Tag Archives: Catalonia

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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Leprechauns, Nazis and Truncheons

Of Leprechauns, Nazis, and truncheons

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 8, 2017

 

Ballingarry, Republic of Ireland

 

This tiny village in the heart of County Limerick, with its narrow streets and multiple churches, seems untouched by time and untroubled by the economic and political cross currents tearing away at the European Union (EU). But Ireland can be a deceptive place, and these days nowhere is immune from what happens in Barcelona, Paris and Berlin.

 

Ballingarry—the place my grandfather emigrated from 126 years ago—was a textile center before the 1845 potato famine starved to death or scattered its residents. Today it houses five pubs, “One for every 100 people” notes my third cousin Caroline, who, along with her husband John, live next to an old Protestant church that has been taken over by a high tech company.

 

When the American and European economies crashed in 2008, Ireland was especially victimized. Strong-armed into a “bailout” to save its banks and speculators, the Republic is only beginning to emerge from almost a decade of tax hikes, layoffs, and austerity policies that impoverished a significant section of its population. The crisis also re-ignited the island’s major export: people, particularly its young. Between 2008 and 2016, an average of 30,000 people, age 15 to 24, left each year.

 

The Irish economy is growing again, but the country is still burdened by a massive debt, whose repayment drains capital from much needed investments in housing, education and infrastructure. But “debt” can be a deceptive word. It is not the result of a spending spree, but the fallout from of a huge real estate bubble pumped up by German, Dutch and French banks in cahoots with local speculators and politicians, who turned the Irish economy into an enormous casino. From 1999 to 2007, Irish real estate prices jumped 500 percent.

 

People here have reason to be wary of official government press releases and Bank of Ireland predictions. The center-right government of former Prime Minister Enda Kenny crowed that the economy had grown an astounding 26 percent in 2015, but it turned out to be nothing more than a bunch of multinationals moving their intellectual property into Ireland to protect their profits. The forecast has since been labeled “Leprechaun economics.”

 

Former U.S. Speaker of the House, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill—whose ancestors hailed from County Donegal in Ireland’s northwest—once said, “All politics are local,” and that’s at least partly true here. The news outlets are full of a scandal about the Irish police, the Garda, cooking breathalyzer tests to arrest motorists, an upcoming abortion referendum, and a change of leadership in the left-wing Sinn Fein Party. There is also deep concern about the Brexit. Britain is Ireland’s number two trading partner—the U.S. is number one—and it is not clear how London’s exit from the EU will affect that. There is also the worrisome matter of the now open border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, accompanied by fears that Brexit will undermine the Good Friday peace agreement between northern Catholics and Protestants.

 

But even the Irish have a hard time focusing on themselves these days, what with the German elections vaulting Nazis into the Bundestag and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s auto da fe against the Catalans. Watching Spain’s Guardia Civil using truncheons on old people, whose only crime was trying to vote, felt disturbingly like the dark days when Gen. Francisco Franco and his fascist Falange Party ran the country.

 

There is an interesting parallel between Catalonia and Ireland. Dublin is still awash with the100th anniversary commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rebellion. At the time the rising was opposed by many of the Irish, but when the British authorities began executing the rising’s leaders, sentiment began to shift. In 1921, the British threw in the towel after 751 years.

 

It is a lesson Rajoy should examine. Before he unleashed the Guardia Civil, polls showed the Catalans were deeply split on whether they wanted to break from Spain. That sentiment is liable to change rather dramatically in the coming weeks.

 

There are a number of cross currents in Europe these days, although many of them have a common source: an economic crisis in the European Union and austerity policies that have widened the inequality gap throughout the continent. The outcome of the German elections is a case in point.

 

Going into the Sept. 25 vote, the media projected a cakewalk for Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union alliance. What happened was more like a train wreck, The major parties, including the Social Democratic Party (SDP), dropped more than 100 seats in the Bundestag, and the openly racist, rightwing Alternative for Germany took almost 13 percent of the vote and 94 seats.

 

In some ways the German election was a replay of the British election last June, but without the Labour Party’s leftwing turn. Faced with the British Conservative Party’s numbingly vague platform of “experience” and “order,” voters went for Labour’s progressive program of tax the rich, free tuition, and improve health care and education, and denied the Tories a majority.

 

Merkel ran an election not very much different than the British Conservatives, but with the exception of the small Die Linke Party (which was itself divided) there were not a lot of alternatives for voters. The SDP were part of Merkel’s Grand Coalition government, making it rather hard to critique the Chancellor’s policies. The SDP leader, Martin Schultz started off campaigning against economic inequality, but shifted to the middle after losing three state elections. In their one big debate it was hard to distinguish Schultz from Merkel, and both avoided climate change, housing, the Brexit, and growing poverty.

 

There was certainly ammunition to go after the Chancellor with. In Merkel’s 12 years in power, the chasm between rich and poor in the EU’s wealthiest state has widened. In spite of low unemployment, almost 16 percent of the population is near the poverty line. The problem is that many are working low paying temp jobs.

 

Under normal circumstances that would be a powerful issue, except that it was Chancellor Gerhard Schoder and the SDP who put policies in place that led to rise of temporary jobs and reduced wages. Suppressing wages boosted German exports but left a whole section of the population behind.

 

It is a continent-wide problem. According to the European Commission, almost one-third of Europe’s workforce is part of the “gig” economy, many working for under minimum wage and without benefits. The replacement of employees with “independent contractors” has allowed companies like Uber to amass enormous wealth, but the company’s drivers end up earning barely enough to get by.

 

In short, German voters did not trust the SDP and looked for alternatives. Given the hysteria around immigration, some choose the fascist Alternative for Germany. As odious as it is to have the inheritors of the Third Reich sitting in the Bundestag, it would be a mistake to think the Party’s program was behind its success. The Alternative has nothing to offer but racism and reaction, and neither will do much to close the wealth gap in Germany.

 

Dublin has turned over a wing of its National Library to an exhibit of the great Irish poet and playwright, William Butler Yeates, who is much quoted these days. A favorite seems to be some lines from “The Second Coming”: “Thing fall apart; the Centre cannot hold…the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

 

On one level that seems a pretty good description of the rise of Europe’s extreme rightwing parties, and the precipitous decline of center and center-left parties. It is an attractive literary simile, but misleading. It was the “Centre” that introduced many of the neo-liberal policies that wiped out industries, cut wages, and abandoned whole sections of the population. When French, British, German, Spanish, Italian and Greek socialists embraced free trade and wide-open markets over strong unions and social democracy, is it any wonder that voters in those countries abandoned them?

 

When center-left parties returned to their roots, as they did in Britain and Portugal, voters rewarded them. After being dismissed as a deluded leftist who would destroy the British Labour Party, suddenly Jeremy Corbyn is being talked of as a future prime minister. In the meantime the alliance of the Portuguese Socialist Party with two other left parties is rolling back many of the more onerous austerity policies inflicted on Lisbon by the EU, sparking economic growth and a drop in the jobless rate.

 

Visually, Ireland is a lovely country, though one needs to prepare for prodigious amounts of rain and intimidatingly narrow roads (having destroyed two tires in 24 hours I was banished to riding shotgun half way through our trip). But while the meadows sweeping down from dark mountains in Kerry look timeless to the tourists who pack the scenic Ring, they are not. Ireland’s modern landscape is a deception.

 

In 1845 the population of Kerry was 416 people per square mile, compared to 272 in England and Wales. Those sweeping meadows that the tourists ogle were crowded with cottages before three years of potato blight swept them all away, “Look at those great grass fields, empty for miles and miles away,” wrote the Bishop of Clonfert in 1886,”every one of them contained once its little house, its potato ground, its patch of oats.”

 

It is ironic that Europe is so befuddled by the flood of immigrants pounding on its doors, or that Europeans somehow think the current crisis is unique. Between 1845 and 1848, one and half to two million Irish fled their famine-blackened land (another million—likely far more—starved to death) in large part due to the same kind of economics Europe is currently trying to force on countries like Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain and Cyprus.

 

“God brought the blight, the English brought the famine,” is an old Irish saying, and it is spot on. The Liberal Party government in London was deeply enamored with free trade and market economics, the 19th century version of neo-liberalism, and they rigidly applied its strictures to Ireland. The result was the single worst disaster to strike a population in the 19th century. Between 1845 and 1851 Ireland lost between 20 and 25 percent of its people, although those figures were far higher in the country’s west.

 

Today, the migrants are from Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, fleeing wars that Europeans helped start and from which some make a pretty penny dealing arms. Others are from Africa, where a century of colonialism dismantled existing states, suppressed local industries and throttled development. Now those chickens are coming home to roost.

 

Ireland is a small player in the scheme of things, but it has much to teach the world: courage, perseverance, and a sense of humor. When the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in 1921, the people of Galway pulled down a statue of Lord Dunkellen and tossed it into the sea, while a band played “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.”

 

And Europe would do well to pay attention to some if its poets, like Patrick Pierce, who was executed at Kilmainham jail for his part in the Easter Rebellion: “I say to the masters of my people, beware. Beware of the risen people who shall take from ye that which you would not give.”

 

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Socialists Rain On Spain

Socialists Rain On Spain

Dispatches From the Edge

March 5, 2016

 

The effort by Pedro Sanchez, leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, to form a government on March 2 brings to mind the story of the hunter who goes into the forest with one bullet in his rifle. Seeing a deer on his right and a boar on his left, he shoots in the middle.

 

Sanchez’s search for a viable coalition partner began when the ruling right-wing Popular Party (PP) took a pounding in Spain’s Dec. 20 election, dropping 63 seats and losing its majority. Voters, angered by years of savage austerity that drove poverty and unemployment rates to among the highest in Europe, voted PP Prime Minster Mariano Rajoy out and anti-austerity parties in, although leaving the PP as the largest single party in the parliament.

 

The only real winner in election was the left-wing Podemos Party, which took 20.6 percent of the vote. The Socialist Party actually lost 20 seats, its worst showing ever, and at 22 percent, barely edged out Podemos. And if the Spanish political system were not rigged to give rural voters more power than urban ones, Podemos would have done much better. The Socialists and the PP are particularly strong in rural areas, while Podemos is strong in the cities.

 

While a candidate in Madrid needs 128,000 votes to be elected, in rural areas as few as 38,000 votes will get you into the parliament. Podemos and the Socialists both won over five million votes, with the difference only 341,000. But the Socialists took 89 seats to Podemos’s 65.

 

Spaniards voted for change, but the Socialists, who ran an anti-austerity campaign, chose to form an alliance with the conservative Ciudadanos or Citizens Party, which refuses to have anything to do with Podemos—and the feeling is mutual. Ciudadanos also underperformed at the polls. Ciudadanos was predicted to get as much as 25 percent of the vote and surpass Podemos, but instead came in under 14 percent with only 40 seats.

 

On the surface the only thing the Socialists and Ciudadanos have in common is their adamant opposition to Catalonia’s push for a referendum on independence. Podemos is also opposed to a Catalan breakaway, but supports the right of the region to vote on the matter.

 

Catalonia’s drive for independence is certainly controversial and would have a major impact on Spain’s economy, but exactly how the Spanish government thinks it can block a referendum is not clear. And if Catalans did vote for independence, how would Madrid stop it? One doubts that the government would send in the army or that such an intervention would be successful.

 

Indeed, the fierceness with which the PP, Socialist Party and Ciudadanos oppose the right of Catalans to vote is more likely to drive the province toward independence, rather than discourage it. At this point Catalonia’s voters are split slightly in favor of remaining in Spain, although young voters favor independence, a demographic factor that will loom larger in the future. In provincial elections last September, candidates who supported independence took 47.7 percent of the vote.

 

The Socialists had a path to form a government, but one that would have required the party to modify its position on a Catalan referendum. If it had done so, it could have formed a government using Podemos, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), the Basque Nationalist Party, (EJA-PNV), Canary Islanders, and a mix of independents. Had the Socialists compromised on Catalonia, they might even have picked up the votes from the center-right Democracy and Freedom Party (DIL).

Left parties in the Parliament can put together 162 votes on their own, which is short of the 176 needed to form a government. But it would not have been impossible to pick up 13 more votes from the mix of 14 independents and eight seats controlled by the Catalan DIL.

 

Choosing Ciudadanos as a partner makes little sense. Podemos immediately dropped cooperation talks with the Socialists and sharply criticized Sanchez for not building a genuine left government. Ciudadanos’ economic policies are not much different than the PP’s, plus it opposes abortion, and is hawkish on immigration. In any case the party did poorly in the national elections. The merger “prevents the possibility of forming a pluralistic government of change,” according to the parliamentary deputy and Podemos spokesperson, Inigo Errejon.

 

“Negotiate with us,” Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias told Sanchez, “stop obeying the oligarchs.” The Socialist Party leader pleaded with Podemos to vote for him so that the Socialist-Ciudadanos alliance could pass “progressive” legislation like raising the minimum wage and addressing the gender wage gap. The Socialists also presented a plan to tax the wealthy, improve health care, and try to stop the growth of “temporary” worker contracts that have reduced benefits and job security.

 

But those issues do not really address the underlying humanitarian crisis most Spaniards are experiencing, like poverty and growing homelessness, and the damage austerity has inflicted on education and social services. And Ciudadanos’ views on abortion, immigration and privatizing public services are repugnant to Podemos.

 

Spain’s unemployment rate is still over 20 percent—far more among the youth in the country’s south—and many of the jobless will soon run out of government aid. While the economy grew 3.1 percent in 2015 and is projected to grow 2.7 percent in 2016, it is not nearly where it was before the great 2008 financial crisis and the implosion of Spain’s enormous real estate bubble. On top of which, that growth rate had nothing to do with the austerity policies, but instead was the result declining value of the euro, low interest rates, and cheap oil.

 

If the Socialists have no success in forming a government, there will be new elections, probably in late June. Polls show the outcome of such a vote would be similar to the last election, but Spanish polls are notoriously inaccurate. In the last election they predicted Ciudadanos would eclipse Podemos. The opposite was the case.

 

The right-wing Popular Party is likely to do worse, because it is mired in a series of corruption scandals over bid-rigging and illegal commissions. In Valencia, nine out of the 10 PP councilors are considered formal suspects in the case. Indeed, the Party’s reputation for corruption makes it difficult for any other grouping in the parliament to make common cause with it. And even if Ciudadanos dumped its anti-corruption plank and broke its promise never to cooperate with the PP, such a government would still fall short of the 176 votes needed. The PP controls 119 seats.

 

In part, the Socialists are frightened by the growth of Podemos and the fact that it might replace them as the number two party in the parliament. In part, the Socialists also tend to run from the left and govern from the center, even the center-right. That is a formula that will simply not work anymore in Spain. The domination of the Spanish government by the two major parties since 1977 is a thing of the past, having been replaced by regional and anti-austerity parties like Podemos.

 

Before the recent election, the two major parties controlled between 75 percent and 85 percent of the voters. In the December election, they fell to just over 50 percent.

 

A more successful model is being built next door in Portugal, where the Socialists united with two left-wing parties to form a government. All the parties involved had to compromise to make it work, and the alliance might come apart in the long run. But for now it is working, and the government is dismantling the more egregious austerity measures and has put a halt to the privatization of public services like transportation.

 

Spain’s Socialist Party is riven with factions, some more conservative than others. Sanchez—whose nickname is “ El Guapo” (handsome)—has so far out-maneuvered his party opponents, but this latest debacle will do him little good. He did receive support from the party’s rank and file for the Ciudadanos move, but that led nowhere in the end. Sanchez got 130 votes in the first round and only picked up one more vote in the second round.

 

Another election will probably not produce a sea change in terms of party support, but voters may punish the Socialists for their unwillingness to compromise. Those votes are unlikely to go to Ciudadanos, and the PP is so mired in corruption that it will struggle to keep its current status as the largest party in the parliament. A recent poll taken after Prime Minster Rajoy passed on trying to form a government found that 71 percent of the voters felt that the PP did not have the best interests of Spain in mind. That refusal may come to haunt the PP in June.

 

Podemos will undoubtedly pick up some Socialist Party voters, but probably not enough to form a government. That will only happen if Socialists put aside their stubborn opposition to a Catalan referendum and help build what Podemos calls a “genuine” leftist government.

 

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Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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