The three most significant results of the European elections in Spain are: the emergence of a broad indignant and transforming electorate; the failure of the socialist party system that has garnered the worst result in its history; the decline of electoral support for the Right. The three phenomena are linked. On the one hand, they demonstrate a massive rejection of the policies of austerity and welfare cuts, mass unemployment, the unequal burden of the crisis, as well as antisocial and dictatorial rule of the elites. On the other hand, they confirm the growth of an electorate to the left of the Socialist Party (PSOE), which opposes the regressive dynamic and demands a more just social and economic policy and the democratization of the political system. The decline of bipartisanship – of PSOE and the conservative Popular Party (PP)- is combined with the strengthening of alternative forces of the left.
The exhaustion of two party rule and a new alternative pole
Since the European elections of 2009, that is, in the last five years of the unpopular and authoritarian socio-economic and political crisis management (first by PSOE and after and in a much harsher fashion by PP ) the two ruling parties have lost more than five million votes (more than 2.5 million each and with similar turn-outs ); between them they have gone from 80% of the vote to less than 50 % (four million votes for the PP and just over three and a half million for PSOE). They still represent about half of the electoral vote, but it is clearly positive to see the consolidation of a broad popular disaffection with the ruling class and its policy of cuts.
The decline in public support is even more significant with PSOE which has lost more than 40 % of its electorate. If in the general election of 2011 it lost ten points over 2009, and many felt it could go no lower, it has now fallen back five points (and a million votes ) to 23%, without knowing whether this latest result will be the worst.
By contrast, the indignant and transforming electorate has exceeded three million votes: 1.56 million for the Plural Left – United Left (IU), Initiative for Catalonia (ICV), Anova (Galician branch of IU), Batzarre (Navarra) etc – ; 1.24 million for Podemos (We Can), and European Spring (Equo, Chunta Compromís Aragonese) 300,000. Together this is about 20% of the total. If to this we add left nationalist bloc (ERC – Catalan, Basque – BILDU, Aralar, EA- and – Galician – BNG), we get about another million, so the sum is four million (26 %), similar to the votes of the PP (26 %) and more than the PSOE (23%). This electorate to the left of social democracy is fragmented, particularly between these two parts; however, there have been experiences of partial agreements including the left nationalist parties of Catalonia, Galicia and Navarra. We’ll come back to the challenge to its unity and consolidation. Now we’ll analyze its structure and its impact.
The relevant issue that has been expressed in this electoral process is the tremendous growth of this critical constituency, not only defensive but also with a definite progressive project for profound change. In this sense, the election results point to a significant political and institutional transformation, in particular, in the configuration of the left, a reorientation of socioeconomic policies and a profound democratization of the political system.
It is a historic event. For the first time in Spain, throughout the democratic period, the political forces on the left of social democracy outweigh it in electoral support, and cease to be subordinate to its hegemony. The two dynamics are parallel: delegitimization and decreased representative capacity of the socialist elite; citizen endorsement of a set of various socio-political groups on the left of social democracy, first of social and civic legitimacy and then as direct political representatives. That is, along with the decline of the conservative right, there has been a shift to the left of the electorate, strengthening an important alternative pole of similar political representation (but greater social legitimacy) to traditional social democracy. This process has been forged during these five years, through civic outrage against the serious and unfair consequences of the socioeconomic crisis, the popular struggle against the social, economic and political regression promoted by both ruling elites and citizen assertion of democratic, social and labour rights.
The hardest thing has been to bring together the outraged social current and the socially progressive dynamic of protest. This dynamic and the socio-political protagonists who promoted it have helped shape a social space that rejects this regressive dynamic, and that has opted for deep socio-economic and political change. These past four years have seen – with ups and downs- large, unitary, heterogeneous and visible social mobilisations involving a range of social and activist groups. The persistence and consistency of this broad popular movement, of progressive orientation in socioeconomic terms and democratising in political terms was clear. It remained a mystery how it would translate into the political- electoral field, with both camps obeying and conditioned by different mechanisms. The general elections of November 2011 constituted a first warning: wide disaffection with the socialist party and an increased vote for United Left (as well as a rise in abstention and blank votes). Now a second step has crystallized in terms of the electoral and institutional impact, with a clear, though still divided and emerging, alternative political pole.
The strategic continuity of the socialist system is a dead end
Two negative phenomena persist. On the one hand, economic adjustment plans, the attacks on labour and other rights, perpetrated by the Right, and a perspective that looks to perpetuate the crisis, under a politically conservative management and directed outcomes. On the other hand, the continuity of the strategy (old and probably new) of the socialist apparatus, which we will now discuss.
The absence of self-criticism within the socialist leadership for their anti-social policies and the failure of their social and democratic commitments, their continued co-responsibility for aspects of government, a simply rhetorical change in language, the hope that all will be solved with better ‘communication’ while they maintain their subordination to the European consensus on austerity and the interests of the establishment, have undermined the credibility of its strategy to maintain and rebuild its electorate. The socialists have distanced themselves even more from society. This fuzzy project has deepened the loss of legitimacy and public confidence. The majority of its social and electoral social base was progressive and leftist. But its more recent government experience, its strategy on socio-economic and employment matters, and its disregard for social commitments and democratic values, can be described as ‘right-wing’ and highlight a great democratic deficit (authoritarian), and the leadership [former minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba replaced PM José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero after the socialists debacle in the November 2011 elections] have not questioned it. Citizen distrust the socialist leaders.
The Socialist leadership has a tough dilemma. In the face of the European election debacle an immediate response must be to renew the leadership team. It is essential but insufficient. They not only need new faces, people not directly contaminated by experience in the last Zapatero government. That would change something, but not the essential. The key is to recognize their responsibility for the wrong strategy and the failure of superficial attempts to rebrand these wrong policies instead of changing them. There is no sign, in the internal debate about the extraordinary congress and primaries for a new leadership, about the need for a strong change of political strategy and approach to alliances that is more social and democratic and collaborative with groups to its left, to end the conservative hegemony and the plans of the Troika. What we see is yet another cosmetic operation with a new leadership, with new promises and rhetorical face-lift, but essentially pursuing the same old politics: agreeing with the Right the overarching policies of neo-liberal crisis management and institutional stability, in accordance with the consensus among European social democrats and conservatives.
If the new socialist leadership chooses continuity of the neoliberal political strategy, they risk exacerbating alienation from PSOE’s progressive social base, like their French – or Greek colleagues (perhaps hoping that centrist support for the PP will reduce, so it can absorb it, in the fashion of Italy’s Democrats). That logic would be an impediment to ensure substantial institutional change in the short term, but at the same time, deepen their decline. The alternation between the two ruling parties is increasingly irrelevant, undifferentiated, while the ‘alternative’ to the left has greater traction, and is one in which part of the current socialism could and should play a positive role. The PSOE has ceased to be the main or majority opposition and institutional alternative of reference. In the best case scenario it could sit on the fence, retain a significant electorate and condition the pace and conditions of political change. But, it should recognise the indignados’ policies and representatives for their success in creating an alternative pole on the left. This would be a democratic gesture that, at least for now, hasn’t materialised and indeed the socialists are doing the opposite, seeking to delegitimize it instead.
Political- institutional opportunity
The sections of Spanish society disaffected with the political leaders of the Socialist Party and its politics have joined with another indignant social block, particularly the youth, which has matured in recent years but has lacked representatives in Spain’s political and – institutional system. Disaffection with the political class has not lea to political action, but rather a critique of the undemocratic ruling elite, the reaffirmation of social protest to change things and also to facilitate another sort of political representation, consistent with the basic objectives of political democratization and socio-economic rupture. This has now come to pass. On the one hand, two and a half votes million less votes for the Socialist Party; on the other a million more for the [United Left led] Plural Left and 1.24 million for Podemos.
Most striking was the broad support for this new political force. Podemos was able and assured in its political messages and its choice of candidates – innovative, participatory and with good communication skills to connect with that part of the indignant citizenry and to provide it with a political voice in this election. It is a great achievement to have managed to be a channel of political expression of civic resistance to austerity and at the same time the demand for democratisation. Achieving national recognition for its institutional and representative work goes hand in hand with maintaining autonomy and strengthening the social mobilization that is the basis of its legitimacy.
Compared to forecasts from various opinion polls, the whole vote for these two left alternative groups has increased. But above all, the most surprising thing has been that both are now at more or less an even level (six vs five MEPs) when the expectations raised in the best of each case suggested a greater proportion of European seats to the Plural Left (eight to three). The blow to the leadership of United Left – most pronounced in emblematic places like Madrid and Asturias where Podemos overtook them – should lead to a profound reflection on political and organizational weaknesses as well as the way they go about alliances, on why they have failed to obtain the trust of a larger segment of the populous that is antagonistic to the powers that be. Its greater political weight and organizational structure make it a cornerstone to form, respecting the plurality of different alternative forces and with a refined democratic approach, stronger local convergence and roots.
For the nucleus of people promoting Podemos and its associated base, its success demands an important new responsibility. The challenges are immense and the really difficult and complex ones start now. Leaving aside the essential collective challenge, in the socio-political sphere, to consolidate the people’s movement with the support of the majority of society around a progressive and democratic solution to the crisis, the question is how it much position itself in the electoral and political sphere to achieve a deep institutional change that closes this era and builds a more advanced and more egalitarian democracy.
Its immediate challenges, are at least threefold: first, to deepen its basic programme for an alternative to austerity, cuts and social and democratic regression, as a reference to the aspirations of the mobilised citizenship; second, rooting the project and its political leadership among the indignant population, strengthening civic society associations and democratic participation, and establishing relationships, partnerships and unified initiatives; Third, build the organizational tools, that are at increasingly complex yet functional, transparent and democratic.
The indignant social base was built from scratch at a social level; a significant part of it has been added to Plural Left electorally and an almost equal proportion has sought political representation through Podemos. Now, the two political movements must assume the challenge and continue to earn their support and extend it to the majority of society, along with other alternative forces. And together defeat the powers that be and ensure concrete progress towards a more just social democracy with a full and inclusive social citizenship, and a new regional balance. This will be no small feat but the opportunity to achieve this has presented itself for the first time in Spain since the end of dictatorship.
Thus, the immediate outlook is the reaffirmation of the left and progressive forces and the eviction of the Right in the next local and regional elections, particularly in the conservative strongholds, most marked by corruption, such as Madrid, Valencia and Navarre. And then remove the Right in general elections (in 2015), ensuring progressive political change, boosting socio-economic equality, democratizing Spain’s political institutions and a relationship with the European Union that is more supportive and respectful of Spain and the ‘periphery’ .
*Antonio Antón, Honorary Professor of Sociology, Autonomous University of Madrid
Translation by Revolting Europe