Spain on the Brink of Change
Standing inside the magnificent glass panelled Museo Nacional de Arte Reina Sofia on the Ronda de Atocha with its beguiling modernist architecture, huge red walls and cool air in Central Madrid you can easily forget the economic, social and political crisis that engulfs Spain.
A more accurate depiction of the state of Europe’s fifth biggest economy can be gleaned a few hundred yards away however in Plaza Nelson Mandela. Here hundreds of young men, many of them immigrants, bedecked in replica football jerseys loll indolently on concrete contoured park benches beneath the shade of straggly trees trying to escape the oppressive 96 degree heat. In this dilapidated inner city square bedsheets hang from the balconies of derelict apartments as makeshift banners read ‘Stop Monjoes’ [No evictions] and ‘Terrrorista Esquien Endroaza’ [We are not terrorists]. This picture paints a clearer image of the Spain where the poorest 70% own less than the richest 1%. This is the Spain of 21% unemployment [50% for those under 25] with one of the highest GDP: Debt ratios in the world after the country’s banks were bailed out by the EU.
Spain’s National Statistics Institute revealed this week that 34.3% of households rely on a pension as their sole source of income. For Jose Manuel a retired engineer I met in the working class neighbourhood of Delicias this means his pension must keep him, his wife, his son, daughter in law and teenage grandson. Households like his where the main bread winner is out of work spend 36% less than the average or just £13,500 per annum. Like their famous football team Madrid sits at the top of that spending league too. In the poorest regions such as Estremadura and Andalusia in the South of Spain average incomes are lower and unemployed households have barely £10,000 per annum to spend.
Midway between the Museum and Nelson Mandela square lies the website listed headquarters of the left-wing party Podemos [‘We Can’]. 31, Calle Zurita is a small, rather dingy one room shopfront. It had just one occupant when I visited it, an unlikely command centre for a Government in waiting. This is not, I discovered, where the ‘Unidos Podemos’ election campaign is run from [‘Unidos Podemos’ is the alliance made up of Podemos itself, Izquerida Unida [the Spanish Communist Party] and Eqos [the Greens]. Pablo Iglesais, Enigo Errejon and Juan Carlos Monedero the founders of Podemos moved on some time ago.
Unidos Podemos has all the momentum in this election. Its support is up on the last vote in December which resulted in a hung Parliament and it hopes to form the Government on Sunday albeit in coalition with its left of centre rival PSOE.
The Partido Socialista Obrero Espana, or Labour Party, trails Unidos Podemos in the polls but it may emerge with more seats owing to Spain’s peculiar electoral system. The conservative Partido Popular of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy lead with 30% support. Then comes Unidos Podemos with 26.5%, PSOE is on 20% and the centre-right Cuidadanos on 15%. Spain’s four party system is a new phenomenon in a country where the PP and PSOE governed in turn for 40 years. But that was before the financial crash of 2008 and the equally devastating corruption scandals that rocked Spain in 2012.
Podemos emerged in 2014 from ‘Los indignacios’ the movement of indignant and angry young Spaniards who bore the brunt of the economic and social collapse and were enraged at the widespread graft and bribery exposed among the country’s banking, corporate and political elites. Both the PP and PSOE leadership were implicated in these scandals.
Candidates backed by Podemos won the Mayoral elections in Madrid and Barcelona in the last year. And in December they won more votes than their rivals in several regions.
Their manifesto, published as an eye catching IKEA style catalogue, promises to cut unemployment from 21% to 11%. It pledges to industrialise Spain’s economy and diversify away from agriculture and tourism towards renewable energy and manufacturing. By raising taxes on the wealthy and clamping down on tax evasion it aims to raise €10bn to cut VAT on basic household necessities and subsidise gas and electricity bills. And it plans to renegotiate Spain’s debt repayments with its EU creditors.
‘Spain needs another break with the past’ says Alejandro a young Podemos supporter I met distributing leaflets outside the Metro in Cuidad Lineal. ‘For 40 years Spain endured Franco’s fascist dictatorship. For the next 40 we had PP and PSOE Governments as we transitioned towards democracy. Now their democracy is broken. We need another break with the past to restore some dignity and hope.’ Alejandro hopes PSOE will join in a Left-wing coalition but he is not optimistic. PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez has repeatedly ruled it out describing Iglesias as an ‘impossibilist’ and an ‘extremist’. But many see this as pre-election rhetoric. PSOE has slumped badly in its traditional working class heartlands and has been bypassed by Unidos Podemos as the main party of the left. Young Spaniards in urban centres in particular have abandoned them. Sanchez accepts this is ‘a challenge’. Many in his party vehemently oppose a coalition with Iglesias. Susana Diaz, the party boss in Andalusia, PSOE’s strongest region, for example blanches at the idea of putting the pony-tailed politician into ‘La Moncala’ as Prime Minister. But given the likelihood of another hung Parliament PSOE faces a stark choice. They can either put their traditional foes the PP back into power or join a left coalition led by it new rivals Unidos Podemos. In a country divided into left and right they are hardly likely to win back support by backing Rajoy. On the other hand they have fundamental differences with the UP on the national question and the economy. The UP favours greater constitutional independence for Catalonia, the Basque county, the Valencian community and Galicia albeit within a ‘plurinational’ unitary Spain. PSOE want to maintain the status quo. Neither do they favour the same anti-austerity medicine as Iglesias.
The smart money is however on another hung Parliament. Unidos Podemos and PSOE should be able to reach a deal. They are both social democrats. Spanish public opinion wants to end the impasse and reach a settlement that will improve the economic crisis. But there is more pushing the two parties apart than together. For Spain is witnessing a titanic fight for the soul of the Left tradition in this country. PSOE once had it, now the UP aim to seize it.