What Just happened in Spain?
The Spanish General Elections results of 20th December 2015 have thrown up a fragmented political map in Spain as multi-coloured as a paella valenciana with no single party – or even the likelihood of straightforward two party coalition – able to form a government in the wake of Sunday’s vote.
Although the incumbent conservative Partido Popular (PP) won most votes and 123 seats in the Spanish Congress – favoured by an unfair electoral system which has always benefited the two main parties – the irruption of Podemos with 69 seats onto the Spanish national political scene, led by former academic Pablo Iglesias and his team, is the real story of last weekend, and has thrown the cat among the pigeons among the Spanish establishment, opening the door for change in Spain.
Today, Tuesday the 22nd of December, Spanish newspaper reports suggest that Rajoy’s PP are currently trying to form a government with the PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol), which won 90 setas, and Ciudadanos,the new populist force from the right, which won just 40. But for the PSOE to agree to back a Rajoy led government would be electoral suicide and merely confirm the theory held by so many since 15-M took off in Madrid in May 2011 that there is little or difference between the two main parties – which is why they are collectively referred to by some as the PPSOE – and that indeed just as the crowds chanted all over Spain back at the time, “they do not represent us”.
The end of the two party system of the PP and the PSOE, which had dominated Spanish politics from the Transition to democracy in 1977, up until last Sunday, is to be welcomed. The spectacular result obtained by Podemos, with just over 20% of the popular vote, is a chance for democratic renewal and ought to pave the way for the Second Transition which Spain so badly requires. More importantly perhaps, Podemos are the living proof that mass popular movements can lead to democratic fruition when tapped into in the right way, one which goes beyond the old dividing lines of Right and Left. The spontaneous popular assemblies which broke out all over Madrid in 2011, and which saw the indignados movement born, have found political and parliamentary expression under the leadership of Pablo Iglesias and his colleagues whose strategy has been based on the “transversal” – or cross-cutting – theory of Argentinean post-Marxist Ernesto Laclau, coupled with a shrewd media savvy and the recognition that television and the media are fundamental to political success in today’s democracy. Though ultimately, no amount of analysis from number-crunching political scientists can fully explain what has happened in Spain over the last few years.
What has just happened? Ordinary people started organizing themselves and getting involved in politics is the answer. The realization that conventional politics had failed ordinary Spaniards swept the country following the disastrous financial crisis of 2008 and the mass unemployment, bankruptcies and forced evictions it led to. People started engaging in the public sphere a way they had never considered doing before. Podemos, and the myriad groups who rally under their common banner, are the outcome of that, a sociological as much as a political phenomenon. And it looks very much like they are here to stay, with Pablo Iglesias bullish this morning about the prospect of a repeat of the elections if no party is able to form a government, and reiterating his key demands, which call for a reform of the Spanish Constitution to include a truly proportional electoral system, a recognition of the multinational make-up of Spain and the right to self-determination in Catalonia, and guaranteed social rights including education, health and housing enshrined in a reformed Constitution.
An example of the new participatory, grassroots activism is to be found not far from where I live in Madrid, where once the local community swimming pool and gymnasium stood adjoined to a fresh food market. This facility, while somewhat run-down, was well used by the local community. When the economic collapse produced by casino banking and an inflated property bubble finally hit Spain, then president Zapatero announced a package of measures to stimulate the economy, the so-called Plan E (for empleo or employment). The local PP town council of the time then proceeded in 2009 to spend one million Euros of those funds to demolish the swimming pool and gymnasium, and then ran out of money to build a new one in its place, despite having given the greenlight to an expensive and ambitious project which would have seen a park built on top of a new shopping centre on the site. The 2500 square metre space where the swimming pool and gym once stood, in the heart of La Latina neighbourhood in the centre of Madrid, became an eyesore and a local symbol of everything wrong with how Spain has been run for years: one million Euros spent to build a hole in the ground.
In 2011, as the 15M movement took off and local communities started taking politics into their own hands, a local neighbourhood community organization of volunteers took over the running of this empty open air space under the name El Campo de La Cebada which they proceeded to turn into a hub of the community. A basketball court was built, wooden tiers of seating were constructed, and stages appeared. The Campo de la Cebada is now a hub in the community for music concerts, book readings, workshops, films screenings, political activism, courses of all kinds, basketball tournaments, and a kindergarten complete with inflatable swimming pool in the summer.
It is this new spirit of participatory activism, from the grassroots level all the way up, which explains the rise of Podemos and Pablo Iglesias, who have withstood a media campaign during the run-up to the General Election by the Spanish establishment which threw absolutely everything they could at them, an act of propaganda warfare which revealed just how much the Establishment fears Podemos. But Iglesias – whose resignation from the European Parliament in October this year in order to fight the General Elections was providential – have held strong and managed to successfully come back from some disappointing results in the local May regional elections earlier in the year to record a remarkable success.
As the PP and the PSOE – who share a common history of numerous corruption scandals and an intransigence to even contemplate a possible Catalan independence referendum, which 80% of Catalans support according to recent polls – seek to orientate themselves in this new political landscape, a rerun of the General Elections may be what suits Podemos and Iglesias best.
Writing in The New Left Review back in May this year, Iglesias stated:
“Our vital goal this year is to overtake PSOE—an essential pre-condition for political change in Spain, even if we don’t manage to outstrip the PP. The hypothesis of the Socialists undertaking a 180-degree turn and rejecting austerity policies, so that we could reach an understanding with them, will only come into play if we effectively outdo them. At that stage, PSOE will either accept the leadership of Podemos or commit political suicide by submitting to that of the PP”.
While Podemos did not quite overtake the PSOE, they came close enough and got stronger the more the campaign went on. Whatever the outcome of the coalition talks, it’s game on for Podemos and it’s game on for a new style of politics from the European Left.