By Tom Gill
Spaniards face a deepening of anti-working class policies following the historic defeat of the ruling Socialists – unless the May 15 protests that have erupted across the country can help build a progressive majority for an alternative.
The local and regional elections results were the worse for the socialists since the return to democracy in the late 1970s. The right-wing Popular Party swept into power in town halls and regional governments across the country, setting the stage for a similar outcome in general elections next Spring.
That the Socialists were going to take a hammering in the polls was expected. But the scale of the losses was not. The socialists lost 9 points, falling to 28% share of the vote. They lost 9 of the 10 regional governments that were under their control, and all the main cities – Seville, San Sebastian and Barcelona.
The Popular Party was the main beneficiary. But the figures do not reveal any great endorsement of a party that has identical policies with regard to Spain’s economic crisis. With 37% share of the vote, the Popular Party gained just 2 percentage points, or 400,000 votes, on the 2007 elections.
Rather, voters were punishing Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Socialists: for the Euros 15 billion austerity programme; for the cuts to civil servants wages by 5-15 %; for the rise in retirement age; and above all unemployment of 23%, rising to 44% among the under 25s.
While they were clearly hoping for better, after a decade of decline, Communist led United Left increased their share of the vote from 5.4% to 6.3%. This represents a gain of 200,000 votes. They too had its share of blows – losing power in “red” bastion of Cordoba, where they had ruled together with the Socialists since the early 1980s. Their position in Asturias and Extremadura is also under threat.
But for United left leader Cayo Lara the results confirmed the party as the third force in the country. The downward trend in IU electoral fortunes were over, he declared. This is perhaps wishful thinking.
But what the elections also delivered was the rise of progressive, regionalist parties – and the extreme right.
The Catalan nationalist movement Popular Unity Candidates increased support in the wealthy region in the north west of the country from 18,000 to 62,000 votes. With 25% of the vote, the new Basque separatist party Bildu also got a lift after a troubled start involving a ban (later lifted) by the Supreme Court due to their alleged ties to Batasuna, the alleged political wing of ETA.
The Spanish Falange and Spanish Alternative saw gains of some 11,000 votes. Spain 2000 garnered 14,000 votes, allowing it to enter the Valencia parliament. And the xenophobic Platform for Catalonia gained 65,000 votes and a presence in the “red belt” of working class neighbourhoods in Barcelona.
Despite the beating they took the Socialists are showing o signs of a policy rethink. The post-election internal debate this week is all about personalities. Well ahead of the election Zapatero made clear he would not stand again. The front-runners represent no change in their policies of kowtowing to financial markets, the IMF and European Union.
But what of the May 15 protest movement, so named after the day on 15 May it was launched? Debates continue as to the nature and significance of it, although what is clear Spain has never seen anything like it.
Organised using online social networks, young people invaded in their tens of thousands the central squares of cities across Spain in the days up to the elections.
The movement was undoubtedly sparked by anger at Spain’s massive youth unemployment. Related issues of social justice were clearly also on the minds of los indignados (the angry ones). But so was an exasperation with the political system: many have been calling for electoral reform to break the hold of the Socialists and Popular Party who are seen as corrupt and distant from ordinary people’s needs.
The movement’s attitude could be summed up by a “plague on all their houses” and there were calls for voters to cast spoiled or blank votes. These did increase –from 3..1% to 4.3%. And some have argued that if this choice were a party, it would be the fourth largest force.
The hard-core of the indignados are clearly on the left, including disaffected (and would be) socialist voters and activists in anti-globalisation groups. But the movement has attracted a real mix of people, including pensioners, and the sheer numbers of young people involved means many involved are only just now forming their political beliefs.
Where the movement is heading is unclear. Eleven days on, the occupation of Madrid’s Puerta del Sol continues, as do protests in dozens of cities around the country.
For now, there is popular support for it. One poll during the “day of reflection” ahead of the elections showed that 70 percent of people were in favour of the camp in the Spanish capital. According to one report 200,000 have now signed a petition pledging their support for the indignados.
The anti-political nature of the movement (any banner with the logo of political parties or political groups is not allowed in the Puerto del Sol) may have been a key to its genesis, but it will soon prove a weakness. So will a continued vagueness about what it wants, although there is no shortage of debates.
Until the “Spanish Revolution” of the noughties erupted onto the scene, it was the United Left and the trade unions who were leading the opposition to IMF/EU inspired austerity policies. So how these traditional bulwarks of popular resistance relate and interact with the movement will clearly be very important.
Trade union central Comisiones Obreras has welcomed the movement as a “sign of health society” that refuses to be cowed by the brutal political response to the country’s economic woes. In a statement it declared “the struggles of workers against job losses, factory closures, fair wages, better conditions and quality public services as inseparable from those fighting unemployment and a better future for the younger generations”.
United Left leader Cayo Lara has characterised the movement as a “peaceful rebellion that has identified the oppressors”. Visiting central Malaga on the eve of the elections, he told one inquisitive indignado:
“Today popular sovereignty is in the hands of the bankers, people who are not elected by the people. They have stolen democracy from us because we have had servile governments who have weakened the State.”
And he added, as he addressed the assembled youths. “You will change the course of history.”
A better future for millions of ordinary Spaniards may well depend on it.