December 2015        

Anti-austerity zaps Spain’s one-party rule

Tomás Mac Síomóin

When Spain’s voters go to the polls on 20 December they will end the country’s two-party monopoly on power. The ruling neo-liberal People’s Party (PP) has alternated in government with the now equally neo-liberal Spanish Socialist Labour Party (PSOE) since the country emerged from the Franco dictatorship in 1978.
     But opinion polls show that neither of these parties can form the next government without forming an electoral pact with one of two new left and right political formations. Reflecting growing disenchantment with the establishment parties, these are expected to get 2 million more votes than the PP.
     The left-wing Podemos (“We can”) and the right-wing Ciudadanos (“Citizens”) were spawned by Spain’s Troika-induced socio-economic crisis. Galloping poverty, the EU’s highest unemployment rate (23 per cent; for youth 55 per cent), crumbling social services, precarious employment, evictions, emigration and galloping privatisation brought millions of protesters onto the streets. Podemos, allied with citizens’ action committees in such cities as Valencia and Barcelona, will gain roughly the same number of votes as either the PP or the PSOE, though a far smaller number of seats, because of the rural, hence conservative, bias of Spain’s electoral system.
     The electoral law that embodies this anti-democratic bias was introduced in the dying days of the Franco dictatorship to suppress the Communist Party, with its urban working-class base. Thus, for example, 49,000 votes elect a single parliamentary deputy in Barcelona but only 21,000 votes will elect a deputy in the mainly rural western Catalan electoral district of Lleida.
     Podemos, with its support among the urban youth and a strong anti-austerity programme, emerged from the massive popular mobilisations all over Spain in 2014. Earlier opinion polls predicted that it would win the coming national elections, or be dominant in a coalition government with the PSOE. This possibility so frightened Spain’s ruling caste of bankers, business and media moguls—tired of PP’s corruption and dithering on the Catalan question—that it called openly for a “right-wing Podemos.”
     Accordingly, they drummed up the support of Spain’s notoriously partisan mass media for Ciudadanos, originally a small right-wing anti-Catalan party (with deputies in the Catalan parliament) but now covering all of Spain, capturing 2 million disenchanted PP voters. 1.14 million of the latter say they won’t even vote. The PP lost more than 4 million mainly young voters during the last four years of its legislature.
     The PSOE haemorrhaged 1½ million voters to Podemos and 800,000 to Ciudadanos—surprisingly, given the antipathy of Ciudadanos to socialism. Some commentators claim that the old left-right divide has been superseded by a young-old one. Thus, 280,000 young conservative voters have even opted for Podemos, the complete antithesis of the PP.
     The upshot of all of this is that the PP and PSOE between them are likely to lose a third of the seats they hold in the present Congress, thanks to the loss of 7.1 million of their former supporters. The PP will win 121 seats, leaving it short of the 175 necessary to form a majority government. It will therefore need a coalition partner.
     The two emerging parties will gain 9 million votes—35 per cent of the expected participation. Ciudadanos seems likely to gain 200,000 votes more than the PSOE, although the latter will gain six seats more (76 to 70). Podemos will gain 4 million votes, though winning only 46 seats, once again because of the rural bias of Spain’s electoral system.
     So, who will do a deal with whom? A majority of voters favour a PSOE-Podemos coalition. But, according to the latest projections, such a pairing could only offer a politically unstable minority government. A PP-Ciudadanos partnership therefore seems more likely. Such a “carnival of reaction” is unlikely to be upstaged by a PSOE-Ciudadanos pact, not because of ideological incompatibility but because it would result once again in a minority government. A PP-PSOE coalition is as likely as a pairing of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in Ireland.
     A necessary caveat here is that these projections are based on the results of opinion polls that have been fallible in the past. No opinion poll predicted the election of five Podemos members to the EU Parliament in last year’s elections, for example.
     Podemos’s failure to hold the wide support it had earlier this year is partly due to media slander of the party’s leaders, based on proven falsehoods. But some thrown mud always sticks. Yannis Varoufakis opined recently in Barcelona that Podemos’s enthusiastic support for SYRIZA damaged the latter: Greek hardship was presented by Spanish state television as a foretaste of a Spain ruled by Podemos. The ploy (well known in Ireland) of frightening the populace with chaos if it bucked the official line is used freely here to combat the “red menace” of Podemos.
     The challenge for Podemos coming up to the election will be to find media outlets for the formidable communicative talents of its leadership. State television, to shut out political dissent, confines its pre-election debates to the leaders of the PP and the PSOE.
     The fortieth anniversary of the death of Franco was recently commemorated by Masses all over Spain. The ghost of the dictator has still to be laid to rest.

■ Footnote to last month’s article on the Catalan elections: The parliamentary majority of independista parties, the radical anti-EU CUP and the neo-liberal pro-EU Junts, have failed so far to come up with a joint programme for government. They have until 10 January to do so. In the now likely event of their failure to agree, new elections will have to be called.

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