After the electoral victory of SYRIZA in Greece, the attention of the European left has justly focused on its enormous difficulties in tackling a very unfavourable international conjuncture, as well as the very promising opportunities it opens up. It’s undeniable the room to manoeuvre for the European left has expanded, although setbacks in Greece may become setbacks across the whole Union. It is because of this that the most repeated slogans from the ruling right wing party (PP) as well as the social democrats in opposition (PSOE) is that Spain is not Greece.
What does it mean, however, to say that Spain is not Greece, beyond the obvious? Both countries have a large number of common factors: an unfavourable balance of trade, an underdeveloped industrial sector, a large dependence on tourism, unbearably high rates of debt (public or private), large unemployment, and a developing crisis of legitimacy of all national institutions. In electoral terms, this manifested in Greece in the sinking of ND and the practical obliteration of PASOK as a parliamentary force, but also to some extent the losses for KKE and LAOS, and the appearance of new parties like SYRIZA and Golden Dawn. In Spain, we haven’t run a general election since 2011, and so our data are not as good, but judging from the European Parliament elections last year, the situation looks somewhat similar: big losses for the right’s PP, even bigger losses for PSOE, and Podemos rising as a genuine competitor to the traditional party duopoly. At the time of the EU elections, United Left (IU) also enjoyed very significant gains, but if we are to judge by later electoral surveys, these gains are unlikely to be maintained.
There are, undoubtedly, other aspects in which Spain and Greece are not so similar. The damage caused by Greece’s austerity, both in human and economic terms, was much worse. Likewise, Greece has certain international disputes which have been thought to require large military expenses. Critically, Spain avoided a complete intervention of its economy in the form it took place in Greece, restricting instead its borrowing of EU funds to the banking sector. Nevertheless, it is clear to everyone, whether they want to acknowledge it or not, that Greece and SYRIZA’s victory are a mirror wherein many see their potential future, whether as a promise or as a threat.
This year several electoral processes will take place in Spain. Municipal elections some time in May, regional elections in Andalucía (March) and Cataluña (September), and general elections towards the end of the year.
The municipal elections come on schedule, and will be a significant test of strength of the ruling right wing party (PP) inasmuch as Spanish politics have been filled with corruption scandals, mostly related to the local administration, the system of land planning, real estate developers, and private contractors. A large number of PP-ruled municipalities will be affected by these cases, which are mostly though not exclusively attributable to PP mayors and council members and their upright friends in private enterprises. Aditionally, even though municipal elections are not likely to turn around national issues, they do take place on the whole country, and will be at least somewhat indicative of the actual level of dissatisfaction of the electorate with the two largest parties. PODEMOS will not run on municipal elections, due to tactical reasons, but ad hoc lists with an affinity for it will, and hence we won’t get proper data on the acceptability of PODEMOS, but they will be better than we have now.
The elections in Andalucía come as a result of a breach of a coalition of the social democrats (PSOE) and United Left (IU). The immediate cause was a referendum run by the base of IU whereby they agreed to withdraw support for the coalition if certain commitments agreed on the coalition’s programme were not fulfilled by a certain date. The PSOE, which was pleased to regard this decision to make them accountable as a form of blackmail, claimed that the stability guarantee of the coalition had been breached and new elections had to be called, although IU’s base did at no point withdraw support from it. However, this has been successfully sold as IU being intransigent and an unreliable partner, and the PSOE having to run early elections because of it, and so it may well result in bad electoral results for IU. Whether the PSOE can benefit from it is a different story, however. Just as PP is enmeshed in numberless cases of municipal corruption, and some other cases at the regional level, Andalucía, which has been ruled by PSOE since it regained autonomy in the 80s, also has large corruption cases under investigation. In this instance, public money was used to subsidise workers who were laid off, but some of this money seems to have been funnelled into UGT (a PSOE-affiliated trade union), some private enterprises and employers’ organisations, and possibly some functionaries from the regional government itself.
The situation in Cataluña is even more complicated. After the unsuccessful attempt to run a public consultation on independence, which ended up in a farcical private consultation without democratic guarantees, and after the deadlock in negotiating changes in the distribution of powers and the regional financing system, the forces in favour of independence will attempt to run an election as a plebiscite. If the separatist forces win, we are to believe that the resulting Catalan government will issue a unilateral declaration of independence. The Catalan political map is more complicated than that in most of the other regions of Spain, but it appears the main benefit of this strategy will be captured by Catalan Republican Left, a social democratic nationalist republican formation with roots in the Spanish Second Republic, and a strong assembly tradition. The ruling right wing christian democrats (CiU) are likely to lose due to their internal division (some of the party is opposed to independence), corruption cases, and their lack of clarity and inability to go through with the referendum.
The general elections will determine the immediate future of the country, and resolve whether Spain is or is not Greece, or at least Greece-like. The Centre for Sociological Research (CIS) has published the preliminary survey results for January, which contain all kinds of useful political information. Perhaps one of the most interesting readings of it is that while the vast majority of people consider the political and economic situation to be bad or very bad, there is a reasonable amount of optimism about the coming year. This coincides with a certain demobilisation of protests and contestation of austerity and cuts to public services which began with the irruption of PODEMOS during the Europarl electoral campaign, which is another way that the situation resembles Greece (since SYRIZA was known to be likely to gain power, there has been a relative decrease in social contestation, street protests, and the like).
Another aspect to bear in mind is the electoral system. Greece has the peculiarity that the biggest parliamentary force gets a bonus of 50 seats, which helps in forming majorities when Parliament would otherwise be highly divided. Spain also has mechanisms which tend to consolidate majority formation, but they are grounded on the way the electoral districts operate. Every province in Spain (of which there are 50 plus two autonomous cities) is an electoral district, which by current law has a minimum of 2 seats assigned to it (constitutionally, it could be reduced to one). The remaining seats in Congress are apportioned proportionally to the province’s population. As a result, there are a number of small constituencies where only the two biggest parties have chances to obtain seats. The mechanism of allocating seats is the d’Hondt method (largest quotients) which slightly favours large parties. Blank ballots are counted, which increase the hidden threshold to obtain a seat. This system tends to result in very irregular votes per seat ratios in the different parties, favouring either the largest two national parties (PP and PSOE) or the locally strong nationalist parties, and disfavouring all-country smaller parties like IU. This means that a united right wing party gets significantly better parliamentary representation than a split left, even when the latter gets more votes.
As a summary of the Spanish electoral system describes it:
Since the introduction of the electoral system in 1977 to 2011, Spain has held eleven general elections. In each of these, the winning party has been consistently over-represented in Congress; the second largest party has been over-represented as well, although usually in a less pronounced manner than the majority party. The smaller nationwide parties have been consistently under-represented, but some regionalist and nationalist parties have attained representation over the years, often in proportion to their electoral strength.
The reform of the electoral system is a permanent demand from IU, and, lately, a centralist moderate liberal party by the name of Unity, Progress and Democracy (UPyD). For obvious reasons, although the PSOE has often committed to this reform in opposition, it has never seriously worked to carry it out in power.
Because of these considerations, many people were concerned that PODEMOS might fracture the left vote and result in another victory for the right, but it turns out that PODEMOS may well be one of the parties which ends up benefitting from over-representation. The CIS considers PODEMOS likely to be the second largest force, although it is the first in direct intention to vote. The discrepancy comes from the fact that people are not absolutely honest when answering surveys, which necessitates a certain amount of post-processing of the data, which in Spanish we quaintly know as “la cocina” (the cooking). In order to get more reliable results, information about “remembered vote” is used. This is, people are asked whom they are likely to vote for, and whom they voted for before, and if the remembered vote for a given party is over- or understated, this is applied to the forecasting. Of course, a large factor in cooking a survey is the degree to which these adjustments take place, which is rather subjective (priors come from the posterior). PODEMOS has the added difficulty that it has not run in a previous general election, and so the method of remembered voting is particularly unreliable to determine its potential voting pool.
The situation is far worse for IU. Having consolidated its place as a strong third party in the previous Europarl elections, considerably ahead of PODEMOS, it has become apparent that IU cannot be the focus for social dissatisfaction which PODEMOS has become. This inevitably results in a slightly ambivalent attitude on the part of IU, which on one hand would be interested in joining forces with PODEMOS (remember what happens to divided lists under the electoral system), but on the other hand is afraid to be subsumed or even displaced by it. The truth is that it has reasons to be afraid. From the CIS data, the following estimate on the sources of votes for PODEMOS can be made:
|Party||Number of votes|
The obvious lesson from this table is that although in absolute terms PSOE suffers the most losses, in relative terms IU is the worst hit. 40% of IU’s voters switch to PODEMOS, while “only” 26% of PSOE voters do. Inevitably, IU must be wondering about its future. It is difficult to admit that PODEMOS is attracting votes which, with good or bad reasons, IU would never get. It is for example unthinkable that upwards of three quarter million voters from PP would switch their vote to a political force with the word “left” in its name.
Shouldn’t we just be happy that the social movements have found in PODEMOS a way to institutionalise their opposition and become a first-class political force on the edge of gaining power? Is PODEMOS not the Spanish SYRIZA, and IU its KKE, ready for disposal? I think not. To begin with, SYRIZA is an enduring political force, which has a considerable experience behind it, first as a coalition and later as a party. While perhaps not to the same extent as the KKE, it has links to the labour movement, student organisations, and so on; while PODEMOS stands as a floating signifier, not standing for anything much at all. While it’s true they have a left programme, it has been considerably diluted since the previous elections, and they insist on referring to themselves as “neither from the left nor from the right, but from below”. IU, in contrast, has decades of existence, the leadership of a PCE which, unlike the Greek KKE, is willing and able to enter coalitions on the basis of a common programme, and which from my perspective has a far more nuanced and precise handle on the political-economic situation in the country. The PODEMOS leadership come, from the most, from an academic and social movements perspective, while the IU and PCE cadre have a materialist analysis. The best one can say for PODEMOS’ economic programme is that it’s a left keynesian attempt to solve the manifest absence of aggregate demand and industrial fabric in the country. However, one would have serious reservations about PODEMOS forming a cabinet alone (and let us remember Spain has never had a coalition government since the democratic restoration in the 70s) or, even worse, a potential coalition with the PSOE.
IU has its own responsibility. It has not taken PODEMOS seriously enough, and now it clearly lacks a coherent orientation about it. While it will run on a common list with PODEMOS on the municipal elections in Madrid, it refused a common list for the regional elections, resulting in one of its highest profile MPs resigning from the formation and announcing the creation of a “list with a popular base” for the Madrid elections. IU cannot afford these blunders, and if it does not manage to recover political support and link with its natural base in the Spanish working class, students and the unemployed, it will lose all opportunities to direct the future of the country.