On Sunday 20th December 2015, Spanish people went to the polls in a tightly contested general election. The results have produced an extremely fragmented parliament, reflecting the class polarisation and radicalisation that has been taking place in Spanish society in recent years.
After the election results came out, one of the spokespersons of the incumbent right-wing party PP described Spain as “ungovernable”. This is an apt picture of the country at the moment.
The election results have produced an extremely fragmented parliament that, as we explained recently, reflects the class polarisation and the radicalisation that has been taking place in Spanish society in recent years. The clearest symptom of these processes is the irruption onto the scene of the left-wing party PODEMOS, that has fulfilled its promises of remontada (a comeback) and obtained 20.66%, a mere 1.35% away from the traditional social democratic party PSOE, giving Spanish politics a big jolt. As Pablo Iglesias has stated, “Spain has voted for a change in the system”.
- PP (right-wing): 28.72%, 123 seats
- PSOE (centre-left): 22.01%, 90 seats
- PODEMOS (left-wing): 20.66%, 69 seats
- Ciudadanos (right-wing populists): 13.93%, 40 seats
- Izquierda Unida-Unidad Popular (left-wing): 3.67%, 2 seats
- ERC (Catalan centre-left nationalists): 2.39%, 9 seats
- DiL-CDC (Catalan right-wing nationalists): 2.25%, 8 seats
- PNV (Basque right-wing nationalists): 1.2%, 6 seats
- CC (Canary regionalists): 1 seat
The first thing that should be noted is that the two-party system that was the linchpin of the bourgeois regime established after Franco’s death, where the PP and the PSOE would take turns in power, and where the PSOE would act as a safety valve for popular anger against the right, is now done for. The rise of PODEMOS, propelled by a historical wave of radicalisation, has burst all the safety valves of Spanish bourgeois democracy.
The PP lost 15.92 percentage points in comparison with 2011 – almost 4 million votes. Ciudadanos, that had been artificially inflated by the media and by the capitalists, that have been pumping money into the party for months, performed unexpectedly badly. In the last stages of the campaign, many people correctly came to see them as a right-wing, reactionary party, created as a potential replacement for the battered PP. However, the PSOE also failed to capture any of these votes, losing 6.7 percentage points since 2011, over 1.5 million votes.
It is important to stress the erosion of the PSOE, a development that in Spain is often referred to as the pasokización of the party, in reference to the erstwhile powerful and now non-existent Greek social democratic party PASOK. Unlike the PASOK, the PSOE has not - yet - entered any coalitions with the right wing. Its period in power carrying out overt austerity measures lasted only a year and a half, from the time when the first round of cuts was announced by Zapatero in May 2010 until November 2011; much less than the PASOK. This rapid erosion of the PSOE while in opposition bears witness to the rapid radicalisation of the Spanish population in these years of mass mobilisations and class struggle. The renewal of the party leadership after the EU elections of May 2014, replacing the old, uncharismatic Pérez Rubalcaba with the youthful Pedro Sánchez, has not succeeded in stemming the decline of the PSOE. The dire straits it now finds itself in not only reflects the fact that people want to settle scores with a party that carried out austerity and that has been involved in numerous corruption scandals, but also the understanding on the part of an important part of the population that the problems of Spanish society cannot be resolved through the “moderate” policies of the PSOE, which proposes nothing other than a milder form of austerity; what is required is a root-and-branch transformation of society.
Undoubtedly the party that is seen as the vehicle for radical political change is PODEMOS. Created in February 2014, it has risen at breakneck speed, and came third in these elections. Despite the fact that it underwent several months of stagnation, when it was predicted that it would come fourth behind Ciudadanos, with around 10-15%, PODEMOS reversed the trend with a powerful campaign in which it used a class-based, left-wing language and appealed to the memory of all the struggles of the recent years. In his last electoral rally in Valencia, which gathered some 12,000 people, Pablo Iglesias made reference to the struggles of the 1930s and the 1970s, affirming that the language might have changed since then, but the ideals remain the same, and stated that the Franco regime was overthrown by the labour movement. The very prominent presence of Barcelona mayor and anti-evictions campaigner Ada Colau throughout the whole Podemos campaign was a graphic indication of this shift. It was on the basis of this campaign that PODEMOS was able to recover its initial drive. Although it failed to overtake the PSOE, its results are impressive: 20.66%, 5,159,078 million votes.
To the results of PODEMOS we must add the respectable 3.68% of Izquierda Unida (IU), almost one million votes – and we should bear in mind that its votes in Catalonia and Galicia, where it stood in broader coalitions with PODEMOS and other forces, are not counted in this figure. Its campaign, centred around its charismatic leader Alberto Garzón, who, appealing to a clear left wing and class vote, was also able to rally thousands of people. The result, however, is the worst for the IU coalition and is the price it pays for years of mistakes and bureaucratic blindness on the part of its leadership.
Together, PODEMOS and Izquierda Unida have 576,073 more votes than the PSOE. This once again highlights the importance of unity for the left, which was scuttled by the narrow interests of both party apparatuses. It is important to draw this lesson for the future.
Who voted for PODEMOS?
The breakdown of the votes gives us a still frame of the country’s politics. We have to dig a bit deeper, however, to see the real dynamics at play in Spanish society. The truth is that, as a new force that is swimming with the stream of the times, PODEMOS did best among the working class in the big cities and, although a more detailed analysis of the results is necessary, it is to be expected that, as the polls predicted, PODEMOS has emerged strongest amongst the youth. The PP and the PSOE held on to their elderly base of support in the small towns and rural areas. It is important to remember that, especially amongst the elderly and the less politicised layers of the population, many continue to see the PSOE as a left-wing, progressive party. The combination of the votes of the PSOE, PODEMOS, Izquierda Unida and other smaller forces like the ERC or Bildu, mark a sharp turn to the left in society.
PODEMOS and its allied coalitions have overtaken the PSOE in most of the major cities: Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Alicante, Zaragoza, Bilbao, Oviedo, Coruña, Palma de Mallorca, Vigo, Vitoria, Donosti-San Sebastián, Tarragona, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, etc. The only major exceptions have been Seville and Málaga, in Andalusia, where the PSOE is historically strong.
A closer look at the result shows the working-class composition of PODEMOS votes. PODEMOS came first in the industrial outskirts of the big cities, the so-called “red belts” where the heavy battalions of the Spanish working class are concentrated: in areas such as Rivas, Coslada and Parla in Madrid; Hospitalet del Llobregat, Santa Coloma del Gramenet and Terrassa in Barcelona; Pasaia in Donostia-San Sebastián; Paiporta and Paterna in Valencia and Barakaldo in Bilbao. In many of these places PODEMOS won over 30%. Other important left-wing constituencies, such as Cádiz and Coruña, where the unity lists sponsored by PODEMOS won the May local elections, also saw impressive results for PODEMOS.
These cold figures, however, fail to give a full picture of the class forces that have been playing out. Participation was 3% higher than in the last elections in 2011, but this increase was very uneven. The ten municipalities with a population of over 100,000 where the turnout increased the most were: Santa Coloma de Gramenet, Cádiz, Barakaldo, Donostia-San Sebastián, Getafe, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Vigo, Coruña, Terrassa, Hospitalet de Llobregat. As can be seen, all these are working-class areas that voted massively for PODEMOS.
Conversely, the ten municipalities with a population of over 100,000 where participation dropped the most in comparison with 2011 were: Granada, Gijón, Mataró, Alicante, Huelva, Córdoba, Murcia, Badajoz, Jaén, Cartagena. These are all small provincial towns, based on tourism and agriculture, and are traditional bastions of the PP.
These figures are vindicated by reports from the ground, which speak of packed polling stations in working-class areas such as Nou Barris in Barcelona where people were full of enthusiasm, and of half-empty stations with nervous, elderly right-wing voters in areas such as San Juan in Alicante. Participation dropped most sharply in small-town Andalusia, the heartland of the PSOE.
What all this reflects is an urban working class on the offensive and a petty bourgeoisie and rural population that is confused and demoralized. The abstention in PSOE provincial heartlands suggests that many voters were unsure of whether to vote for the PSOE or for PODEMOS, and that they could be won over by the latter in the near future. In other words, the PSOE is living on borrowed time.
It is important to note that Spanish electoral law is impervious to abstention – each province receives a set number of parliamentary seats regardless of participation. This benefited the PSOE rural strongholds, where abstention was high, while the big cities where PODEMOS did well were not rewarded for having a high rate of participation. This helps to explain why between the two parties, who received almost the same number of votes, there is such a scandalous difference of 21 seats in parliament.
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the results was in Catalonia, where En Comú Podem, a coalition including Podemos, United Left and Barcelona En Comú amongst others, won the highest number of votes. It came first in the provinces of Barcelona and Tarragona. It did particularly well in the city of Barcelona, where it obtained even more votes than Ada Colau’s BEC coalition got in the May regional elections, where it conquered the town hall.
As we have explained recently, PODEMOS stood as part of a broad electoral front with other left-wing parties and anti-austerity movements, En Comú Podem, under the charismatic leadership of Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona and an anti-evictions activist who stands to the left of the national leadership of PODEMOS. Indeed, the campaign of this front was more radical and class-based than that of PODEMOS nationally. Its language on the national question has been unambiguous, vigorously defending the right to self-determination of Catalonia, and making a binding referendum on independence a prerequisite for any government agreements.
It is important to highlight that DiL-CDC, the bourgeois nationalist party led by Artur Mas that has been at the head of the pro-independence movement, did poorly in these elections. It has fallen from over one million votes in 2011 to almost half that number, scoring only 15% in Catalonia and coming fourth. The centre-left nationalists of ERC have made important gains, doubling their vote to 600,000.
All this points to a major turn to the left in Catalan society. As we had previously explained, under the surface of national polarisation that marked the September regional elections, powerful class contradictions were building up. Many workers and youth saw a vote for the nationalist parties as a challenge to the right-wing government in Madrid and to the whole establishment, and voted for them to vent their class hatred rather than to defend a Catalan national identity.
Some of the more conservative layers of the working class also voted for Ciudadanos in September, afraid of being cut off from Spain and also out of disgust with the bourgeois demagogue Artur Mas.
In the current elections, En Comú Podem, through a class-based language and with a programme for the radical transformation of society, was able to capture much of the progressive nationalist vote and also the support of former PSOE and Ciudadanos voters. In Catalonia, the Spanish ruling party PP came sixth with only 11% of the vote.
PODEMOS also did extremely well in the Basque Country, coming first overall and in Araba and Gipuzkoa (a traditional stronghold of the nationalist left), and did very well in Bizkaia, only a few thousand votes from coming first. The results in Galicia, have also been good. Here PODEMOS was also standing in a broad front, En Marea, which included the left-wing nationalists of Xosé Manuel Beiras. En Marea came second in Galicia with 25%, above the PSOE and won in the largest and most industrial city of Vigo with 34%.
This shows how in the different nationalities there is also a strong current looking for allies in the rest of Spain for the twin struggle for national rights and against austerity.
A Pandora’s box has been opened. An extremely interesting period now opens up in Spain. The Financial Times headline after the results was “Spain heads into turmoil”. Indeed, instability and the class struggle will be the norm in the coming period. The Spanish stock exchange reacted to the results with losses, a reliable measure of the mood of the bourgeoisie. It will be extremely difficult to stitch a government together now. The failure of Ciudadanos has shattered the hopes of a PP-Ciudadanos coalition having an overall majority. But the ruling class needs “stability”, i.e. a strong government which can continue with the policies of attacks and austerity cuts of the PP.
There are now three main possibilities. The first is a grand coalition between the PP and the PSOE. This would be the only stable form of government, since it would involve only two forces that have worked together in the past (for instance in the Basque regional government) and, despite their verbal enmity, have historically been the trusted parties of the bourgeoisie. They would have a handsome majority of 213 seats in a chamber of 350. However, such an alliance would politically destroy the PSOE, and put it firmly on the road of the Greek PASOK. Indeed, such a line is very risky, because it will leave the bourgeois regime unprotected on its left flank. However, it is not unthinkable that the capitalists will try to press for such an agreement, trying to keep Ciudadanos out and keeping them as an asset for the future. Already before the elections, the big bourgeois press, echoing internal sources from the PP, seriously discussed the possibility of replacing the current PSOE leadership of Pedro Sánchez with the president of Andalusia, Susana Díaz, who represents the right wing of the party, and then pushing for a pact with the PP.
The second option is an agreement between the PSOE and PODEMOS, which would only have 159 seats, 16 short of a majority, and would therefore have to include the additional forces of at least Izquierda Unida, ERC, Bildu, CC and possibly the PNV. Ciudadanos has already made clear that they would not back a government with PODEMOS in it (so much for their “centrism”). This would be a very unstable set up, which would need to do complex arithmetics to pass each law. There are also important stumbling blocks to the formation of such a government. A binding referendum for Catalonia, which, as said above, PODEMOS made a prerequisite for any post-electoral agreements, would be a hard pill to swallow for the PSOE, which has systematically stood for the unity of Spain. The presence of En Comú Podem and the need to bring ERC into such a pact makes this point unnegotiable. There is also the reform electoral law, which will likely come up as a key demand, and which the PSOE opposes since the current system favours it significantly. More generally, the PSOE and PODEMOS have almost the same percentage of votes. This would not be an agreement with smaller parties as in Portugal, where the radical left of the Bloco and the PCP still represent a small minority, but an alliance with a powerful and rising force that would be in a position to wrest many concessions from the PSOE. The ruling class will mobilise against any potential agreement involving PODEMOS, and the PSOE will come under a lot of pressure to reject this. All in all, although it is yet to be seen, this option seems very implausible.
Finally, the third option is to return to the polls a few months down the line. Few people want this, especially among the serious strategists of the bourgeoisie, since it will hardly resolve the current impasse, and might in fact make it worse. This opens up a Greek scenario of extreme instability. The PSOE in particular feels it is losing wind from its sails and will probably want to avoid returning to the ballot. However, in a few months time the PP might feel strong enough to call elections presenting itself as the only guarantor of stability, hoping to recover the voters lost to Ciudadanos and other forces.
For the ruling class, all options are bad. This parliamentary stalemate ultimately reflects the intensity of the class struggle in Spain, and the fact that the working class has put the bourgeoisie on the defensive.
Which way for PODEMOS?
PODEMOS should now go on the offensive and put the PSOE against the ropes. It should insist on reversing the austerity measures and reactionary laws of the PP and make this the pre-condition for any coalition talks. If the PSOE refuses, then it will be further exposed as a pro-austerity party. The defence of the right to national self-determination should be another key plank of Podemos’s parliamentary activity.. It should try to put the PSOE under pressure on the basis of these demands, to show the masses that it is hardly any better than the PP.
The most likely scenario is one of PODEMOS being the main opposition party in the coming months. A few things will be important then. Together with Izquierda Unida, PODEMOS could have overtaken the PSOE. It was in the regions where PODEMOS stood in broad fronts that it did better. The unity of the left must not be jeopardised again. Another important feature is that in the last year and a half, when Spaniards have been called to the polls several times, the attention of the masses has been on the electoral front. However, the perspective of a new bourgeois government in power for the coming period could push people on to the streets again, and we could see new rounds of protests like in 2011-2014. PODEMOS should put itself at the forefront of these movements and use its enormous mobilising power on the streets.
There is, however, a more general lesson to be drawn from the past few weeks. During the campaign, Pablo Iglesias was able to overcome the stagnation that PODEMOS had been experiencing thanks to a radical, class-based language. He began to speak again of the working class, of socialism, of the revolutionary traditions of the peoples of Spain. A push to the left by Ada Colau and En Comú Podem has also been important. This was also the case during the local elections of May 2015, when PODEMOS veered to the left. In the rally after the election results came out last night, Iglesias said: “Today we have once again heard the voice of the working class, which conquered its rights through strikes… the voice of the republic, of Largo Caballero, of Companys, of Durruti, of Andreu Nin, of Salvador Allende… Let’s take democracy to the economy... History is ours, and people make history”.
If Pablo Iglesias had used this language consistently, not only in the few weeks before the elections, he would have become immensely popular. It is statements like these that have won him a mass following, not Keynesian proposals to increase aggregate demand or for quantitative easing, or the promise to remain in NATO. He is correct in pointing out that the Spanish working class is back on its feet and that the results show a sharp turn to the left in society. If the leadership of PODEMOS were now to begin to patiently explain a transitional programme to socialism, basing it on the early experience of SYRIZA in Greece - before Tsipras succumbed to the Troika - they would have the ear of millions of people in Spain and abroad, and could prepare the ground for a new Spanish revolution in the near future.