Brian O’Leary reports on a narrow victory for Spain’s Socialist Party with separatist and economic challenges facing the coalition
In the general election in last November the Socialist Party (PSOE) again became the largest party and has finally agreed to form a coalition government with the left radical grouping Unidas Podemos (UP). However as they are still only the largest minority block in the Parliament they need the support or abstention of smaller, mainly nationalist parties from the autonomous regions, for successful investiture.
In comparison with the May election, after which the PSOE avoided any serious attempt to link up with the UP, both parties have lost ground in their number of seats. On the other hand there has been a realignment and strengthening of the right, with not only a partial recovery of the corruption-ridden conservative Popular Party (PP) but also a doubling of representation for the ultra-conservative racist party Vox, making it the third largest.
What had happened between the two elections to weaken the two main left parties?
The main reason was Catalonia. During the summer the trial for rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds of the separatist leaders of the independence referendum of 2017, forbidden by the Constitution, came to a conclusion in the Constitutional Court. The Catalan President at the time remained on the run in Belgium. Although they were cleared of rebellion, nine were found guilty on other counts and sentenced collectively to a sum total of nearly 100 years in prison. Spain, and indeed Western Europe, now had its first political prisoners in living memory! Unsurprisingly, while independence protesters had always previously been peaceful, now violent confrontations with the riot police erupted.
Pedro Sanchez, the Prime Minister and leader of the PSOE, maintained that the independence of the judiciary and the Constitution itself had to be respected, although he called for dialogue. UP joined in with separatist parties in condemning the outcome and renewing their demands for the right to self-determination. Meanwhile the positions on the right ranged from claims that Sanchez was still too conciliatory and a firmer restoration of law and order was needed, to Vox stoking up extreme nationalist demands to end regional autonomy and freedoms along Francoist lines.
Secondly, Spain experienced mass feminist demonstrations condemning violence against women, domestic and otherwise, and demanding legal changes. High profile rape cases and farcical trials further inflamed belief in the ingrained misogynist nature of Spanish society. Again Vox tried to exploit the situation by calling for the actual repeal of gender violence laws “… that discriminates against one of the sexes”, hoping to co-opt the support of as many macho bigots as possible.
The continued migration crisis in the Mediterranean, with increased landings in Spain itself, was also used by the right to stoke xenophobic fears, including Islamophobia. Sanchez to his credit offered Spain as a safe haven for ships blocked by Salvini.
Then just before the November poll on 24th October, after a legal fight permission was given to exhume and relocate Franco’s body from The Valley of the Fallen, a monstrous granite monument celebrating his Civil War victory. For the PSOE Government and the left, his continued burial there was an affront to democracy. The fascist right was livid and saw it as a moral outrage against their national hero. Beyond them it symbolically stirred unspoken and unresolved memories and anger on both sides in a country that has encoded in law the forgetting of all the crimes of the dictatorship.
Which brings us to the recent election result, with Sanchez undertaking a U-turn by trying to form a left coalition government. The coalition pre-agreement includes laudable aims on the economy, welfare state, environment and citizen rights, but also includes:
- Solutions to the Catalan crisis would have to be sought “within the bounds of the Constitution”;
- Control of public expenditure to ensure fiscal balance.
These are effectively Sanchez’s red lines. Iglesias, leader of Podemos, has agreed to these conditions to enable a coalition as he believes it “will be the best vaccine against the far right”. Nevertheless, there are problems.
The Constitution of 1978 included concessions by the PSOE at the time of the “transition to democracy” to the political remnants of Franco, including the military. Besides the monarchy itself, article 2 guarantees “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”. This remained unchallenged subsequently by the PSOE and is obviously a roadblock to resolving Catalonia. UP, while supporting the right to self-determination, has previously advocated a federal solution. However, now that Vox is attacking the Constitution for conceding devolution and wants the scrapping of all autonomous rights, the left along with the centre-right have pointedly and jointly celebrated its 41st anniversary. It is unlikely that a coalition can succeed in the investiture unless at least the left-leaning ERC Catalan separatist party offers its cooperation, despite the Constitutional straitjacket to its independence and Republican ambitions and the imprisonment of its leader for 13 years.
The Constitution, amended recently by the PP, requires by law that the Euro Area’s Stability and Growth Pact is adhered to. Doing so will constrain Sanchez’s ability to tackle years of austerity and its social and economic consequences.
Once formed, any left government would therefore be walking a tightrope. Survival cannot just rely on precarious parliamentary arithmetic but also on organising, empowering and mobilising the Left’s extra-Parliamentary base.