Spain’s Electoral Left in Disarray after being Thrashed in May Elections

 

Will Serious Self-Criticism Replace Tantrums and Infighting?

Enrique Saiz analyses the defeats suffered by Spain’s electoral left in last month’s elections, and cautions that we should expect more tantrums and infighting from it, not self-criticism or a renewed project for Spain’s working class.

 


 

by Enrique Saiz
 
 
Spaniards spent the last few months preparing for a series of elections that didn’t spell anything good for the left. The defeats have come in the wake of the irruption of the far right that took place in the autonomous elections of Andalusia last December,[1] where the new, far-right party Vox obtained 12 seats.

In May, Spain went through, first, the General Election (i.e. for the national Government) and the Valencian autonomous elections on May 9th. Then, on May 26th, there were local and European elections, plus those of many autonomous communities such as Andalusia, Catalonia and Valencia. What the left parties didn’t anticipate was that, by the end of the whole series, they would lose control of several governments and experience a level of infighting and internal rivalry not seen for years.

2015 was the year that had brought several left parties to power in various autonomous communities and city halls. The most famous of them, Podemos, was founded by a group of university lecturers in Madrid in 2014 and first experienced its big success in the European Parliament elections of that year, when they obtained five members of the European Parliament. Galvanized by those results, the party started to extend into different autonomous communities and cities, with some observing that it was tapping into the feelings of dissatisfaction with traditional parties that had fueled the previous 15-M/Indignados movement.

Podemos didn’t present a list of candidates in all cities or autonomous communities of 2014, but sometimes chose to try to forge alliances and form specific tickets by gathering together pre-existing parties, movements, organizations or figures. In Madrid, for instance, the ticket was called Ahora Madrid and included several figures from the more leftist-leaning to the more moderately liberal. The results of those elections were uneven, but overall positive. Elections in Madrid and Barcelona, for example, were won by slates of candidates in which Podemos definitely had a hand: Ahora Madrid, whose head was Manuela Carmena, a judge; and Barcelona en Comú, led by Ada Colau, an ex-activist involved in protests against evictions. València, the third largest city in Spain, was in the hands of Compromís, a left-wing pro-Valencian coalition that predated Podemos but had managed to tap into the ferment, from social movements and the 15-M/Indignados wave of protests, that Podemos had benefited from. The government in other cities—A Corunha, Cádiz, etc.—also changed hands.

 
Infighting Among the Electoral Left

But prior to this year’s elections, things were looking different and definitely more sour. The General Elections of 2015 had brought disappointing results for Podemos, which won only 42 seats, a far cry from its expectations of overcoming the PSOE, the main centre-left party in Spain.[2] Several internal confrontations took place in Podemos during the following years, in which two different wings developed. One was led by Pablo Iglesias, the party founder and leading strategist, that claimed it was necessary to again develop a connection with street-level struggles, standing shoulder to shoulder with aggrieved collectives in their protests or strikes. The other, led by Íñigo Errejón, one of the first members of the party, who had directed some of their campaigns, defended the need to adopt more “populist” positions—in line with one of his main influences, Ernesto Laclau (and, allegedly, Antonio Gramsci)—and to try to build a “patriotic” feeling while projecting the image of being good managers of the institutions that Podemos controlled. This, they maintained, would cut through the left-right divide in Spanish society and create a “transversal” vote that would enable them to have the backing of a social majority.

A series of clashes within the party came to light, with defections, criticisms and expulsions. Iglesias seemed to give implicit support to the story published by a Catalan journalist that detailed how Errejón and his clique had conspired to remove him from power in a very cloak-and-dagger fashion, through secret chat groups and manouvering in the dark, only to be discovered due to their comical mistake of leaving an unattended computer logged in to one of the chat groups where all the Gramscian geniuses debated the best way to get rid of Iglesias. It was inevitable that push came to shove in 2017 in the next Podemos assembly (Vistalegre II),[3] when Iglesias and Errejón ran in opposition to one another.  The latter even tried to pull the trick of saying he was only presenting  his own list to the State Citizen Council (the organ which oversees the political leadership of the party), and that he wasn’t contesting Iglesias’ election as General Secretary of the party. The situation was bizarre, as he was, in effect, assuming that if his list won they would assume the political leadership of the party while Iglesias would remain as its visible face (and likely candidate), but Iglesias himself explicitly rejected this option; he even stated that he would quit as General Secretary if his own list to the State Citizen Council didn’t win. Errejón was defeated in that assembly, but Iglesias eventually offered him the possibility of being the candidate for the autonomous community of Madrid.

But a year later, Errejón surprised many by announcing he was running as a candidate for a different party, one formed together with Manuela Carmena, who had become mayor of Madrid. Its name would be Más Madrid (More Madrid). Always the savvy communicator, Errejón chose to announce this when Pablo Iglesias was taking care of his newborn children on a paternity leave and unable to get the spotlight to respond to him. Errejón immediately started building an electoral campaign suited to his tastes, recruiting several ex-members of Podemos (or people that had been close to the party) into it, and bragging about the excellent management that Manuela Carmena had done while in the city hall in Madrid, something he claimed that he wanted to extend to the whole autonomous community.

But of all those electoral campaigns built around more or less leftist positions which had come to power in Spain, it was Manuela Carmena’s that came under the most intense fire from social movements and leftists for bowing down to corporate interests. Several of her more rebellious councillors were expelled during her stint in city hall. Indeed, her insistence of being able to “govern for all,” a slogan with centrist undertones, sounded as if it portrayed power as something neutral, best left to “experts” and technocrats. Her support of “Operación Chamartin” a real estate operation, received much criticism from the left for being totally subservient to big-business interests. Her response was that “those who believe in a world without corporations have no place ruling Madrid.” Several other statements or manoeuvres by her were received with dismay: her support for the Venezuelan coup by Juan Guaidó,[4] the fact that several of her councillors who had been members of Podemos chose to bypass primary elections and instead insisted that they would run on her slate no matter what the primaries said, and her awarding of the keys of the city to the President of Israel. It was no wonder, then, that rival slates sprang up, organized by some of those who initially worked to bring Ahora Madrid and thus Carmena herself to power, such as Madrid en Pie Municipalista (which included Anticapitalistas, the Madrid branch of the Trotskyist wing of Podemos; the United Left in Madrid; and Bancada Municipalista, the name the faction expelled from Ahora Madrid by Carmena had adopted after regrouping).

 
The Thrashing in the General Election and Valencian Election

And then the General and Valencian Elections came. In the General Elections, the PSOE obtained 128 seats, 38 more than in 2015, which represented a healthy recovery from its previous downward trend. Perhaps PSOE’s strong showing was due to the crisis in Podemos or perhaps it was because Pedro Sánchez, the Prime Minister, projected an image of confidence. Perhaps it was due to fear that the far right would grow exponentially after the Andalusian elections and that the only way to stop it was to vote PSOE. And the far-right party, Vox, did grow, entering Congress for the first time with 24 seats. But the crash and burn of the conservative right-wing party, Partido Popular (PP), which lost a whopping 71 seats and was reduced to 66, meant it wouldn’t get to act as kingmakers for a new right-wing government, not even with the support of the pro-capitalist social-liberal Ciudadanos party, which experienced an impressive surge of 25 seats (bringing it to 57). Podemos, on the other hand, was left with 35 seats, 24 fewer than it won in the—remember— disappointing election of 2015.

In València, things looked worrying, if only a bit less so, with a similar trend developing. PSOE-PSPV (the Valencian Country branch of PSOE) increased its representation by 4 seats, to 23, while Compromís lost 2 of its 19 seats and Unides Podem-EUPV (the Valencian branch of Podemos and United Left) lost 5 seats, being reduced to 5. The results for the far-right Vox and the technocratic right-wing Ciudadanos, 10 and 18, were offset by the results of the Valencian PP, which lost 12 seats and ended up with only 19.

València would continue to have a left-wing government under PSOE-PSPV and Compromís, with Unides Podem-EUPV joining them, but negotiations were still underway on the national level, with Pedro Sánchez and PSOE unsure whether to garner support from the Podemos deputies, or from those of or the Ciudadanos, when the local, autonomous and European Parliamentary elections came on May 26. These elections meant that Podemos and its splinter groups (such as Más Madrid) suffered an almost absolute onslaught in most cities and autonomous communities. Unidas Podemos, the slate on which both United Left and Podemos stood for the European Parliament, obtained only the same number of seats that United Left had obtained on its own back in 2014. Madrid, Barcelona, A Corunha and Zaragoza were some of the cities where they obtained disappointing results, especially as compared with previous elections and with expectations. Two big exceptions stand out: in València, the third largest city in Spain, Compromís mayor Joan Ribó increased his share of the vote and was able to offset the collapse of the Podemos slate in the city València en Comú. Ribó and Compromís had apparently been rewarded for staying away from the nightmare of infighting and centrist concessions of other slates. Cádiz was also able to avoid the worst loses of Podemos, and its mayor, Jose María González, a member of the Trotskyist wing of Podemos, will remain as mayor of the city.

Ada Colau wasn’t able to repeat her good results of 2015 this time and was surpassed by the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), a pro-independence party, in the Barcelona local elections. As of this writing, negotiations are still underway, with Ciudadanos, headed in that city by the French ex-Interior Minister Manuel Valls (notorious for sending cops to evict Romani camps in France during his stint in power), offering to allow her to be mayor again, if only to avoid a Catalan pro-independence party holding power in the second-largest city in Spain. This is a poisoned chalice for Colau; although her voters are not as markedly pro-independence as those who support ERC, they also don’t oppose holding an independence referendum and are certainly in full disagreement with Valls and Ciudadanos over a series of other issues. Still, some of her supporters, like Raimundo Viejo, a university lecturer who was ex-councillor with Colau and ex-Congressman with Podemos, and who enjoys tweeting political analyses full of Deleuzian lexicon and influences, has defended the possibility of Colau becoming mayor by means of support from from Valls and Ciudadanos. But while manyPP of her problems might stem from the specific situation in Catalonia, with the independence referendum and the arrest and locking up of several of its leaders very much present in the political discourse of the territory, Colau is right now stuck between a rock and a hard place.

But nowhere else is the catastrophe for the left more apparent than in Madrid—both the autonomous community and the city. In the autonomous community, Errejón’s party, Más Madrid, obtained a good result for a newcomer with 20 seats, even surpassing Isabel Serra, Podemo’s own candidate, who only obtained 7 (and who, coincidentally, lost 20 seats). But for all its triumphalist talk of being able to wrestle away the Madrid autonomous community’s government from the conservative PP, the results didn’t add up. Not even if Más Madrid were joined by PSOE, the main party of the opposition (and one Más Madrid had had hopes of beating), which won 37 seats, would it be able to gather more seats than PP, Ciudadanos and Vox combined. The autonomous community of Madrid would continue to have a right-wing government, as it has had for the last 20-plus years.

But the biggest shock came in the city. The left coalition Madrid en Pie Municipalista failed to obtain any representation, and the seats won by Más Madrid and PSOE, 19 and 8, were not enough to face the combined might of PP, Ciudadanos and Vox, which added up 30 seats altogether. Carmena had lost the elections and was unable to stay in the city hall.

 
Post-Mortems from the Electoral Left: Tantrums but No Answers

That night, and during the following week, people have been lost for answers. Más Madrid had been confident that it would stay in city hall and had entertained hopes of ruling over the autonomous community of Madrid, so the results were a shock for them. Their post-election analyses didn’t even consider other cities or autonomous communities—what had happened there, what had worked or not. Everything revolved around Madrid and the fact that Más Madrid’s hopes had met the harsh reality.

It might still be too early to understand what went wrong there, but surely abstention was one of the factors at play. Walter Actis, for example, shows that a noticeable drop in support for the Carmena slate took place between 2015 and 2019 in several of the most-working-class districts. If one keeps in mind that abstention in these districts was much greater than the citywide abstention rate (slightly under 32%)—41% of voters in Puente de Vallecas, 38.64% in Carabanchel and 42.24% in Usera did not cast a vote—while the rate of abstention was more modest in the higher-income districts (26.78% in Salamanca, for instance), one might start to see a pattern.
 

This chart shows the percentage change in the share of the vote received in 2019 by the Más Madrid slate headed by Madrid’s mayor, Manuela Carmena, compared to the share that Carmena’s Ahora Madrid slate received in 2015, in each of the city’s election districts. Note the large declines in its vote share in the working-class districts of Puente de Vallecas (Pte. Vallecas), Carabanchel and Usera, and the much more modest decline it experienced in Salamanca, a higher-income district. Source: Walter Actis.

 
But no pattern has been discerned by the supporters of Más Madrid and Podemos, who have spent the last week criticizing, insulting and blaming each other for the results of these elections. The level of vitriol is astounding. For example, Emilio Delgado, an ex-member of United Left, ex-member of Izquierda Castellana, ex-Marxist and ex-Castillian nationalist—who has found a new home at Más Madrid—tweeted that “This is the story of how a few brats from the Communist youth colonized the environment of a crazy, arrogant and febrile leader and transformed a beautiful promise full of hope for the people into a Stalinist and impotent nightmare.” The references to the ex-members of United Left who ended up in Podemos (he is not referring to himself, obviously, but to those who came after him), and the branding of Iglesias as a megalomaniac leader brainwashed by a Stalinist conspiracy, might act as a substitute for an analysis of the election results, but to those of us outside both parties, it just sounds like a tantrum by those who, unable to properly analyze and accept reality, resort to infighting and factionalism.

The list of tantrums is large, though: Carlos Fernández Liria, a professor of philosophy who is a self-professed Marxist, and who broke with Iglesias and has been cooperating with Más Madrid since its inception—he even said that those who planned to vote for Madrid En Pie Municipalista, the leftist coalition that included councillors expelled by Carmena, were going to throw their votes into the “trash can”—has published an article saying that he dreamt about Pablo Iglesias apologizing for ruining Podemos. Eduardo Fernández Rubiño, his son, who has enjoyed a seat in the legislative assembly of the autonomous community of Madrid and has played a relevant role in forming Más Madrid, has also  blamed Pablo Iglesias and those voting Madrid en Pie Municipalista. On the other hand, people in Podemos have responded in the same tone, with Juan Carlos Monedero (yet another founding member of Podemos) directing his criticism at Íñigo Errejón and blaming him for all the misfortunes that the party has suffered.

 
Will the Left Political Parties Engage in Serious Self-Criticism?

Perhaps when the dust settles and hot-headedness subsides, more sober analyses will start to emerge, self-criticism will take place and proposals for the future of the left in Spain will be developed. Yet it is doubtful that this will happen among the politicians who are currently embroiled in the factional rivalries. Besides the personal bad blood between them, the truth is that for the last few years, nothing resembling a long-term project for the Spanish working-class has been presented by them. At most, we will get from them a return to the social democracy of the 1980s, such as the one envisioned by Pablo Iglesias, or vague callings to “rethink our relationship with power” that offer no strategic or concrete proposals and that basically mean voting for their party as a lesser evil.

At worst, politicians in Podemos, and those previously in it, have told us that we need to accept the status quo and just hope for tiny changes here and there, such as when Pablo Bustinduy maintained that we needed to support Syriza, in its complete submission to the European Union and betrayal of the results of the referendum that Syriza itself had called, or when Íñigo Errejón, interviewed by Catalan journalist Jordi Évole, said  that hehoped that some day humans will develop ways to […] relate between us that will be fairer than capitalism,” making it clear that, in his view, this isn’t an issue to think about here and now. Fetishism of the current institutions, staying in government and winning elections, as opposed to using reforms as a stepping stone for long-term goals, seems to be ingrained in these new politicians.

It will come as no surprise that, after the elections, Errejón came up with the proposal for Más Madrid to join forces, together with PSOE and right-wing Ciudadanos, to finally rule the autonomous community of Madrid and thus deprive both PP and Vox of power. Desperate needs for staying in the institutions demand desperate measures, it seems.

 
 
Notes

[1] Spain is organized in several autonomous communities corresponding to different historical nationalities and regions. They have devolved powers and separate legislative assemblies to manage them. Elections to the assemblies are not all held at the same time.

[2] The PSOE, Partido Socialista Obrero Español, was originally a Marxist party. It then became social democratic and has more recently been frequently accused of having succumbed to Blairite “Third Way” politics.

[3] It was called “Vistalegre II” because a previous Podemos assembly also took place in the Vistalegre arena.

[4] Errejón, too, distanced himself from the government of Venezuela when the coup took place, even though he had enjoyed several research stays there and had supported the Chávez Government back in the day.
 

 

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