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What Just happened in Spain?

Pablo_Iglesias-elecciones_20D-Podemos_MDSVID20151220_0105_38The 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.

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  1. Alf Baird says:

    The question is, who is Scotland’s Podemos? Its not Labour or SNP ‘suits’.

    1. JG says:

      Or the peddling of false hope?

      Will Iglesias turn out to be a Traitor like Tsipras.

      Just because they don’t wear suits doesn’t mean they aren’t ultimately owned by the Suits.

      I’d rather give the benefit of the doubt to the SNP “Suits” for the moment thanks.

      1. leavergirl says:

        Betting on parties is a losing proposition… But if people don’t understand that after Greece, they never will.

        Betting on parties while doing something else than previously regarding those who really govern, and feeding culture change, well, that could be fruitful.

        Btw, is SNP doing *anything* differently? Is there any reason to trust them to not behave like “suits”? There’s been precious little on Bella regarding that analysis.

        1. Ross McEachern says:

          Ok – so your happy to live the rest of your existence under London tory rule?

          Or trust the SNP to get us independence?

          Then we can decide what type of country we would like to be!

          Taking a punt on Rise, is a sure way to maintain London tory rule!

          What wriggle room do the SNP have to do anything radically different, when London;s jack boot is on their neck?

          As for precious little being on Bella regards alternatives to SNP, it has done little else rather than push Rise for the past three months!

      2. Black Rab says:

        The SNP are essentially capitalists……..a system that favours owners over workers. They have therefore no policies that would radically change Scotland for the benefit of the majority of it’s people. A socialist party will be required to do that..

        1. Calum McKay says:

          So we all may as well give up and let a foreign conservative party with no backing in Scotland reign over us forever?

          An independent Scotland run by a left of centre party or coalition is pobable, what you seek is never going to happen in Scotland or elsewhere.

  2. Ross McEachern says:

    What has just happened?

    Catalonia independence has been set back 5 to 10 years as their independence vote was splintered.

    Mainstream parties will pay lip service to the Catalans, the media and state broadcaster will rally behind the mainstream parties, highlighting Greece and or defence from ISIS, etc. Scotland’s been there, we have the tee shirts!

    The lesson for Scotland is to ignore Rise and use your votes 1 and 2 for the SNP.

    United we stand, divided is not a credible option!

  3. Marga says:

    Can’t help agreeing with Ross in his cynicism – and Bella, the idea that Podemos could get anywhere near governing Spain is being seen in increasing circles as a joke. You live in Madrid, I in Catalonia, which may explain some of our differences.

    Urged by paymaster EU, don’t forget, Ciudadanos but also PSOE will probably eventually and patriotically stand back and let the PP govern, accepting political crumbs but “saving the state” from economic disaster – and almost as important, from a threat to its unity, which Podemos and others are making – at least, for now. And don’t forget, with control of the Senate, the PP holds the key to constitutional reform.

    If the economy is at stake, I suspect many PSOE voters could be persuaded to understand this, especially in Andalusia, the right-wing and highly persuasive Susana Diaz’ territory which is virtually the PSOE these days, there’s little else left.

    One could extend the cynicism to Iglesias, whose miraculous promise of support for a referendum in Catalonia is a right about turn to what he said 6 months ago, but he needed the soft independentist votes to swell his votes, and got them.

    And as to the death blow to the independence of Catalonia – the mistakes and infighting of politicians don’t represent the end of the movement. Possible new elections there due to sterile tussles with the radical left for governance would blow the whole situation open again.

    Interesting read, though, and as you say, nothing can be ruled out.

    1. Ross McEachern says:

      We keep coming back to this on this blog, splitting the nationalist vote in Scotland will be absolutely disastrous for our country and its future.

      The oldest trick in the book deployed by every establishment regime in every country, divide the opposition and you will get back in.

      I sincerely hope the Catalan nationalists can rescue this position!

  4. Jim McElhill says:

    Due to history and the present, I’ve always been sceptical regarding views on the whole of “Spain” that come from Madrid, just as I have been on views on the whole of the UK that have come from London.

    I think one thing is for sure. If Podemos back tracks on its much expounded belief during the election that Catalans have a right to an independence referendum, then its supporters in Catalonia will soon disappear. As will support for the PSOE should they seek to prop up a PP government in Madrid.

    I think it is also worth noting that the recent general election in Spain cant be equated with the recent general election in the UK as far as the nations in both countries are concerned.

    The SNP won 56 of 59 MP’s post the independence referendum but won only six seats in the general election preceding the referendum. Pro Catalan independence parties have just won 17 from 47 seats in Catalonia putting Catalan nationalists in a very good position all round given their opposition.

  5. florian albert says:

    ‘A rerun of the general elections may be what suits Podemos and Iglesias best.’

    That is a possibility.

    Equally, you have to ask how, despite the economic collapse and the massive corruption scandals exposed, PP and PSOE still won over 50% of the votes. What would it take to get these voters to abandon the status quo ?
    If only a fifth of voters support Podemos in circumstances which are ideal for an insurgent party, is it likely they would do better in 2016 than in 2015 ?

    1. Douglas says:

      Florian, the demographics are interesting because people over the age of 50 overwhelmingly vote PP. Basically, the PP lives off what is now called sociological or psychological Francoism…people who were brought up under the dictatorship and still think in that way…but they are a dying breed…

      … as for PSOE voters. Well, I think at least half of them are on the right ideological wavelength, and Rodriguez Zapatero is the most progressive prime minister Spain ever had – for all his failings. He pulled Spanish troops our of Iraq and he legalized gay marriage, that’s just two things off the top of my head. But the day he and Rajoy agreed to change the Spanish Constitution – which until then had been deemed “untouchable” – to allow Angela Merkel to impose a 3% GDP deficit cap was the day the PSOE died…Zapatero ought to have resigned, but he didn’t, he pushed the measure through…

  6. Douglas says:

    Thanks for the comments folks, and sorry for the late reply, the festivities got the better of me…

    Marga and Ross…I don’t know where you’re coming from really. Podemos scored better in Catalonia and the Basque Country than the rest of Spain. They are the second biggest party in the latter and the first in the former. Podemos can hardly be written off as a Madrid phenomenon….we have a Podemos Mayor in Barcelona, a Podemos Mayor in Madrid…not exactly IN Podemos, but in the new politics of these new times, associated with Podemos….because the Left in Spain is now liquid, it involves numerous platforms and groupings and social activists who stand under a common platform, which more often than not is Podemos, but the old politics of one party who represents everybody are dead there now…

    Ross, please, don’t compare the case of Catalan nationalism with Scottish nationalism. The cases are very different. To go no further: in Scotland we basically have one major por indie party, which is the SNP. Okay, there are are other parties like the Greens or Rise, but essentially it is the SNP. That is just not the case in Catalonia where there are at least three pro indie parties of similar weight: Esquera Republicana, the CUP, and Convergence, the party of Artur Mas, who dropped from 29% to 15% in four years. So it doesn’t make much sense what you’re saying…

    It is also worth remembering that Izquierda Unida-Unidad Popular – the Old Left – scored 10% of the vote and that if they had run on the same ticket as Podemos, the Left would be in power now in Spain…. As usual in Spain, the Left wins most votes, but split between different parties, and the Right wins power as a result.

    These are heady days in Madrid and Barcelona and, as I hope and expect, if Podemos win the autonomous elections in the Basque Country next year, Bilbao too..

    …Marga, I am surprised you would underestimate a party which won more than 5 million votes in their first General Election campaign, just 500,000 short of the PSOE…. Podemos are represented in the media as a bunch of cranks who sprang out of the indignados movement. In my opinion, they are the most sophisticated politicians in Spain these days, and they are very well versed in theory. Pablo Igelsias was a lecturer in political science – he is nobody’s fool.

    Podemos have been subjected to a media campaign as vile as we endured in the run up to 18S, and just like us, they have stood strong. Viva Podemos, y viva Pablitos…

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