After a dramatic general election in the Spanish state this weekend, Luke Stobart analyses the results and asks what they mean for the future of Spanish politics and anti-capitalist organising.
“Let’s stand up to them” says a poster from the anti-capitalist CUP.
In an era in which the far right has increasingly entered and even started leading national governments and had its policies copied by conservative parties, the general elections held in Spain this Sunday were awaited with trepidation. Almost all polling and the recent local and regional elections, in which the right advanced and the left crashed, pointed to a joint government of the conservative PP and far-right Vox. This would take to a “national” level the barbarities being carried out since May by PP-Vox-run town halls and “autonomous communities”, including removing books in Catalan from schools, LGBT flags from governmental buildings, and the play Orlando and the children’s film Lightyear from local cultural programmes (for having gender-changing or lesbian characters). This was the work of Vox, which now has dozens of councillors that have been members of Nazi or fascist organisations, and in the election campaign used or threatened violence against those protesting its public activities – confirming its roots in Franco’s fascism.
Halting far-right reaction was one of the two main ways by which the social democratic PSOE and the left-wing electoral platform Sumar that have been governing tried to present the election. Indeed, prime minister Pedro Sánchez called a snap general election straight after the local and regional polls in May to coincide with the nasty administrations described getting up and running, and predictably upsetting people. That bold gamble worked. There was an anti-fascist mood to be mobilised: polls showed that over 60 percent of the population – including many PP voters – were “very” or “fairly concerned” about having Vox in the government; and, of course, the long and dark period of fascism people in Spain lived through is still in living memory.
This probably explains the increased turnout on Sunday: up 4 percent (compared to the 2019 general elections) to reach 70 percent – despite the vote taking place in record temperatures and many people already being on holiday. Many people who abstained in the May elections turned out to vote. There was also tactical voting: for instance in Catalonia, where PSOE topped the poll followed by Sumar, to the detriment of the pro-independence left – including the anti-capitalist CUP, which very regrettably lost both of its two seats.
After days in which anti-fascist critique reached a crescendo on social media, Vox lost 40 percent of its congressional seats, leaving its leaders with long faces and trying to avoid addressing party supporters. When it became clear that the total sum of right-wing seats fell short of a majority, the deflated PP supporters who had come for a fiesta outside the party’s headquarters in Madrid instead interrupted the speech by their party leader to shout the name of his most likely successor (“Ayuso”). Altogether, an enjoyably bad night for the Spanish right.
The PSOE increased its vote and its left-wing junior partners, now led by Minister of Labour Yolanda Díaz in the Sumar alliance, reversed the sharp fall in support for them in the May elections – a result that was helped by Díaz attempting to marginalise Podemos within her new project. The only possible government that can directly result from Sunday will be a repeat of the previous one (although, thanks to the more biased system for electing Spain’s Senate, the PP now have a simple majority in this second chamber). This is because the pro-Catalan and pro-Basque parties that now hold the key to who forms the next government will not back a centralist right-wing administration including a party (Vox) that promises to illegalise them. They therefore prefer to allow Sánchez to return as prime minister.
This time, however, the seat mathematics require at least abstention during a vote to form government by Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia), the party whose leader, former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, went into exile during the state crackdown after the independence referendum in 2017. Junts’ economic policies are close to those of the PP, but it will negotiate with Sánchez to facilitate holding a legal referendum on independence (Junts’ priority), gain a full amnesty for those persecuted for the referendum, and greater fiscal and logistical transfers to Catalonia.
After similar negotiations in 2019, the other large pro-independence party, ERC, managed to get reduced sentences for the Catalan leaders imprisoned (leading to their release) in return for their abstention. This time a deal may be more difficult. Catalan self-determination is highly contentious in Spain and Sánchez has repeatedly ruled out allowing such. Even Sumar (unlike Podemos) did not include this policy in its first elections – to its shame.
Another problem in reaching a deal is that the Catalan pro-independence parties performed badly on 23 July. Since they led the retreat over Catalan independence – clearly spooked by the repressive clampdown on the movement from 2017, frustration towards them among pro-independence activists has grown and Catalans’ attachment to the parties has weakened (as shown by the mass of voters that on 23 July switched from ERC to the pro-Spanish left). This has led the pro-independence vote in the general elections to plummet from 43 percent in 2019 to 24 percent on 23 July (with ERC suffering a comparable fall in the municipal elections also). With ERC and Junts having no roadmap to independence, and with ERC disappointing in the Catalan government, the two parties may negotiate hard with Sánchez. Neither can afford to risk being seen to let Catalonia down again.
The fact that it is too early for the Spanish centre-left to claim victory was underlined the day after the vote: Spain’s PSOE-appointed chief public prosecutor requested a reactivation of an arrest warrant against Puigdemont, while one of Puigdemont’s ministers – Scottish-resident Clara Ponsatí – was arrested while visiting Barcelona. Under Sánchez repression and surveillance of the Catalan movement has continued. And the right also has influence within Spain’s activist deep state. Because of these reasons, it may be a rocky or even impossible road to reach a deal, and more “surprises” could occur. There is also some movement by PP leader Fejóo and others to explore whether an agreement between the PP and PSOE can be reached to avoid leaving “Spain” in the hands of “those who wish to break it up”, but this may be more posturing than real.
Yet, even though the future is still in question, it is worth celebrating that ordinary Spaniards once again acted (as they have done at other crucial times in Spanish history) to stop the advance of reaction. Yet Anticapitalistas’ Brais Fernández is also right to say that what was successfully mobilised was the “fear vote” (PSOE-Sumar) over the “hate vote” (PP-Vox). This is not the same as a vote based on hope.
If a PSOE and Sumar government is formed…
The second central plank of the PSOE-Sumar election pitch was its record of “good governance”. This idea was more problematic and is unlikely to have washed among many voters. Sánchez and Díaz boast that their government has achieved macroeconomic success, such as job creation and economic growth, and to having introduced major social policies: a hike in the minimum wage, greater prevalence of secure labour contracts in the private sector (but not public) and allowing regional governments to cap spiralling rents (although without legislating for such across the whole of the Spanish state). These measures and other significant policies including regarding trans rights (as championed by Podemos’ Equality Minister Irene Montero against resistance from PSOE ministers) have been enough for many alternative leftists to feel that the elections were about a lot more than simply halting the right.
Yet outside the left bubble (and away from Podemos or Sumar’s international cheerleaders) the lived experience under the coalition has often been quite different. Many working people’s lives never returned to “normality” after the 2008 crisis (thanks to a worsening of working conditions and public services, and increased rents); and their lives have become more complicated since the pandemic and war. Díaz boasts of having overseen “historic” wage deals with unions and employers in response to inflation but in the last year wages set through collective bargaining have increased by 3 percent while prices have grown by 8 percent (and price hikes in foodstuffs, utilities and rent disproportionately hurt poorer people). This significant drop in real wages combines negatively with rising rents and mortgage payments.
So under the self-proclaimed “most progressive government in [Spanish] history”, life has likely become tougher for the working-class majority and particular its poorer segments. This is the underlying reason for progressives’ poor electoral showing in May. Positive reforms have been passed but these were insufficient, and their importance exaggerated. The decline in living standards explains the mass appeal of Vox and Madrid’s regional president, the PP’s Isabel Díaz-Ayuso, who are seen as putting people’s material interests before all other considerations.
If the coalition government does manage a second term, the contradictions outlined will likely worsen. The current conjuncture is one in which multiple (including existential) crises feed off each other, producing new ones. Because of the current economic difficulties, Europe has decided to end its Covid-era experiment in regenerating member states’ economies and allowing them to run large deficits. A new round of austerity is on the horizon.
Furthermore, any progressive policy a new “left” government attempts will also have to win the approval of the centre-right Junts and overcome possible attempts to block legislation by the PP-controlled Senate. As Pablo Iglesias has pointed out, it will probably also meet resistance from the unelected political power of the media and judiciary. And last, but not least, the Sumar project is an even more politically subordinate project to the PSOE than Podemos, which helped bring it about – hence its more favourable treatment in the media. And the alliance controlled by Díaz has less weight – in terms of relative seats – vis-a vis PSOE, which will reduce its influence. For all the reasons mentioned, it is very likely that government will be less leftist than before and the previous one oversaw a massacre of migrants in Melilla, sent armoured vehicles to a labour dispute, increased defence spending, and other inglorious achievements.
The wave of protest that began in 2011 with the 15-M (Indignados) square movement has waned and been channelled into (and around) contradictory political projects such as Podemos and Sumar. Its positive cultural influence, which originally helped keep the far right at bay, has eroded – some say to nothing. This decline is another other reason for the rise of the populist right, a factor (among others) behind the disappearance of “the Town Halls of Change” (in all the large cities after the May elections), and a major reason why there are no longer any anti-capitalist MPs. As Jaime Pastor and others have argued, the anti-capitalist left must now enter a phase of serious reflection over the successes and failures since 2011.
If contradictions emerge under a repeated left coalition and largescale struggles rekindle, they will possibly be angrier and more politically ambiguous than the beautiful 15-M “revolution” in the squares. We saw a glimpse of this in the lorry-driver strikes over fuel prices last year in which Spanish nationalism was a significant feature. The question then will be how anti-capitalists can be part of such movements and help turn them into a more-than-vital challenge to capitalism and its crises.