Tag Archives: Mariano Rajoy

The Spanish Labyrinth

The Spanish Labyrinth

Dispatches From The Edge

June 15, 2018

 

As the socialist-led government takes over in Spain, newly minted Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez faces at least two daunting tasks: cleaning up the wreckage wrought by years of European Union (EU) enforced austerity and resolving the Catalan crisis exacerbated by Madrid’s violent reaction to last fall’s independence referendum. Unfortunately, his Party’s track record is not exactly sterling on either issue.

 

Sanchez, leader of the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), patched together parties in Catalonia and the Basque region, plus the leftist Podemos Party, to oust long-time Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the People’s Party (PP). But is the telegenic former economics professor up to the job, and will his Party challenge the economic program of the EU’s powerful “troika”—the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission?

 

The answers to those questions are hardly clear, and in many ways the cross currents and rip tides of Spanish politics still resemble Gerald Brenan’s classic study of the Civil War, The Spanish Labyrinth.

 

While the issue that brought Rajoy down was corruption—a massive kickback scheme that enriched scores of high-ranking PP members— his Party was already weakened by the 2015 election, and he has been forced to rely on the conservative Ciudadanos Party based in Catalonia to stay in power. In short, it was only a matter of time before he fell.

 

Sanchez promises to address the “pressing social needs” of Spaniards, although he has been vague about what that actually means. But Spain is hurting. While economic growth returned in 2013, unemployment is still at 16.1, and youth joblessness is 35 percent. Rajoy took credit for the economy’s rebound from the massive financial meltdown in 2008, but there is little evidence that budget cuts and austerity did the trick. The two main engines for growth were cheap oil and a weak currency.

 

The job growth has mainly been in short term and temp jobs, with lower pay and fewer benefits. That is not specific to Spain, however. Of the 5.2 million jobs created in the EU between 2013 and 2016, some 2.1 million of them have been short term, “mini” jobs that have been particularly hard on young people. Many continue to live at home with their aging parents, and 400,000 have emigrated to other European countries.

 

Education, health care, and infrastructure have all deteriorated under a blizzard of budget cuts, and Sanchez will have to address those problems. His party’s record on the economy, however, has been more centrist than social democratic, and the PSOE basically accepts the neo-liberal mantra of tax cuts, deregulation and privatization. It was PSOE Prime Minister Jose Zapatero who sliced more than $17 billion from the budget in 2010, froze pensions, cut child care funds and home care for the elderly, and passed legislation making it easier to lay off workers.

 

It was anger at the Socialists over rising unemployment that swept Rajoy and the PP into power in 2011. The PSOE has never recovered from that debacle, dropping from 44 percent of the vote to 24.9 percent today. It has only 84 deputies in the Parliament, just 14 more than Podemos.

 

When Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias proposed forming a government of the left. Sanchez rejected it and instead appointed all PSOE people to the cabinet. However, he will have to rely on support from the left to stay in power, and there is no guarantee that it will be there unless the Socialists step away from their centrism and begin rolling back the austerity measures.

 

Sanchez has a mixed record on leftism vs. centrism. He was ousted from the Party’s leadership last year by the PSOE’s rightwing when he considered forming a united front of the left. It was the Party’s rank and file, angered at the rightwing Socialists that allowed Rajoy to form a minority government that put him back in power. So far, Sanchez has been unwilling to consider the kind of alliance of left parties that has been so successful in Portugal.

 

The new government will also need the support of the two Catalan parties, and that will likely be an uphill slog. The Catalans just elected a government that supports independence, although its President, Quim Torra has called for “talks.”

 

The current Catalonia crisis was ignited when Rajoy torpedoed a 2006 agreement between the Spanish government and the Catalan government that would have given the province greater local control over its finances and recognized the Catalan’s unique culture. Under the prodding of the PP, the Constitutional Court overturned the agreement and shifted the dispute from the political realm to a legal issue.

 

At the time, the idea of independence was marginal in Catalonia, but the refusal of Rajoy to even discuss the issue shifted it to the mainstream. “Independentism, which until 2010 was a decidedly minority option in Catalonia, has grown immensely,” according to Thomas Harrington, a Professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College, CT.

 

The Catalans began pressing for a referendum on independence—nearly 80 percent supported holding one—although it was initially seen as non-binding. Even though Podemos did not support the idea of independence, it backed the basic democratic right of the Catalans to vote on the issue. The PSOE, however, was as hard-nosed on the issue as Rajoy and the PP. Not only did the Socialists not support the right of the Catalans to vote, they backed Rajoy’s crackdown on the province, although they decried the violence unleashed on citizens trying to vote during last October’s referendum.

 

Some 2.3 million Catalans out of the 5.3 million registered voters went to the polls and overwhelmingly endorsed independence in spite of the fact that Rajoy sent some 10,000 National Police and Guardia Civil into the province to seize ballot, beat voters and injure more than 850 people. Legal procedures have been filed against over 700 mayors and elected officials, and the Catalan leadership is either in jail or on the run. While Sanchez said the crackdown was “a sad day for our democracy,” he will have a lot of explaining to do to the Catalan government.

 

Unlike Rajoy, Sanchez says he wants a dialogue with the Catalans, although he also says he intends to uphold the Spanish constitution, which does not permit secession.

 

Catalan society is deeply split. The big cities tend to be opposed to independence, as are many trade unions. The left is divided on the issue, but many young people support it. As the Financial Times’ Tobias Buck points out, “The younger generation, who have been schooled in Catalan and have less contact with the rest of Spain than their parents, are among the most enthusiastic backers of independence.”

 

It is also clear that the brutality of Rajoy’s assault has moved people in that direction, although polls show independence still does not have a majority. But in a sense, that is irrelevant. When almost half the population wants something that “something” has to be addressed, and if Buck is right about the demographics, time is running out for Madrid.

 

There are other serious constitutional issues that need to be addressed as well. Rural areas are greatly favored over cities. While it takes 125,000 voters in Madrid to elect a representative, in some rural areas it takes as few as 38,000. There is also a need to address Rajoy’s draconian laws against free speech and assembly.

 

Just how stable Sanchez’s government will be is unclear. He must keep the Basques and the Catalans on board and do enough on the economy to maintain the support of Podemos.

 

The PP is badly wounded, and the rightwing Ciudadanos Party—the only one that voted against the no confidence resolution—will be looking to fill that vacuum. Ciudadanos calls itself the “center,” but its economic policies are the same as those of the PP, and it is rabidly opposed to separatism. It performed poorly in the last election and in regional elections in Galicia and the Basque region. It did well in the recent Catalan elections, but that is because the Popular Party collapsed and its voters shifted to Ciudadanos.

 

Sanchez must recognize that the Catalan issue is political, not legal, and that force is not an option. As Napoleon Bonaparte’s Foreign Minister Talleyrand once remarked, “You can do anything you like with bayonets, except sit on them,” summing up the truism that repression does not work in the long run.

 

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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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Spain: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Spain: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Dispatches From the EdgeConn Hallinan

Aug. 22, 2017

 

When the Catalans goes to the polls Oct. 1, much more than independence for Spain’s restive province will be at stake. In many ways the vote will be a sounding board for Spain’s future, but it is also a test of whether the European Union—divided between north and south, east and west—can long endure.

 

In some ways, the referendum on Catalan independence is a very Spanish affair, with grievances that run all the way back to Catalonia’s loss of independence in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). But the Catalans lost more than their political freedom when the combined French and Spanish army took Barcelona, they lost much of their language and culture, particularly during the long and brutal dictatorship of Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975.

 

The current independence crisis dates back to 2010, when, at the urging of the rightwing Popular Party, the Spanish Constitutional Court overturned an autonomy agreement that had been endorsed by the Spanish and Catalan parliaments. Since then, the Catalans have elected a pro-independence government and narrowly defeated an initiative in 2014 calling for the creation of a free republic. The Oct. 1 vote will re-visit that vote.

 

But the backdrop for the upcoming election has much of Europe looking attentively, in part because there are other restive independence movements in places like Scotland, Belgium and Italy, and in part because many of the economic policies of the EU will be on the line, especially austerity, regressive taxation, and privatization of public resources as a strategy for economic recovery.

 

When the economic meltdown of 2008 struck, there were few countries harder hit than Spain. At the time Spain had a healthy debt burden and a booming economy, but one mainly based on real estate speculation fed by German, Austrian, French, British and U.S. banks. Real estate prices ballooned 500 percent. Such balloons are bound to pop, and this one did in a most spectacular fashion, forcing Spain to swallow a bailout from the EU’s “troika”—the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Bank.

 

The price of the bailout—the bulk of which went to pay off the banks whose speculation had fed the bubble in the first place—was a troika-enforced policy of massive austerity, huge tax hikes, and what one commentator called “sado-monetarism.” The results were catastrophic. The economy tanked, unemployment rose to 27 percent—over 50 percent for youth—and some 400,000 people were forced to emigrate.

 

While the austerity bred widespread misery, it also jump-started the Left Podemos Party, now the third largest in the Spanish parliament and currently running neck and neck with the Spanish Socialist party. Podemos-allied mayors control most of Spain’s largest cities, including Madrid, Valencia, and Barcelona.

 

In the 2015 election the ruling Popular Party lost its majority and currently rules as a minority party, allied with the conservative Catalan Ciudadanos Party and the main Basque party.

 

Needless to say, the PP’s control of Spain is fragile.

 

Starting in 2014 the Spanish economy began to grow, unemployment came down, and Spain seemed on its way back to economic health. Or at least that is the story the Popular Party and the EU is peddling.

 

The economy is the fastest growing in the EU, averaging around 3 percent a year. Next year projections are that it will grow 2.5 percent. Unemployment has dropped from 28 percent—50 percent for youth—to just over 17 percent.

 

But youth unemployment is at 37 percent, the second highest in Europe, and wages have still not caught up to where they were before the 2008 crisis. Spain is adding some 60,000 jobs a year, but many of them are temporary and without the same benefits as full time workers.

 

This temp worker strategy is continent-wide. Of the 5.2 million jobs created between 2013 and 2016, some 2.1 million were temporary.

 

The “recovery” is partly due to “labor reforms” that make it easier to layoff workers and replace full-time workers with “temps.” The shift has been from full-time workers protected by labor agreements to insecure temps with few protections. While that might make products cheaper and, thus, more attractive, it impoverishes the work force.

 

The strategy has become so widespread that economists have borrowed a term from physics to describe it: hysteresis.

 

Hysteresis describes a phenomenon where force permanently distorts what it is applied to.

 

“When unemployment is high for a long period of time, the shape of the labour market alters,” says Financial Times economist Claire Jones. “Would-be workers lose their skills, or find that technology or other economic forces make them obsolete. When the recovery comes, they are unable to join in. longer-term, or structural levels of unemployment set in and economy’s potential diminishes.”

 

In short, hysteresis produces an army of under and unemployed workers, whose living standards decline and who are economically marginalized. It also creates a vicious cycle that eventually dampens an economy. If governments are not spending—and under the strictures of the troika that is a given—and if consumers don’t have money, growth will eventually come to a halt, or at least become so anemic that it will be unable to absorb the influx of a younger generation.

 

Those marginalized communities and sectors of the economy are fertile ground for rightists who use xenophobia and racism to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment, as recent elections in Europe and the U.S. have demonstrated.

 

The vote by Britain to withdraw from the EU was put down to racism, but ,while anti-immigrant sentiment did play a role in the Brexit, that argument is a vast oversimplification of what happened. Much of the Brexit vote was not so much xenophobic as a repudiation of the major political parties that abandoned whole sectors of the country.

This particularly included the policies instituted by former Prime Minister Tony Blair and the “New Labour Party” that jettisoned its ties with the trade union movement and bought into the neo-liberal policies of free trade and globalization.

 

However, many of those Brexit voters turned around a few months later and backed the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbin’s left agenda. Given an opportunity to vote for ending the long reign of austerity, and for free university tuition, improved health services, and re-nationalizing transportation, they voted Labour, xenophobia be dammed.

 

Because the Spanish Popular Party claims that the current economic recovery is the direct result of its austerity and labor policies, other EU players are paying attention to the Catalan vote. If the vote goes badly for Catalan independence—and polls are currently showing it will be defeated 42 percent to 48 percent—the PP will claim a victory, not only over Catalan separatism, but also for the Party’s economic recovery strategy.

 

The French are certainly paying attention. Newly elected President Emmanuel Macron is preparing a similar program of cutbacks and labor “reforms” that he intends to ram through by executive decree, bypassing the French parliament.

 

A victory for the PP is also in the interests of the troika as proof that its recovery formula works, even though the track record of austerity as a cure has few success stories, and even those are questionable. For instance, low energy prices and a weak euro have more to do with the Spanish recovery than cutbacks in social services and the evisceration of labor codes.

 

The Popular Party should be riding high these days, but in fact its poll numbers are declining. It is still the largest party in Spain, but that translates into only 31 percent of the voters. Between them, the Spanish Socialist Party and the leftist Podemos Party garner just short of 40 percent.

 

Part of the PP’s woes stem from the fact that many Spaniards recognize there is something sour about the recent “recovery,” but there are also the corruption charges leveled at the PP, charges that have even ensnared Mariano Rajoy. The Prime Minister was recently forced to testify in a bribery and fraud case against some leading members of his Party.

 

While the Socialists have also been tarred with the corruption brush, the current case has riveted the public’s attention because some of it reads like a script from the Sopranos. The key defendant is Francisco Correa, who likes to be called Don Vito, Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather. Two of his associates are known as The Moustache and The Pearl. Correa and 10 others have already been sentenced to prison for fraud and bribery, but Correa is also on trial for setting up a slush fund. Rajoy testified in that trial, although so far the Prime Minister is not accused of any wrongdoing.

 

A survey by the CIS Institute found that almost 50 percent of Spanish voters are deeply concerned with corruption, and that sentiment is dragging the Popular Party down.

 

The left and center-left parties are split on the Catalan question. Both oppose separatism, but they come at it very differently. Podemos is urging a “no” vote Oct. 1, but it supports the right of the Catalans to have their initiative. That position, along with Podemos’s progressive political program, has made it the number one party in Catalonia.

 

The Socialists have traditionally opposed Catalan separatism, and even the right of the Catalans to vote on the issue. But that position has softened since a major upheaval in the party that began last year when the Socialist’s right wing pulled off a coup and drove the Party’s left wing out of power. But the Socialist right-wingers made a major mistake by voting to allow Rajoy to form a minority government and continue the austerity policies. That move was too much for the Party’s rank and file, who threw out the right this past May and reinstated the Socialist’s left wing.

 

The Socialists’ willingness to consider allowing the initiative is partly a matter of simple math. The Party’s opposition to Catalan independence has resulted in it being virtually annihilated in the province, and no Socialist Party has ever come to power in Spain without winning Catalonia.

 

Whatever happens Oct. 1, Spain is not going to be the same country it has been since the restoration of democracy in 1977. The old two-party domination of the government is over, and there is general recognition that there has to be some shift on the Catalan question. Even Rajoy—who has hinted that he might consider using the military to block the Oct. 1 vote, or ruling the province from Madrid—has offered to give Barcelona the same deal the Basque province have. That would include collecting taxes, something Catalans now don’t have the right to do.

 

There is no little irony in Rajoy’s offer. When the Catalans made that same offer in 2012, Rajoy and the Popular Party wouldn’t even discuss the proposal. It is a measure of how the issue has evolved that Rajoy is now making the same offer as the Catalans did a half decade ago.

 

Polls—weak reeds to lean on these days—show the initiative going down to defeat, but the situation is fluid. Rajoy’s recent proposal and the softening of the Socialist Party’s position might convince the majority of Catalans that some kind of deal can be cut. Young Catalans favor independence, but older Catalans are uncomfortable with what will be a leap into darkness.

 

On the other hand, if Rajoy comes down hard it will likely bolster the “no” vote.

 

The European Union is in a crisis of its own making. By blocking its members from pursuing different strategies for confronting economic trouble and, instead, insisting on one-size-fits-all strictures, the trade group has set loose centrifugal forces that now threaten to tear the organization apart.

 

The eastern members of the EU have charted a course that throttles democracy in the name of stability. The southern members of the bloc are struggling to emerge from austerity regimes that have inflicted widespread, possibly permanent, damage to their economies. Even members with powerful economies, like Germany and France, are trying to keep the lid on the desire of their people for a better standard of living.

 

The Catalan vote reflects many of these crosscurrents, and is likely to be felt far beyond the borders of Iberia.

 

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Spain’s Turmoil and Europe’s Crisis

Spain’s Turmoil & Europe’s Crisis

Dispatches From the Edge

Oct. 7, 2026

 

While the chaos devouring Spain’s Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) mixed elements of farce and tragedy, the issues roiling Spanish politics reflect a general crisis in the European Union (EU) and a sober warning to the continent: Europe’s 500 million people need answers, and the old formulas are not working.

 

On the tragedy side was the implosion of a 137-year old party that at one point claimed the allegiance of half of Spain’s people now reduced to fratricidal infighting. The PSOE’s embattled General Secretary Pedro Sanchez was forced to resign when party grandees and regional leaders organized a coup against his plan to form a united front of the left.

 

The farce was street theater, literally: Veronica Perez, the president of the PSOE’s Federal Committee and a coup supporter, was forced to hold a press conference on a sidewalk in Madrid because Sanchez’s people barred her from the Party’s headquarters.

 

There was no gloating by the Socialists main competitors on the left. Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, somberly called it “the most important crisis since the end of the civil war in the most important Spanish party in the past century.”

 

That the party coup is a crisis for Spain there is no question, but the issues that prevented the formation of a working government for the past nine months are the same ones Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, Irish—and before they jumped ship, the British—are wresting with: growing economic inequality, high unemployment, stagnant economies, and whole populations abandoned by Europe’s elites.

 

The spark for the PSOE’s meltdown was a move by Sanchez, to break the political logjam convulsing Spanish politics. The current crisis goes back to the Dec. 20 2015 national elections that saw Spain’s two traditional parties—the rightwing People’s Party (PP), led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and Sanchez’s Socialists—take a beating. The PP lost 63 seats and its majority and the PSOE lost 20 seats. Two new parties, the leftwing Podemos and the rightwing nationalist party Ciudadanos, crashed the party, winning 69 seats and 40 seats, respectively.

 

While the PP took the most seats, it was not enough for a majority in the 350-seat legislature, which requires 176. In theory, the PSOE could have cobbled together a government with Podemos, Catalans and independents, but the issue of Catalonian independence got in the way.

 

The Catalans demand the right to hold a referendum on independence, something the PP, the Socialists and Ciudadanos bitterly oppose. While Podemos is also opposed to Spain’s richest province breaking free of the country, it supports the right of the Catalans to vote on the issue. Catalonia was conquered in 1715 during the War of the Spanish Succession, and Madrid has oppressed the Catalans’ language and culture ever since.

 

The Catalan issue is an important one for Spain, but the PSOE could have shelved its opposition to a referendum and made common cause with Podemos, the Catalans and the independents. Instead, Sanchez formed a pact with Ciudadanos and asked Podemos to join the alliance.

 

For Podemos, that would have been a poison pill. A major reason why Podemos is the number one party in Catalonia is because it supports the right of Catalans to hold a referendum. If it had joined with the Socialists and Ciudadanos it would have alienated a significant part of its base.

 

It is possible that’s what Sanchez’s had in mind, reasoning that Podemos’ refusal to join with the Socialists and Ciudadanos would hurt it with voters. Sanchez gambled that another election would see the Socialists expand at the expense of Podemos and give it enough seats to form a government.

 

That was a serious misjudgment. The June 26 election saw PSOE lose five more seats and turn in its worst ever performance. Ciudadanos also lost seats. While Podemos lost votes—at least 1 million—it retained the same number of deputies. The only winner was the Popular Party, which poached eight seats from Ciudadanos for an increase of 14. However, once again no party won enough seats to form a government.

 

The current crisis is the fallout from the June election. Rajoy, claiming the PP had “won” the election, formed an alliance with Ciudadanos and asked the PSOE to either support him or abstain from voting and allow him to form a minority government. Sanchez refused, convinced that allowing Rajoy to form a government would be a boon to Podemos and the end of the Socialists.

 

There is a good deal of precedent for that conclusion. The Greek Socialist Party formed a grand coalition with the right and was subsequently decimated by the leftwing Syriza Party. The German Social Democratic Party’s alliance with the conservative Christian Democratic Union has seen the once mighty organization slip below 20 percent in the polls. England’s Liberal Democratic Party was destroyed by its alliance with the Conservatives.

 

The ostensible reason Sanchez was forced out was that he led the Socialists to two straight defeats in national elections and oversaw the beating the PSOE took in recent local elections in the Basque region and Galicia. But the decline of the Socialists predated Sanchez. The party has been bleeding supporters for over a decade, a process that accelerated after it abandoned its social and economic programs in 2010 and oversaw a mean-spirited austerity regime.

 

The PSOE has long been riven with political and regional rivalries. Those divisions surfaced when Sanchez finally decided to try an alliance with Podemos, the Catalans and independents, which suggests he was willing to reconsider his opposition to a Catalan referendum. That’s when Susana Diaz, the Socialist leader in Spain’s most populous province, Andalusia, pulled the trigger on the coup. Six out of seven PSOE regional leaders backed her. Diaz will likely take the post of General Secretary after the PSOE’s convention in several weeks.

 

The Andalusian leader has already indicated she will let Rajoy form a minority government. “First we need to give Spain a government,” she said, “and then open a deep debate in the PSOE.” Sanchez was never very popular—dismissed as a good looking lightweight—but the faction that ousted him may find that rank and file Socialists are not overly happy with a coup that helped usher in a rightwing government. This crisis is far from over.

 

In the short run the Popular Party is the winner, but Rajoy’s ruling margin will be paper-thin. Most commentators think that Podemos will emerge as the main left opposition. While the Socialists did poorly in Galicia and the Basque regions, Podemos did quite well, an outcome that indicates that talk of its “decline” after last June’s election is premature. In contrast, Ciudadanos drew a blank in the regional voting, suggesting that the party is losing its national profile and heading back to being a regional Catalan party.

 

Hanging over this is the puzzle of what went wrong for the left in the June election, particularly given that the polls indicated a generally favorable outcome for them? It is an important question because while Rajoy may get his government, there are few willing to bet it will last very long.

 

Part of the outcome was its dreadful timing: two days after the English and the Welsh voted to pull the United Kingdom out of the European Union. The “Brexit” was a shock to all of Europe and hit Spain particularly hard. The country’ stock market lost some $70 billion, losses that fed the scare campaign the PP and the PSOE were running against Podemos.

 

Even though Podemos supports EU membership, the right and the center warned that, if the leftwing party won the election, it would accelerate the breakup of Europe and encourage the Catalans to push for independence. The Brexit pushed fear to the top of the agenda, and when people are afraid they tend to vote for stability.

 

But some of the lost votes came because Podemos confused some of its own supporters by moderating its platform. At one point Iglesias even said that Podemos was “neither right nor left.” The Party abandoned its call for a universal basic income, replacing it with a plan for a minimum wage, no different than the Socialist Party’s program. And dropping the universal basic income demand alienated some of the anti-austerity forces that still make up the shock troops in ongoing fights over poverty and housing in cities like Madrid and Barcelona.

 

Podemos was also hurt by Spain’s undemocratic electoral geography, where rural votes count more than urban ones. It takes 125,000 votes to elect a representative in Madrid, 38,000 in some rural areas. The PP and the PSOE are strong in the countyside, while Podemos is strong in the cities.

 

Podemos had formed a pre-election alliance—“United We Can”—with Spain’s Unite Left (UL), an established party of left groups that includes the Communist Party, but made little effort to mobilize it. Indeed, Iglesias disparaged IU members as “sad, boring and bitter” and “defeatists whose pessimism is infectious,” language that did not endear IU’s rank and file to Podemos. Figures show that Podemos did poorly in areas where the IU was strong.

The Galicia and Basque elections indicate that Podemos is still a national force. The Party will likely pick up PSOE’s members who cannot tolerate the idea that their party would allow the likes of Rajoy to form a government. Podemos will also need to shore up its alliance with the IU and curb its language about old leftists (which young leftists tend to eventually become).

 

The path for the Socialists is less certain.

 

If the PSOE is not to become a footnote in Spain’s history, it will have to suppress its hostility to Podemos and recognize that two party domination of the country is in the past. The Socialists will also have to swallow their resistance to a Catalan referendum, if for no other reason than it will be impossible to block it in the long run. Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont recently announced an independence plebiscite would be held no later than September 2017 regardless of what Madrid wants.

 

The right in Spain may have a government, but it is not one supported by the majority of the country’s people. Nor will its programs address Spain’s unemployment rate—at 20 percent the second highest in Europe behind Greece—or the country’s crisis in health care, education and housing.

 

For the left, unity would seem to be the central goal, similar to Portugal, where the Portuguese Socialist Workers Party formed a united front with the Left Bloc and the Communist/Green Alliance. While the united front has its divisions, the parties put them aside in the interests of rolling back some of the austerity policies that have made Portugal the home of Europe’s greatest level of economic inequality.

 

The importance of the European left finding common ground is underscored by the rising power of the extreme right in countries like France, Austria, England, Poland, Greece, Hungry, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Germany. The economic and social crises generated by almost a decade of austerity and growing inequality needs programmatic solutions that only the left has the imagination to construct.

 

One immediate initiative would be to join Syriza’s and Podemos’ call for a European debt conference modeled on the 1953 London Conference that canceled much of Germany’s wartime debt and ignited the German economy.

 

But the left needs to hurry lest xenophobia, racism, hate and repression, the four horsemen of the right’s apocalypse, engulf Europe.

 

—30—

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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