Battle for Madrid

The battle for Madrid and the future of Podemos.

The snap regional election in the Community of Madrid on Tuesday [4 May] has become a struggle for the Spanish capital’s soul.

“Either communism or freedom” says the right; “democracy or fascism” responds the left. The bitter contest has struck notes which have a deep and painful resonance in a country where millions still have memories of living under a fascist regime.

Death threats and debate walkouts have dominated the headlines of this fraught election campaign. Whatever the result, the big picture is that the polarisation of left and right in Spanish politics has become even more deeply embedded by this battle for the capital.

For Unidas Podemos, the left party and junior partner in Spain’s coalition Government, the election has an added importance due to the surprise role of the party’s leader, Pablo Iglesias, in the contest. The battle for Madrid is also a battle over whether Podemos has a long-term future at the heart of Spanish politics.

The battle for Madrid

The election burst into life when Iglesias made the shock announcement in March that he was resigning as the Spanish Government’s deputy Prime Minister to run for the presidency of the Community of Madrid. Iglesias said by standing he believed he could help prevent a Popular Party-Vox far-right coalition government from winning. Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the PP’s Trumpian President of the Community of Madrid, responded to Iglesias’ entry into the election by declaring that the choice was now between “either communism or freedom”.

From that moment, the election contest has become increasingly high stakes, as parties of the left and right both seek to secure the combined 69 seats needed to form a coalition majority (or a ‘confidence-and-supply’ arrangement). On the left, the centre-left establishment party PSOE (polling between 30-34 seats), Mas Madrid, the breakaway left party from Podemos (20-25 seats), and Podemos (9-11 seats).

On the right, PP (polling between 56-63 seats) and the far-right Vox (9-15 seats), while the conservative-liberal party Ciudadanos has collapsed, on course to fall below the threshold to win seats. It doesn’t take a pollster to work out that the race to 69 is close, although the right-wing have a clear polling advantage.

The heat was turned up on 23 April when Iglesias and Ministers in the Spanish Government received death threats in the post including four bullets. That followed Podemos’ office being fire-bombed by far-right activists at the start of the month. When Vox candidate Rocío Monasterio refused to condemn the death threats during a radio debate, questioning whether they had been staged, Iglesias led a walkout from the debate, saying to continue risked “whitewashing fascism”, and was joined by the Más Madrid and PSOE candidates.

In response, Ayuso tweeted: “Iglesias, close the door behind you”, which she later deleted after a media backlash. Vox published a campaign poster with a racist attack on unaccompanied child refugees, while stepping up the fascistic language against Iglesias, calling him a “rat” and “hunchback”. All three left parties issued a joint statement saying the election was a choice between “democracy or fascism”. Two more death threats, aimed towards former PSOE Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and Ayuso, were intercepted by the police before campaigning drew to a close.

Iglesias’ gamble

The Podemos leader has shown his ability to take the fight to the far-right, which for many may be justification enough for exiting the Spanish Government after only just over a year to enter the rough and tumble of local Madrilenian politics, but for those interested in the long-term future of the party Iglesias founded, this manoeuvre warrants deeper scrutiny.

Once the Madrid elections is over, even if the left wins (an unlikely outcome, considering PP have governed in Madrid for the past 26 years) Iglesias will not be President; his entry into the campaign appears to have only boosted his party’s support by a few points. Meanwhile, the breakaway Más Madrid (‘Más País’ nationally) has continued to see its support rise rapidly under the candidacy of Mónica García, who has been on the frontline of the covid-19 pandemic as a doctor. It’s reasonable to ask what exactly has Iglesias gained while giving up a position at the heart of the Spanish Government?

For Eoghan Gilmartin, a journalist in Madrid who writes about Spanish politics for Jacobin magazine, Iglesias’ campaign has “stabilised Podemos’ position”, with the party previously having been in danger of going the way of Ciudadanos by failing to meet the 5% threshold to win seats.

“If they didn’t have representation in Madrid the party would be massively weakened nationally,” Gilmartin tells Bella.

That may seem surprising since Podemos only just entered government for the first time in its short history in January 2020, but that elevation masks the steady slide in votes since the party’s peak in the 2016 General Election.

A number of factors have contributed to this decline: the weakening of the anti-austerity ‘15-M’ movement at the start of the decade; the Catalan constitutional crisis in 2017, in which the party found itself stuck in no man’s land between the movement for Catalan self-determination and the repressive forces of Spanish nationalism; and the splits within Podemos, with Íñigo Errejón, a former close confidante of Iglesias, setting-up Más País in 2019 after a bitter faction fight with Iglesias for the party leadership, and ‘Anticapitalistas’, which included Podemos’ former Andalucían leader Teresa Rodríguez, breaking off from the party in February last year.

Of all these problems, Gilmartin says that the “turning point” for Podemos – which has seats spread across the Spanish state including in the ‘peripheral nations’ in the north – was the “Catalan crisis”.

“For the Spanish left, you went from an axis of polarisation around anti-austerity, to an axis of polarisation around the national question. A bit like with Corbyn and Labour, it’s very difficult to position yourself as a left force within that framework,” he says.

“I remember going to the riots in Barcelona following the sentencing of the Catalan independence leaders, and you’ld talk to people who had voted Podemos in 2015 and 2016 who were voting instead mainly for Esquerra Republicana [the left pro-independence party] in 2019.”

Given this context, entering coalition government with PSOE may have been seen as an opportunity for renewal, to show the party’s relevance by delivering important reforms, even as a very junior partner which holds none of the top ministries of state. However, two months in, the pandemic struck and the biggest economic crisis in Spain since the civil war began, turning all expectations of what Podemos could expect from a period in office on its head.

Podemos can take some credit for the coalition government delivering extra welfare spending for low-income families (tagged as a ‘basic income scheme’) and a progressive budget with increased taxes on the rich and more social spending. However, add this together and it amounts to a sticking plaster on the gaping wound of the crisis, with Spain’s economy shrinking 12.8 per cent in 2020, youth unemployment jumping to 40%, the highest in the EU, and those below the poverty threshold set to burst through the 10 million mark out of a population of 46 million.

Add in to the mix the possibility of Eurozone enforced austerity returning in a year or two, and junior status in government doesn’t necessarily look like a great place to be standing when the shit hits the fan. Iglesias has sought to talk up a leadership transition to Yolanda Díaz, the party’s Minister of Labour who has replaced Iglesias as Deputy Prime Minister, as part of the reason for his exit from government, but his gamble can at least partly be explained as an attempt to shift the party’s locus away from its governmental status and towards a movement orientation, based around building democratic unity against fascism. The party’s election slogan is “let the majority speak”.

“Podemos are going for this popular front messaging because, although the far-right threat is very serious, they don’t have a set of popular achievements in government to fight on,” Gilmartin argues.

‘Los Indignados’ and the future of Europe’s anti-austerity left parties

The Madrid election also happens to coincide with the tenth anniversary of ‘Los Indignados’, the huge movement which saw squares all over Spain occupied for real democracy and against austerity, rocking the political establishment. Podemos emerged as an electoral expression of the 15M movement, claiming to be ‘beyond left or right’ and promising to rid Spain of its establishment ‘caste’; a politics which had been dominated by two parties, PP and PSOE, both of which had been at the centre of repeated corruption scandals since the post-Franco transition.

Given the party’s positioning today – seeking to build left unity in coalition with PSOE against the far-right – does Podemos still represents an anti-establishment force?

“I interviewed Iglesias before Christmas and he said: ‘Politics is about occupying the available terrain’,” Gilmartin says. “The initial terminology of Podemos was fit for a very specific conjectural moment that wasn’t going to last. The left populist rhetoric – ‘la casta’, ‘beyond left and right’ – that worked in a very specific moment of anti-establishment, anti-austerity rage, but it was never sustainable.”

15-M and the other movements which emerged across the continent in response to the Eurozone crisis was the beginning of a new anti-austerity left which was suddenly competitive electorally in Spain (Podemos), Greece (Syriza), Portugal (Left Bloc), Germany (Die Linke), and France (the Left Front, and then France Insoumise). The first major blow to the anti-austerity left parties was the disaster of the Syriza Government in 2015, which capitulated to the Troika and became a conventional party of social liberalism over night. For its deference, Syriza were booted out by the old right-wing establishment party, New Democracy, in 2019.

Follow the electoral performance of the anti-austerity left parties and generally one can see a curve shape, rising up to roughly the middle of the 2010s and then declining thereafter. In the case of Podemos, PSOE has recovered some of its lost support following the financial crisis in the centre and south of the country, while in the northern peripheral nations Podemos has shedded support to the pro-independence left, whether it be Esquerra Republicana and CUP in Catalonia, EH Bildu in the Basque Country or BNG in Galicia.

Podemos has undoubtedly been one of the most successful new left parties to emerge this century, but – ten years after Los Indignados – it finds itself squeezed on all sides, and in a battle to prove its relevance.

First they take Madrid?

Is Podemos’ new political space to be found in anti-fascism? Certainly, the threat posed by Vox, and the radicalising effect of that party on the PP, has been Iglesias’ public justification for his entry into the Madrid election.

Juan Carlos Monedero, a Podemos founder and regular media commentator, has said that there is a real “danger” presented by Vox’s “21st century fascism”, and “not arriving too late” is essential if Podemos is to effectively confront them in Madrid.

“They have universities and colleges, since the private predominates over the public,” Monedero said. “Also, they have solid support from the audiovisual media and from all the newspapers except El País.”

Vox’s rise has been rapid, going from 0.2% of the vote in the 2016 General Election to 15% in 2019, becoming the third party in Spain. Vox has also been in a confidence and supply arrangement with PP and Ciudadanos in Andalucia in 2018, and Murcia and Madrid since 2019. Becoming an official coalition partner in Madrid would be a new milestone for the neo-Francoists.

However, in Madrid at least, there is no sign that the party is keeping up its momentum. It won 8.9% in the last Madrid regional election in 2019, and is now polling between 8-10% for the 4 May election, and that is despite the collapse of centre-right Ciudadanos in that time, who’s vote has largely gone to PP.

And even if a PP-Vox coalition does come to fruition in Madrid, it would be a mistake to assume that could be replicated in a General Election. It is currently very difficult to see an electoral route for PP and Vox to the 176 seats needed for a majority in the Spanish ‘Cortes’, not least because they would need to expand their support in the Basque Country and Catalonia substantially, which looks like a long-shot for now.

The community of Madrid, which takes in the capital and its surrounding areas, is the wealthiest in Spain, and is by no means a bellwether for Spanish politics as a whole. PP’s dominance in the city has been based on its dedicated support among the region’s wealthiest citizens and the high abstention rates among the poorest.

“Vox and PP win enormously among the wealthiest 30% of voters in Madrid,” Gilmartin says. “Their lead among the top 10% of voters in terms of income cancels out the left’s lead among the bottom 40%. Those figures tell you it is as much about the left’s weakness in working class districts as the right’s strengths.”

In the long run, delivering the transformation Madrid and Spain desperately needs to overcome the fragmentation and despair which Vox thrives on may be the most effective anti-fascist strategy. If the PSOE-Podemos coalition government fail to make best use of their time in power, they will only have themselves to blame if voters don’t turn out for them in 2023.

Whether left or right win on 4 May, Spain’s era of political turbulence and polarisation has many chapters still unwritten.

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  1. Jim Bennett says:

    Very good article. Thanks!

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