Monthly Archives: December 2018

Spanish Elections a Lesson for the Left

Spanish Vote a Lesson for the Left

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 20, 2018

 

In what seems a replay of recent German and Italian elections, an openly authoritarian and racist party made major electoral gains in Spain’s most populous province, Andalusia, helping to dethrone the Socialist Party that had dominated the southern region for 36 years. Vox (Voice)—a party that stands for “Spain First,” restrictions on women’s rights, ending abortion, stopping immigration and dismantling the country’s regional governments—won almost 11 percent of the vote. The Party is in negotiations to be part of a ruling rightwing coalition, while left parties are calling for an “anti-fascist front,”. It’s as if the old Spanish dictator Francisco Franco had arisen from his tomb in the “Valley of the Fallen” and was again marching on Madrid.

 

Actually, the results were not so much “stunning”—the British Independent’s headline on the election—as a case of chickens coming home to roost, and a sobering lesson for center-left and left forces in Europe.

 

The Dec. 2 vote saw the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) lose 14 seats in the regional parliament and the leftist alliance, Adelante Andalucía, drop three. The conservative Popular Party (PP) also lost seven seats, but, allied with Vox and the rightwing Ciudadanos (Citizens) Party, the right now has enough seats to take power. It was the worst showing in PSOE’s history, and, while it is still the largest party in Andalucía, it will have to go into opposition.

 

On one level the Andalucian elections do look like Germany, where the neo-fascist Alternative for Germany (AfG) took 94 seats in the Bundestag, and Italy, where the rightwing, xenophobic Northern League is sharing power with the center-right Five Star Movement.

 

There are certainly parallels to both countries, but there are also major differences that are uniquely Spanish.

 

What is similar is the anger at the conventional center-right and center-left parties that have enforced a decade of misery on their populations. Center-left parties like the Democratic Party in Italy and the Social Democratic Party in Germany bought into the failed strategy of neo-liberalism that called for austerity, regressive taxes, privatization of public resources and painful cutbacks in social services as a strategy for getting out of debt. Not only was it hard for most people to see a difference between the center-left and the center-right, many times the parties governed jointly, as they did in Germany. Andalucía’s Socialists were in an alliance with Ciudadanos.

 

However, the rise of parties like Vox and the AfG has less to do with a surge from the right than as a collapse of the center-right and center-left. The Spanish Socialists did badly, but so did the right-wing Popular Party. In Germany, both the center-right and the center-left took a beating.

 

In the aftermath of the Andalucian debacle, Susana Diaz, leader of the PSOE in Andalucía, called for a “firewall” against the right. But Diaz helped blow a hole in that “firewall” in the first place with politics that alienated much of the Socialist’s long-time constituency. In 2016 Diaz led a rightist coup in the PSOE that dethroned General Secretary Pedro Sanchez because he was trying to cobble together a coalition with the Leftist Podemos Party, the Basques, and Catalan separatists.

 

After ousting Sanchez, Diaz allowed Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to form a government and pass an austerity budget. Making common cause with the PP was apparently too much for the SPOE’s rank and file, and they returned Sanchez to his old post seven months later. The Socialist rank and file also seems to have sat on their hands in the Andalucian election. Only 58.6 percent of the electorate turned out and there were a considerable number of abstentions and blank ballots in traditionally Socialist strongholds.

 

The leftist AA took a hit as well, but that was in part due to some infighting in Podemos, and the Party did not mobilize significant forces on the ground. And because Podemos kept its distance from the crisis in Catalonia, it ceded the issue of separatism to the right, particularly Ciudadanos, which wrapped itself in the Spanish flag.

 

Podemos actually has a principled position on Catalan independence: it opposes it, but thinks the matter should be up to the Catalans. It also supports greater cultural and economic autonomy for Spain’s richest province. But when Rajoy unleashed the police on the October 2017 independence referendum, beating voters and arresting Catalan leaders, Podemos merely condemned the violence. The Socialists supported Rajoy, although they too expressed discomfort with the actions of the police.

 

Ciudadanos, on the other hand, enthusiastically supported the violent response, even provoking it. According to Thomas Harrington, a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, CN and an expert on Catalonia, Ciudadano members’ systematically removed yellow ribbons that Catalans had put up to protest the imprisonment of Catalan leaders, Harrington quotes Eduardo Llorens, a prominent member of the Ciudadano-supported unionist movement: “ ‘Violent reactions by the independentists must be forced. We’ve done a good job of constructing the narrative of social division, but violent acts on their part are still needed to consolidate it. In the end they will react. It’s just a matter of our being persistent.’ ”

 

The PSOE had a generally progressive economic program, but it appears many Spaniards don’t believe them. The Leftist AA had a much better program, but was hobbled by internal problems and downplayed the Catalan issue. That left a clear field for Ciudadanos, which hammered away at the Catalan separatists. Ciudadanos ended up getting 18.3 percent of the vote, more than double what it got in the last election. The PSOE and PP are still the two largest parties in the province.

 

As for Vox, it is surely disturbing that such an antediluvian party could get 10.5 percent of the vote, but it would be a mistake to think that Franco is back. In fact, he never went away. When the dictator died in 1975 the Spaniards buried the horrors of the 1936-39 civil war and the ensuing repression, rather than trying to come to terms with them: some 200,000 political dissidents executed, 500,000 exiled, and 400,000 sent to concentration camps.

 

Vox tapped into that section of the population that opposes the “Historical Memory Law” condemning the Franco regime, and still gathers at Valley of the Fallen or in town squares to chant fascist slogans and give the stiff-arm salute. But the party is small, around 7,000, and part of the reason it did well was because of extensive media coverage. Most the Party’s votes came from PP strongholds in wealthy neighborhoods.

 

Following the election, thousands of people poured into the streets of Seville, Granada and Malaga to chant “fascists out.”

 

Certainly the European right is scary, particularly in Spain, Italy, Germany, Greece, Austria and France. It has absconded with some of the left’s programs, like ending austerity, a guaranteed wage, and resisting the coercive power of the European Union. Once elected, of course, it will jettison those issues, just as the Nazis and fascists did in pre-war Germany and Italy. And removing them will not be easy, since their only commitment to democracy is as a tool to chisel their way into power.

 

The center-left and the left are still formidable forces in Europe, and their programs do address the crisis of unemployment, growing economic disparity, and weakening social safety nets. But the path to success will requiring re-thinking the strategy of the past 30 years and fighting for programs like those the British Labour Party adopted under Jeremy Corbyn: rolling back the privatization of public resources, a graduated tax scale based on wealth, investments in education, health, housing and infrastructure, raising the minimum wage, encouraging unions, and seriously tackling the existential issue of climate change.

 

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Iran: A Rumor of War

Iran: Rumors of War

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 1, 2018

 

“The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran And What’s Wrong with U.S. Policy” By Reese Erlich

Routledge Taylor & Francis Group

New York and London 2019

 

 

Want another thing to keep you up at night?

 

Consider a conversation between long-time Middle East reporter Reese Erlich and former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Charles Freeman, Jr. on the people currently directing the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran. Commenting on National Security Advisor John Bolton’s defense of the invasion of Iraq, Freeman says “The neoconservative group think their good ideas were poorly implemented in Iraq,” and that the lesson of the 2003 invasion that killed upwards of 500,000 people and destabilized an entire region is, “If at first you don’t succeed, do the same thing again somewhere else.”

 

That “somewhere else” is Iran, and Bolton is one of the leading voices calling for confronting the Teheran regime and squeezing Iran through draconian sanctions “until the pips squeak.” Since sanctions are unlikely to have much effect—they didn’t work on North Korea, have had little effect on Russia and failed to produce regime change in Cuba—the next logical step, Erlich suggests, is a military attack on Iran.

 

Such an attack would be a leap into darkness, since most Americans—and their government in particular—are virtually clueless about the country we seem bound to go to war with. Throwing a little light on that darkness is a major reason Erlich wrote the book. For over 18 years he has reported on Iran, talking with important government figures and everyday people and writing articles on the country that increasingly looks to be our next little war. Except it will be anything but “little.”

 

History matters when it comes to life and death decisions like war, but unfortunately, one of the mainstream media’s glaring deficiencies is its lack of interest in the subject. If newspapers like the New York Times had bothered to read Rudyard Kipling on Afghanistan or T.E. Lawrence on the British occupation of Iraq, the editors might have had second thoughts about supporting the Bush administration’s invasions of those countries. Of course, this was not just the result of wearing historical blinders. As Erlich points out, the mainstream media almost always follows in the wake of American foreign policy, more cheerleader than watchdog.

 

But if that media learned anything from the disasters in Central Asia and the Middle East, it is not apparent when it comes to its reporting on Iran. Most Americans think that country is run by mad mullahs who hate the U.S. and is—in the words of President Donald Trump— a “terrorist nation.” Americans don’t hold that image of Iran by accident, but because that is the way the country is represented in the media.

 

The fact that the U.S. government (along with some help from the British) overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953, and backed Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iran in 1980 that resulted in over a million casualties has vanished down the memory hole.

 

One of the book’s strong points is its careful unraveling of US-Iranian relations, setting the record straight on things like the development of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. While the Shah was in power, Washington pushed nuclear power plants on Iran, including nuclear fuel enrichment technology, even though the Americans were aware that it could lead to weapon development. Indeed, that is exactly how India produced its first nuclear weapon back in 1974.

 

Erlich also analyzes everything from class structure to Iran’s complex ethnicities and explains how the Islamic Republic functions politically and economically. While he is a long-time critic of US foreign policy, Erlich is no admirer of Iran’s political institutions. Iran is far more democratic than the absolute monarchies of the Persian Gulf—with which the Washington is closely allied—but it is hardly a democracy.

 

“Iran is ruled by a reactionary, dictatorial clique that oppresses its own people,” he writes, “however, that does not make Iran a threat to Americans.” What Teheran does threaten “are the interests of the political, military and corporate elite who run the United States.” On a number of occasions Iran has made peace overtures to the U.S., all of which have been rejected.

 

Iran is a country with a very long history, and its people have a strong sense of nationalism, even if much of the population is not overly fond of Iran’s top-down political system and clerical interference in everyday life. The idea that the Iranian people will rise up and overthrow their government because of sanctions or in the event of a military attack on the government is, according to Erlich, pure illusion.

 

The Iran Agenda Today covers a lot of ground without bogging down in a overly detailed accounts of several millennia of history. It certainly provides enough historical context to conclude that an attack on Iran—which would likely also involve Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and possibly Israel—would unleash regional chaos with international repercussions.

 

Such a war would be mainly an air war—not even the Trump administration is crazy enough to contemplate a ground invasion of a vast country filled with 80 million people—and would certainly inflict enormous damage. But to what end? Iran will never surrender and its people would rally to the defense of their country. Teheran is also perfectly capable of striking back using unconventional means. Oil prices would spike, and countries that continue to do business with Iran—China, Russia, Turkey and India for starters—would see their growth rates take a hit. No European country would support such a war.

 

Of course creating chaos is what the Trump administration excels at, and in the short run Iran would suffer a grievous wound. But Teheran would weather the blow and Americans would be in yet another forever war, this time with a far more formidable foe than Pushtin tribes in Afghanistan or jihadists in Iraq.

 

Mr. Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may get their war, but war is a deeply uncertain business. As Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke, one of the founders of modern warfare, once noted, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

 

Erlich, a Peabody Award winner and the author of five books, has written a timely analysis of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran and why, if our country continues on its current path, we—and the world—are headed into a long, dark tunnel.

 

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