilisation of the preceding 3 years. People in their millions were fed up, had marched in the streets and now were becoming involved politically, many for the first time in their lives.
From 8% in May 2014, Podemos rapidly rose to 15 and then 20% in the opinion polls and by October 2014 it had become the first party with between 25 and 27% in some of the polls. Its rise was accompanied by a collapse in the voting intention for IU, with about 40% of its voters switching to Podemos. This further intensified the internal crisis in IU, between those who argued that the coalition had to become more radical in its style and policies and move towards unity with Podemos, and those who replied that IU should keep its separate identity and refused to make any self-criticism. From having received 10% of the vote in the European election it has fallen consistently to around 5% in the opinion polls.
For months the bourgeois media launched an hysterical campaign against Podemos, accusing them of all sorts of things, from being funded by “Cuban-Venezuelan communism” to having links with ETA prisoners. Its main leaders were scrutinised and accused of being corrupt themselves. None of this stuck and it actually had the opposite effect. The people were little inclined to believe wild accusations coming from those they knew were corrupt and had been implementing the brutal austerity policies.
The rise of Podemos had another, unintended effect. Three years of intense mobilisation had not achieved much. There had been some partial or local victories, but the government remained in place and had not been defeated on the main issues. As Podemos rose in the polls the attention of the masses naturally shifted from mass mobilisation in the streets onto the electoral terrain. Now there seemed to be a way to defeat Mariano Rajoy’s hated PP government: by voting for Podemos.
Some in the leadership of Podemos argued that the party’s success was due to the fact that by avoiding taking a position in the traditional “left-right” division they were able to appeal to voters from across the political spectrum. Dizzy with their own success, they deepened this policy by watering down key elements of the program and the discourse. It seemed as if what they were saying publicly was determined not so much by what they thought was right, but rather by how the mass media would react to it and with the aim of not scaring off a supposed moderate layer of the electorate.
At the same time, in the name of expediency, they used their political authority to push an organisation model which concentrated a lot of power at the top in opposition to the original vibrant local circles of the organisation. To call things by their name there was a process of bureaucratisation of Podemos as well as a moderation of its policies. However, Podemos is a very new organisation which has been created in a very turbulent political period and this was not fatal, at least for now.
As a matter of fact, the overwhelming majority of Podemos voters come from the left wing of the political spectrum (former voters of IU, PSOE, new voters and those who previously had voted for left wing parties but had been abstaining). They are mainly concentrated in the younger age groups as well as amongst workers and impoverished middle layers. Furthermore, the fact is that when asked by opinion polls, voters considered Podemos to be the most far left party in Spain (to the left of IU) and further to the left of the average voter. This did not prevent Podemos from becoming the first party in the opinion polls. On the contrary. The impact of the crisis has been so deep that a large layer of people (a majority of the voters) are now open to support political organisations they perceive as very radical.
Another factor come into play at the beginning of 2015. A section of the ruling class were panicked at the sight of the seemingly unstoppable rise of Podemos and decided that something had to be done. They started promoting Ciudadanos (Citizens), a right wing populist party which had up until then only had a base in Catalonia, and gave it a national profile. The party suddenly got a lot of funding and was given space in the mass media. Based on abstract slogans against corruption and for “new politics”, it started to capture some of the vote that was being shed by the established parties (mainly the PP) as it attempted to cut across the advance of Podemos. Ciudadanos rose rapidly from 3% in the European elections to between 15 and 20% in the most recent polls.
The combination of all of these factors (a certain ebb in mass mobilisation, the softening of the radical edge of Podemos, the attacks by the media and the rise of Ciudadanos) led to a decline of 4 to 6 percentage points of Podemos in the opinion polls at the beginning of 2015. The difficulties faced by the Syriza government in Greece might have also contributed to this.
Internal debate in Podemos
This opened an internal debate within Podemos. In the eyes of the active layer there are clearly those in the leadership of Podemos who advocate a softer, more moderate line (Errejón, Bescansa) and those who have defended a sharper approach, closer to the original line of the organisation (including the party’s leader in Andalucia, Teresa Rodriguez).
What is significant is that in response to all these debates (which have been mainly taken place in the mass media), the general secretary Podemos has clearly begun a sharp shift to the left in the election campaign. He argues that the idea that Podemos should occupy the “centre of the political board” does not mean that it has to moderate its approach, and become more of the centre, but rather that its ideas have to become dominant (La centralidad no es el centro).
He also polemicised directly against the reformist eurocommunist approach of the Spanish Communist Party at the end of Franco’s dictatorship as well as the moderation of the PSOE at that time. Pablo Iglesias stressed that Podemos should fight in the terrain of the “democratisation of the economy” rather than insisting on other issues like corruption or “democratic renewal”, as in that terrain the ruling class would be able to dominate (Guerra de trincheras y estrategia electoral).
In yet another opinion article published on May 19 under the headline of Podemos: the party of the popular classes, Pablo Iglesias made some very telling points. He openly warned that “in the trench war of Spanish politics we will not win by looking like our opponents”. He identified the composition of Podemos voters:
“Podemos is the first party amongst students and youth and challenges PSOE for the first place amongst all layers of the working class as well as amongst the impoverished middle layers frustrated by the crushing of their expectations”.
The conclusion he draws from the point of view of strategy is clear:
“the terrain on which we will win, is that where we are the point of reference of the popular classes, enlarged by the impoverishment of middle layers (public sector workers, the self-employed, small businesses and professionals), the casualised youth and the working class. For this reason we must be a force with a rough and class based discourse and a plebeian style … able to polarise the political stage”.
Significantly, on May Day Pablo Iglesias joined the Movistar telecom engineers and showed support for their all out strike which has now become one of the most important labour conflicts in the country. During the campaign he has used very sharp language, attacking the rich and the right wing and correctly denouncing Ciudadanos as a creation of the bankers. To a certain extent this has rekindled the original spirit of Podemos and attracted thousands to public meetings all over the country.
Podemos has presented its own lists in all of the regional elections and is expected to do well in most of them, coming second in Asturias and Navarra and third in another five or six. In some of these regions there are entrenched right wing regional parties and in others there are already established left wing organisations which will do well.
The PP is likely to suffer a serious setback and lose its overall majority in all but one of the regions which it now rules. This would mean that in some of these it would need the support of Ciudadanos to govern. In others an alliance of the left (including IU, Podemos and PSOE) could take over from the PP.
However, post election alliances are bound to be complicated as all parties will have their eyes on the general election which has to take place before the end of the year. If Ciudadanos makes alliances with the discredited PP, it could rapidly lose its appeal. On the other hand, IU and Podemos would be reluctant to make alliances with the PSOE, while the three of them would not want to be seen as allowing the PP to continue to rule. The scenario that opens is one of instability of bourgeois politics and a breaking down of the dominant two-party system.
Popular unity in the municipal elections
It is on the municipal front where there are better opportunities for the advance of the radical left. In dozens of towns and cities different left wing organisations and social movements have established “popular unity” lists to contest the council elections. These mainly follow the model of the Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common) alliance in the Catalan capital. This movement is led by the former national spokesperson of the anti-evictions campaign (PAH), Ada Colau, and includes the local branches of Podemos and IU, as well as other left parties and social organisations. A common characteristic of these alliances have been the selection of its candidates through open primary elections, a commitment to not take the full wage of an elected councillor and a democratic process for drafting the program.
By conducting a campaign based firmly on highlighting the struggle against the rich and powerful and in defence of the interests of working people in the poorest neighbourhoods in Barcelona, Ada Colau has generated enormous enthusiasm, with thousands turning up at open air rallies in every district. The opinion polls put her Barcelona en Comú list narrowly ahead of the Catalan bourgeois nationalist CiU.
Barcelona en Comú is also important in that it cut across what had become the main axis of political debate in Catalonia for a while: independence. Ada Colau has said clearly that she is strongly in favour of the right of self-determination (which Spain denies Catalonia), and that the Catalan people should be officially consulted about it. But she has also openly denounced the hypocrisy of the Catalan bourgeois nationalist CiU government, as one which attacks social rights, privatises, uses police repression and is involved in corruption scandals. We can not have anything to do with them, she has stressed, regardless of their views on independence.
In the closing rally of the campaign, Colau insisted that Barcelona en Comú represents those who “will not accept unemployment, will not accept evictions, will not accept casualisation of labour, will not accept deaths in police custody, will not accept that there are children who are not getting three meals a day, nor we will accept internment of immigrants”. This language clearly connects with the mood of anger of hundreds of thousands. Podemos activist Jaume Asens also spoke and warned that “our enemy is not any party, but the 400 families who rule but never stand for election”.
The main point is that these lists have been seen as a radical alternative to the establishment as well as reflected the desire for unity. In some cases IU has joined in, while in others, the local apparatus of IU has created their own “unity lists”. In others still, left nationalist forces have also joined (as is the case with Marea Atlántica in the Galician city of A Coruña). What is clear is that the best chances to win are in those cities where the process of unity has been more genuine and involved a large number of real forces with presence in the mass movements.
In the case of Madrid this process of unity has led to the de facto split of the local and regional organisations of IU. A right wing clique had a very narrow control of the apparatus and opposed any idea of uniting with Podemos. Open primary elections were organised to select the candidates for local and regional elections, and these were won, by 60% to 35%, by the left wing, pro-unity candidates. The regional apparatus decided to ignore this result and finally pushed the candidates and their supporters out of IU in Madrid. The regional Communist Party and Communist Youth organisations decided to no longer recognise the regional structures of IU and to leave with the elected candidates.
This dispute has also lead to a split in the national leadership of IU. First the national coordinator Cayo Lara attempted to maintain a position of respecting the democratic procedures and of criticising the regional leadership, but then he switched to publicly supporting the right-wing in standing its own separate IU list in both elections. A majority of supporters of United Left presidential candidate Alberto Garzón (in the left wing of IU) have supported the unity lists in the Madrid municipal elections (Ahora Madrid) and in the regional elections (under the Podemos list), but Garzón himself has remained silent.
In the case of the Madrid council the situation is particularly serious as IU is unlikely to win the necessary 5% of the votes to get into the council, but those votes could determine whether Ahora Madrid beats the PP. Right now, Ahora Madrid is neck and neck with the ruling PP with a large number of voters who have not yet decided.
Ruling class hysteria
What is clear is that regardless of the difficulty of post-election pacts and the limitations of municipal politics, a setback for the PP in the regional elections and a victory for radical left forces in main cities like Barcelona or Madrid would have an enormous impact on the psychology of the masses. It would give them confidence in that it is possible to defeat the PP also in the general elections.
This is the reason for the hysteria of the capitalist media as the campaign approaches its end. Former Spanish president Aznar (responsible for bring Spain into the imperialist intervention in Iraq) intervened in the campaign by accusing Podemos and Pablo Iglesias of being the inheritors of Lenin and Stalin “who killed millions of social democrats they knew”!!
The right wing paper El Mundo had a front page headline saying that ETA prisoners want Podemos in government. Finally the rabid right-wing ABC had a front page with a full page picture of Venezuelan president Maduro alleging that he was using Spain as an entry point into Europe for “five tonnes of cocaine per week”.
However, there are important lessons to be learnt. Firstly, it is not possible to separate electoral politics from mass mobilisation. Rather, mass mobilisation on the streets is the best way to generate the necessary forces and dynamics which can then use the parliamentary assemblies as platforms.
Secondly, there is a need as well as a strong desire for unity that is born out of common struggle rather than agreements by the apparatuses of the different parties and which involves a genuine process of mass democratic participation, control and accountability.
Finally, and most important, there is a widespread desire for radical change. If Podemos is to win the elections it must adopt a clear radical program which expresses this desire. Only by posing the question clearly: counterposing the interests of the working masses to the interests of the capitalists and bankers, can the necessary mass movement be generated which would allow for a defeat of the PP.
The experience of Greece also contains important lessons for the revolutionary movement in Spain. It is not enough to win an election in order to implement fundamental change. It does not really matter what program of concrete measures you might have. The capitalist system in its present crisis sets strict limits on the government and does not give room to implement significant reforms.
The only way to improve the living conditions of the masses and decisively reverse the austerity policies is by challenging the capitalist system itself. Under capitalism the economy works the interest of the private profit of a tiny minority of unelected, unaccountable and corrupt capitalists and bankers. By taking the fundamental levers of the economy into public ownership, the economy can instead be democratically planned in the interest of the majority. If the “democratisation of the economy” which Pablo Iglesias has stressed is to mean anything, it has to mean this.