Elections in Spain: Podemos falters, right regaining control

Dos Hermanas (Sevilla), Andalusia, Spain, 21 March, 2015: Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos at a rally accompanying to Teresa Rogriguez, candidate of the Podemos in the elections of Andalusia in velodrome of Dos Hermanas, last act of the election campaign in elections Andalusian.
Rally of Podemos in Dos Hermanas, Andalusia (Spain), with Pablo
Dos Hermanas (Sevilla), Andalusia, Spain, 21 March, 2015: Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos at a rally accompanying to Teresa Rogriguez, candidate of the Podemos in the elections of Andalusia in velodrome of Dos Hermanas, last act of the election campaign in elections Andalusian.


The political revolution has been postponed. For the second time in six months Spanish voters went to the polls to vote in national elections on June 26. The big winner was the hard right and the biggest loser was the new left-populist party Podemos.

An earlier election held on Dec. 20 resulted in the breakdown of the historic two-plus party system. In all, 350 seats were up for grabs in the parliament, 176 (half plus one) are needed to form a government.

The hard-right Popular Party (Partido Popular, or PP) won 137 seats. The Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE, in its Spanish abbreviation), a center-left social democratic party, won 85. Podemos (which means “we can” in Spanish), in coalition with the Communist Party of Spain, won only 71 seats. A fourth major party, the newly formed right-wing party Ciudadanos (which means “citizens” in Spanish), gained 32 seats.

Since the Dec. 20 elections Spain has been without a government. When negotiations broke down to form a coalition government, the king was required by the constitution to call new elections.

The big winner in the June 26 election was the hard-right PP, which increased its previous share of seats from 123 to 137. The PP and its head Mariano Rajoy continue as the acting government.

On Aug.10 the PP and Ciudadanos reached a significant agreement. Ciudadanos agreed that if the PP adopted a six point reform package, Ciudadanos would support the PP in its bid to form a minority government—that is, Ciudadanos would not form a coalition with the PP but would vote for Rajoy in order to form a government. The agreement contains six conditions, including campaign finance reform and the expulsion from the government and PP of those leaders who have been convicted or charged with corruption. The agreement must now be submitted to the PP’s executive committee for approval

Together the PP and Ciudadanos control 169 seats, seven short of the 176 needed to form a government. The PP could gain these votes from small regional parties. Alternatively, the formation of a government could take place with two rounds of voting. On the first round, if a party or coalition does not achieve 176 votes a second vote can take place. On the second round, a simple majority of those voting is needed to form a government.

The PP is pressuring the Socialists to abstain from the second vote.  If the PSOE does abstain, the PP and Ciudadanos will have more than enough votes to form a minority government.

All political parties in Spain are feeling pressure from the EU to form a government and pass a budget.  The EU has given Spain until Oct. 15 to adopt a budget that meets with the EU austerity policies. The Socialists announced on Aug. 11 in El Pais, one of the leading papers in Spain, that they would not give in to the PP pressure and would vote “no” on all votes. Acquiescing to the PP’s demands would be political suicide for the Socialists, who would lose a large number of activists and voters to Podemos.

Over all, the left and center-left are again on the defensive, and the right, although weakened, is regaining control.

Podemos loses ground

The big losers were the left and center-left parties, especially the left-populist Podemos. Prior to the June 26 elections, Podemos formed a coalition political slate with the United Left (Izquierda Unida), made up of the Communist Party of Spain and several other tiny left parties and running under the name Unidos Podemos (“United we can” in Spanish). Unidos Podemos received 1 million fewer votes in this election than the combined Podemos/United Left vote in the December election and the number of seats they held dropped from 71 to 69. The Spanish Socialist Workers Party also lost seats, going from 90 seats in the December elections to 85 seats.

The loss was especially disappointing for Podemos. Early polls showed that Unidos Podemos was poised to replace the Spanish Socialist Workers Party as one of the two top parties in the country. Pablo Iglesias, the head of Podemos and one of its founding leaders, has called for a political revolution to replace the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, which in the last several decades has moved increasingly to the right, as one of the two major parties.

The capitalist press greeted the Podemos loss with relief. The Economist entitled their 2 July report “Revolution Cancelled.” The New York Times reported that Podemos “was stopped in its tracks in Sunday’s vote” (June 28, 2016, p. A8).

Since the transition to democracy from the Franco dictatorship in 1978, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party and the Popular Party have alternated in power, sometimes ruling by themselves and sometimes ruling in coalition with other smaller national or regional parties. The Socialists governed from 1982 to 1996 and from 2004 to 2008. The Popular Party governed from 1996 to 2004 and from 2008 to 2016. This two-plus party system, the PP and the Socialists, along with smaller regional parties and the United Left, broke in late 2015 with the emergence of two large rival national parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos.

Podemos was formed by a group of activists around Pablo Iglesias (most of whom were former members of the Communist Party) and members of the Anticapitalist Left (“Izquierda Anticapitalista” in Spanish), a revolutionary socialist group affiliated with the Fourth International. Podemos was formed officially in early 2014 and won a surprising 1.2 million votes and five seats in the European Parliament in the May 2014 elections.

In the general elections of Dec. 20, Podemos emerged as a third major party and a real competitor to the Socialists on the left. While Podemos is clearly led and founded by activists from the far left, much of its platform is based on a populist anti-austerity program.

Ciudadanos was originally formed as a small regional party but became a national party in 2015 as an alternative to the PP, which was mired in bribery and corruption scandals. Ciudadanos presented itself as an anti-corruption capitalist party that was slightly more liberal on social issues such as divorce and gay rights.  In December 2016 Ciudadanos won 40 seats, making it the fourth major party.

The political revolution that Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias hoped for is now off the table, at least for the foreseeable future. Immediately after the election, conflict broke out within Iglesias’ small inner circle over the strategy used in the campaign. Podemos is based on widespread consultation (often through on-line polls and consultation with the circles that form the base of the party, but has very little real democracy and is tightly controlled by the Iglesias group.

But all is not bleak for the party. Podemos-affiliated coalitions still control the mayor’s office in Spain’s two largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona, as well some of the other major cities, a victory that they achieved in the December elections. In addition, Podemos gained the plurality of votes in two regions, Catalonia and the Basque Country.  Both of these regions have strong separatist movements, and Podemos supports holding binding referenda in both regions on the question of independence from the Spanish state.

The failure of Podemos is not just electoral, but political. Iglesias and his clique have rejected Marxism and revolution for a populist political revolution in which Podemos seeks to replace the PSOE as one of the two ruling parties in Spain. They have criticized the European Central Bank, the IMF, and the EU as an undemocratic Troika (their term) but have adopted a Keynsian and populist political program little different from that of Obama or Hillary Clinton. There are some important differences, of course, such as the question of the right of self-determination for Catalonia, which Podemos currently supports, but here too they vacillate frequently.

The relationship between the Iglesias group and Izquierda Anticapitalista (IA) is also instructive. Podemos was formed as a joint project of these two groups, and their first political campaign was announced at a press conference. The initial success of Podemos in the European Parliament elections in May 2014 in which Podemos earned 1.2 million votes and gained five seats (all on a budget of less than 150,000 euros) caused a crisis in IA, with some key activists leaving IA for the Iglesia group.

Then in October 2014, in Podemos’ first public “encounter-assembly,” the group adopted a program and structure based on the Iglesias group and rejected a proposal by leaders of IA. This program and structure created a top-down electoral campaign vehicle instead of a political party based on and controlled by mass movements.

This defeat deepened the crisis in IA, which now had to decide whether to leave Podemos or dissolve itself into a party that does not allow organized political currents. IA chose to dissolve itself as an organized political current, although it still maintains some organizational structure. IA also expelled those members who opposed the dissolution. The relationship between the Iglesias group and IA demonstrates how undemocratic Podemos is and how like a traditional capitalist political party it is. One consequence is that party membership, always loosely defined, seems to have dropped by 50% in the last year.

Repercussions from Brexit

The events in Spain were also shaped by the Brexit vote held in the United Kingdom three days earlier. Polls showed that a number of Ciudadanos voters switched back to the Popular Party after the vote, in part because of fears of a Podemos victory. In addition, the Popular Party has stated publicly that it opposes Scotland’s entry into the EU, for fear of setting a legal or historical precedent for Catalonia and the Basque Country. Decisions on admissions to the EU are based on consensus and one EU member can block the admission of a new member. If Scotland does vote for independence from the United Kingdom and seeks admission to the EU, it remains to be seen whether the Popular Party (assuming it is in control of the government) can resist pressure from Germany and France to allow Scotland to join.

If the PP cannot form a new government, the king will turn to the PSOE and ask them to try. Should they fail, Spain may soon face a third national election within one year.

But “it ain’t over till it’s over,” as the great Yogi Berra once said. Spain is still suffering from over 20 percent unemployment and harsh austerity imposed by the Popular Party and the EU. At the same time, strong social movements and unions are struggling for a better world.                                                                                            n

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