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Lessons from Spain for the Left

Spanish Elections

Dispatches From The Edge

May. 10, 2019

 

There were several lessons to take from last month’s Spanish elections, some special to Spain, others that resonate continent wide. Since the 28-member European Union is preparing to vote on the makeup of the European Parliament at the end of May, those lessons are relevant.

 

On the surface the outcome seemed pretty straightforward: Spain’s Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) picked up lots of seats—but not enough to form a government—the country’s traditional center-right Popular Party (PP) took a pounding, the ultra-right edged into parliament and the center did well.

 

But Spain’s politics are as complex as the country’s geography, and certainly not as simple as the New York Time’s analysis that the outcome was a “strong pro-European Union vote” that will allow Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez “to tackle Spain’s neglected economic challenges.”

 

For starters, the majority did not vote for the EU, but, to the contrary, against the devastation the huge trading bloc has inflicted on Spain through a decade of austerity measures. The Spanish Socialists ran on a platform of jobs creation, implementing a US-inspired “Green New Deal,” a 22 percent jump in the minimum wage and greater funding for education and science, all issues that run counter to the tight-fisted policies of the EU.

 

Indeed, if the European Union had been on the ballot it might have gone badly for Brussels, not exactly a Spexit, but hardly a ringing endorsement.

 

Part of the Socialist victory reflected the profound ineptness of the opposition on the right.

 

For more than 40 years, the Popular Party has been an umbrella for the Spanish right, ranging from conservative businessmen and small farmers to unreconstructed supporters of the fascist dictator, Francisco Franco. But when the left-wing Podemos Party won 20 percent of the vote in 2015, it unleashed centrifugal forces that smashed up the old two-party system that had dominated the country since the death of Franco in 1975.

 

Besides opening the political landscape to multiple parties, including the center right Ciudadanos , or “Citizens” Party, it put immeasurable strains on the Socialist and Popular parties.

 

In the case of the latter, the PP’s extreme right jumped ship and formed “Vox,” whose policies are little different than Franco’s: opposition to abortion, equal rights for women, gay rights, immigration, and regional autonomy. The Party won almost 11 percent of the vote in a recent election in Andalusia, Spain’s most populous province. It is currently part of the province’s ruling coalition, which includes the PP and Citizens, but underperformed in last month’ vote.

 

The PP’s turn to the right as a strategy to peel off Vox votes was a disaster. Women, in particular, felt threatened by some of the Party’s anti-abortion talk, and the PP’s candidates handpicked by Party leader Pablo Casado were underwhelming.

 

The Socialists also had their divisions. In 2016 the PSOE’s rightwing engineered the ouster of Sanchez after he considered forming a government with Podemos and several small regional parties. The rightwing of the Socialists then allowed the PP to form a minority government, a move that did not sit well with the Party’s rank and file.

 

Sanchez barnstormed the country, rallying the Socialist’s left wing and taking back the Party’s leadership seven months later. In this last election the PSOE stayed united, a major reason why Sanchez is in a position to form a government.

 

Was the election a victory for the center? There is not a lot of evidence for that. While Citizens did well—it bypassed Unidos-Podemos to become the third largest party in the parliament with 57 seats—most of its votes came from former PP members alienated by the Popular Party’s sharp turn to the right and the profound corruption that has enmeshed many of its leaders.

 

The PP, Citizens and Vox all pounded away at the Catalan independence movement and immigration, two issues that did not resonate very strongly with the electorate. A poll by Spain’s Centre for Sociological Research showed that voters were most concerned with unemployment (61.8 percent), corruption (33.3 percent) and the state of the political parties (29.1 percent). Only 8.9 percent felt immigration was a major issue, and Catalan independence was a concern for only 11 percent.

 

In short, when the right was railing away at the Catalans and immigrants, most of the voters tuned out.

 

The leftist UP also took a beating, dropping from 71 to 42 seats, but that was partly due to a falling out between the two major Podemos leaders, Pablo Iglesias and Inigo Errejon, and disagreements on how closely the leftist alliance should align itself with the Socialists. In contrast, the leftwing Catalan parties did well.

 

The Socialists now face two major problems.

 

First, there is the PSOE’s program that, if instituted, would certainly ease the austerity policies of the EU and the PP that have inflicted such pain on the bulk of Spaniards. While unemployment has come down from its height during the years following the 2008 financial crash, many of those jobs are low paying, benefit-free, temporary gigs.

 

A Green New Deal would confront climate change and create new jobs. Repairing the social safety net that the PP and the EU have shredded would not only make people’s lives easier, it would stimulate the economy.

 

But the EU is pressing for almost $28 billion in government spending cuts, that, if agreed to, would make much of the Socialists’ program stillborn. Faced with the demands of capital, on one hand, and the misery of yet more austerity, many socialist parties—with the exception of Britain’s and Portugal’s—have gone along with the strictures of the EU.

 

When they do, they pay the price: center-left parties all over Europe have been decimated for buying into the debt reduction strategy of the EU. Socialist parties tend to run from the left and govern from the center, but if Sanchez does that, the Party’s support will evaporate.

 

Secondly, there is the Catalan problem. While Sanchez has pledged to open a dialogue with the Catalans, he has steadfastly refused to consider their demand for a referendum on independence. The Socialist leader argues that he is constrained by the Spanish constitution that explicitly forbids provinces from seceding. But the constitution was drawn up only a few years after Franco’s death and is deeply flawed on a number of different levels, including giving rural regions greater representation than urban areas.

 

The refusal of Sanchez to consider a referendum makes “dialogue” an empty phrase. It is not even clear if the majority of Catalans would vote for independence, although the policies of Madrid—in particular the brutal crushing of a referendum effort this past October, and the arrest and imprisonment of Catalan leaders—certainly seems to have increased separatist sentiment. In the recent election Catalan independence parties won a majority in the Provence.

 

Sanchez may try to construct a coalition without the Catalan parties, which would be a major mistake. Many of the Catalan parties are more simpatico to the PSOE on economic and social matters than some of the other regional parties the Socialists will try to recruit to form a government. And, as the recent election showed, people want some answers to their economic problems.

 

The Socialists will certainly be attacked by the right if they allow a referendum, but the PP labeled them “terrorists” in this last election and the majority of voters didn’t buy it. The referendum could require a super majority—maybe 60 percent—to pass, because it would be folly to take the province out of Spain on the basis of a narrow win.

 

But the Catalan question cannot be dispersed with tear gas, billy clubs or prisons, and constitutions are not immutable documents.

 

For European parties on the center-left, Spain’s elections had a message: the old days of campaigning on left social democracy when you’re running for office and ruling with careful centrism once you get into power are over. People want answers.

 

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EU Elections: Europe Confronts a Cliff

European Union Elections: A Crossroad

Dispatches From The Edge

Mar. 26, 2019

 

 

As the campaigns for the European Parliament get underway, some of the traditional lines that formerly divided left, right and center are shifting, making it harder to easily categorize political parties. In Italy, a right wing coalition calls for a guaranteed income, larger pensions and resistance to the heavy-handed austerity programs enforced by the European Union (EU). In France, some right wing groups champion the fight against climate change, decry exploitation of foreign workers and growing economic inequality.

 

In contrast, Europe’s political center seems paralyzed in the face of growing disillusionment with the economic policies of the EU. Even the social democratic center-left defends doctrines that have alienated its former base among unions and working people, pushing such parties to the political margins.

 

If voters seem confused, one can hardly blame them, which is not good news for the left and the center-left going into the May 23-26 elections. Polls show center-right and center-left parties, which have dominated the EU Parliament since it first convened in 1979, will lose their majority. Parties that are increasingly skeptical of the organization may win as many as a third of the seats in the 705-seat body.

 

However, “Euro-skeptic,” like “populist,” is a term that obscures more than it reveals. In the polls, the two are lumped together in spite of profound differences. The Spanish left party, Podemos, is not likely to break bread with Italy’s rightwing League/ Five Star alliance, but both are considered “Euro-skeptic.” Podemos, along with Greece’s Syriza, Portugal’s three party center-left alliance, and La France Insoumise (“Unbowed”) are critical of the EU’s economic policies, but they do not share an agenda with xenophobic and racist parties like the League, France’s National Rally—formally, National Front—and the Alternative for Germany (AfG).

 

Which doesn’t mean that the upcoming election doesn’t pose a serious threat, in part because the Right has adopted some of the Left’s longstanding issues.

 

In Italy, Mario Salvini, leader of the League, says the EU elections will be fought between a Europe “of the elites, of banks, of finance and immigration and precarious work,” and a “Europe of people and labor.” Take out “immigrants,” and the demagogy of the Right sounds a lot like something Karl Marx might write.

 

In France, young right-wingers put out a lively environmental magazine, Limite, which wars against climate change. Marion Marechal Le Pen—granddaughter of Jean Marie Le Pen, the rightwing, anti-Semitic founder of the old National Front—rails against individualism and the global economy that “enslaves” foreign labor and casts French workers on the scrap heap.

 

Of course, she also trashes immigrants and Islam, while advocating for a “traditional Christian community” that sounds like Dark Ages Europe.

 

During the 1990s, the center-left—the French, Spanish and Greek socialists, the German Social Democrats, and British Labour—adopted the “market friendly” economic philosophy of neo-liberalism: free trade and globalization, tax cuts for the wealthy, privatization of public resources, and “reforming” the labor market by making it easier to hire and fire employees. The result has been the weakening of trade unions and a shift from long-term stable contracts to short-term “gigs.” The latter tend to pay less and rarely include benefits.

 

Spain is a case in point.

 

On the one hand, Spain’s economy is recovering from the 2008 crash brought on by an enormous real estate bubble. Unemployment has dropped from over 27 percent to 14.5 percent, and the country’s growth rate is the highest in the EU.

 

On the other hand, 90 percent of the jobs created in 2017 were temporary jobs, some lasting only a few days. Wages and benefits have not caught up to pre-crash levels and Spanish workers’ share of the national income fell from 63 percent in 2007 to 56 percent today, reflecting the loss in real wages.

 

Even in France, which still has a fairly robust network of social services, economic disparity is on the rise. From 1950 to 1982, most French workers saw their incomes increase at a rate of 4 percent a year, while the wealth of the elite went up by just 1 percent. But after 1983—when neo-liberal economics first entered the continent—the income for most French workers rose by less than 1 percent a year, while the wealth of the elite increased 100 percent after taxes.

 

The “recovery” has come about through the systematic lowering of living standards, a sort of reverse globalization: rather than relying on cheap foreign labor in places where trade unions are absent or suppressed, the educated and efficient home grown labor force is forced to accept lower wages and fewer—if any—benefits.

 

The outcome is a growing impoverishment of what was formally considered “middle class”—a slippery term, but one that the International Labor Organization defines as making an income of between 80 percent and 120 percent of a country’s medium income. By that definition, between 23 and 40 percent of EU households fall into it.

 

For young people, the “new economy” has been a catastrophe. More and more of them are forced to immigrate or live at home to make ends meet, putting off marriage and children for the indefinite future.

 

This income crunch is adding to a demographic crisis. In a modern industrial society, the required replacement rate of births to deaths is 2.1. The world’s replacement rate is 2.44. If economies fall under 2.1, they are in for long-term trouble. Eventually the work force will be insufficient to support health care, education, sanitation, and infrastructure repair.

 

The EU posts a replacement rate of only 1.57. Germany is one of the few EU countries that has shown a rise in the ratio—from 1.50 to 1.59—but that is almost completely due to the one million immigrants the country took in four years ago.

 

The three countries that are leading the crusade against immigrants—Hungary, Poland and Italy—are in particular trouble.

 

Hungary, where strongman Victor Orban has made immigration a central issue for his rightwing government, is struggling with a major labor shortage. Orban recently rammed through a law requiring Hungarians to work 400 overtime hours a year to fill the shortfall, and he has been berating Hungarian women to have more babies.

 

In Italy, the rightwing League/Five Star Movement rode anti-immigrant rhetoric to power in the last spring’s election, but with a replacement ratio of only 1.31—the lowest in the EU—the country is losing the equivalent of the population of the city of Bologna every three years. All one has to do to see where this ends is to look at Japan, where an aging population has created such a crisis that the normally xenophobic Japanese are importing health care workers. China has similar demographic problems.

 

Playing on fears of a migrant “invasion” alarms people, but is it an assured vote getter? In recent German elections, the AfG ran strong anti-immigrant campaigns but ended up losing badly to the Greens. The latter have a more welcoming posture vis-à-vis migrants than even the German Social Democrats.

 

If Germany does not address the problem, its population will decline from 81 million to 67 million by 2060, and the workforce will be reduced to 54 percent of the population, not nearly enough to keep the country’s current level of social spending.

 

Much was made of recent electoral gains by the anti-immigrant neo-fascist Vox Party in Spain’s southern province of Andalusia, but if Spain does shut down the flow of migrants it will be in serious difficulty. The country’s population has declined since 2012, and there are provinces where the ratio of deaths to births is three to one. More than 1500 small towns have been abandoned.

 

Polls indicate that immigration tops EU voters’ concerns, but just. It is only a few percentage points ahead of the economy and youth unemployment.

 

The right—in particular Hungary’s Orban—has done a masterful job of tying “liberal” to the neo-liberal policies of the EU. Unfortunately, it is an easy argument to make. Most “liberals” in the west associate the term with freedom, democracy and open societies, but many people in the EU experience “liberal” as a philosophy of rapacious individualism that has dismantled social services, widened the gap between rich and poor, and enforced a system of draconian austerity.

 

Of course Orban, Marine Le Pen, the League’s Matteo Salvini, and Germany’s AfG are interested in power, not the plight of the EU’s 500 million citizens. And for all its talk of resistance, the League/Five Star Movement government folded when the EU nixed an Italian budget that included a guaranteed income and higher pensions.

 

Global migration is on the rise as climate change drowns coastlines and river deltas and drought drives people out of arid climates in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and Latin America. By 2060, as many as 3 billion people could be affected.

 

Which argues that the Left and center-left has a responsibility not only to resist the economic philosophy that currently dominates the EU, but to see immigrants for what they are: potential allies and the future.

 

As for the Right, it is useful to recall some not so ancient history. In 1934, the Nazi Party’s German Labor Front struck a medal that read “Tag Der Arbeit” (“The Day of Labor”) and featured a Nazi eagle grasping a swastika, each wing tip embracing a hammer and a sickle—but the first victims of the Nazis were communists and trade unionists.

 

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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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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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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.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The European Union and the Left

The EU & the Left

Dispatches From The edge

Jan. 10, 2017

 

When European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg this past September, he told them the organization was facing an “existential crisis” and “national governments so weakened by the forces of populism and paralyzed by the risk of defeat in the next election.”

 

Indeed it has been a bad year for the huge trading group:

  • The “Breixit,” or the United Kingdom’s vote to withdraw.
  • Rome’s referendum to amend the country’s constitution was trounced, and several Italian banks are in deep trouble.
  • The austerity policies of the EU have kept most of its members’ economies either anemic or dead in the water. Even those showing growth, like Ireland and Spain, have yet to return to where they were before the 2008 economic melt down. Between 2007 and 2016, purchasing power fell 8 percent in Spain and 11 percent in Italy,

 

It is also true that number of national governments—in particular those in Germany and France—are looking nervously over their shoulders at parties to their right.

 

But the crisis of the EU does not spring from “populism,” a term that many times obscures more than it reveals, lumping together neo-fascist parties, like France’s National Front and Germany’s Alternative for Germany, with left parties, like Spain’s Podemos. Populism, as Juncker uses it, has a vaguely atavistic odor to it: ignorant peasants with torches and pitchforks storming the citadels of civilization.

 

But the barbarians at the EU’s gate did not just appear out of Europe’s dark forests like the Goths and Vandals of old. They were raised up by the profoundly flawed way that the Union was established in the first place, flaws that did not reveal themselves until an economic crisis took center stage.

 

That the crisis is existential, there is little doubt. In fact, the odds are pretty good that the EU will not be here in its current form a decade from now—and possibly considerably sooner. But Juncker’s solutions include a modest spending program aimed at business, closer military ties among the 28—soon to be 27—members of the organization, and the creation of a “European Solidarity Corps” of young volunteers to help out in cases of disasters, like earthquakes. But there was nothing to address the horrendous unemployment rate among young Europeans. In short, rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs while the ice looms up to starboard.

 

But what is to be done is not obvious, nor is how one goes about reforming or dismantling an organization that currently produces a third of the world’s wealth. The complexity of the task has entangled Europe’s left in a sharp debate, the outcome of which will go a long way toward determining whether the EU—now a house divided between wealthy countries and debt-ridden ones—can survive.

 

It is not that the European left is strong, but it is the only player with a possible strategy to break the cycle of debt and low growth. The politics of racism, hatred of immigrants, and reactionary nationalism espoused by the National Front, the Alternative For Germany, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Denmark’s People’s Party, and Austria’s Freedom Party, will not generate economic growth, any more than Donald Trump will bring back jobs for U.S. steelworkers and coal miners and “make America great again.”

 

Indeed, if the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany Party gets its way, that country will be in deep trouble. German deaths currently outnumber births by 200,000 a year, a figure that is accelerating. According to the Berlin Institute for Population and Development, to have a sufficient working-age population that can support a stable pension system, the country will require an influx of 500,000 immigrants a year for the next 35 years.

 

Many other European countries are in the same boat.

 

There are several currents among the European left, ranging from those who call for a full withdrawal, or “Lexit,” to reforms that would democratize the organization.

 

There is certainly a democracy deficit in the EU. The European Parliament has little power, with most key decisions made by the unelected “troika”—the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank, and the European Commission. The troika’s rigid debt policies mean members have lost the ability to manage their own economies or challenge the mantra that debt requires austerity, even though that formula has clearly been a failure.

 

As economists Markus Brunnermeier, Harold James, and Jean-Pierre Landau point out in their book “The Euro and the Battle of Ideas,” growth is impossible when consumers, corporations, and governments all stop spending. The only outcome for that formula is misery and more debt. Even the IMF has begun to question austerity.

 

But would a little more democracy really resolve this problem?

 

Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, a long-time critic of austerity, argues that while the EU does indeed need to be democratized, a major problem is the common currency. The euro is used by 19 of the EU’s 28 members that constitute the Eurozone.

 

Stiglitz argues that the Euro locked everyone into the German economic model of modest wages coupled with a high power export economy. But one size does not fit all, and when the economic crisis hit in 2008, that became painfully obvious. Those EU members that used a common currency were unable to devalue their currency—a standard economic strategy to deal with debt.

 

There is also no way to transfer wealth within the EU, unlike in the U.S. Powerful economies like California and New York have long paid the bills for states like Louisiana and Mississippi. As Stiglitz points out, “a lack of shared fiscal policy” in the EU made it “impossible to transfer wealth (via tax receipts) from richer states to poorer ones, ensuring growing inequality between the core and the periphery of Europe.”

 

Stiglitz proposes a series of reforms, including economic stimulus, creating a “flexible” euro, and removing the rigid requirement that no country can carry a deficit of more than 3 percent of GDP.

 

Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, however, argues that the Union “is not suffering from a democratic deficit that can be fixed with a ‘little more democracy’ and a few reforms here and there.” The EU, he says, “was constructed intentionally as a democracy-free zone” to keep people out of decision-making process and to put business and finance in charge.

 

Is the machine so flawed that it ought to be dismantled? That is the opinion of British Pakistani writer and journalist Tariq Ali and King’s College Reader in politics, Stathis Kouvelakis, both whom supported the Brexit and are urging a campaign to hold similar referenda in other EU member countries.

 

But since that that position is already occupied by the xenophobic right, how does the left argue for Lexit without entangling itself with racist neo-Nazis? Varoufakis, a leading member of the left formation, DiEM25, asks whether “such a campaign is consistent with the Left’s fundamental principles” of internationalism?

 

He also argues that a Lexit would destroy the EU’s common environmental policy and the free movement of members, both of which find strong support among young people.

 

Is re-establishing borders and fences really what the left stands for, and wouldn’t re-nationalizing the fossil fuel industry simply turn environmental policies over to the multi-national energy giants? “Under the Lexit banner, in my estimation,” says Varoufakis, “the Left is heading for monumental defeats on both fronts.”

 

DiEM25 proposes a third way to challenge the disastrous policies of the EU, while avoiding a return to borders and “every country for itself” environmental policies. What is needed, according to Varoufakis, is “a pan-European movement of civil and governmental disobedience” to create a “democratic opposition to the way European elites do business at the local, national and EU levels.”

 

The idea is to avoid the kind of trap that Greece’s left party, Syriza, has found itself in: running against austerity only to find itself instituting the very policies it ran against.

 

What DiEM25 is proposing is simply to refuse to institute EU austerity rules, a strategy that will only work if the resistance is EU-wide. When Greece tried to resist the troika, the European Central Bank threatened to destroy the country’s economy, and Syriza folded. But if resistance is widespread enough, that will not be so easy to do. In any case, he says, “the debt-deflationary spiral that drives masses of Europeans into hopelessness and places them under the spell of bigotry” is not acceptable.

 

DiEM25 also calls for a universal basic income, a proposal that is supported by 64 percent of the EU’s members.

 

Portugal’s left has had the most success with trying to roll back the austerity measures that caused widespread misery throughout the country. The center-left Socialist Party formed a coalition with the Left Bloc, and the Communist/Green Alliance put aside their differences, and restored public sector wages and state pensions to pre-crisis levels. The economy only grew 1.2 percent in 2016 (slightly less than the EU as a whole), but it was enough to drop unemployment from 12.6 percent to 10 percent. The deficit has also declined.

 

Spain’s Podemos and Jeremy Corbyn of the British Labour Party have hailed the Portuguese left coalition as a model for an anti-austerity alliance across the continent.

 

Debt is the 800-pound gorilla in the living room. Most of the debt for countries like Spain, Portugal and Ireland was not the result of spendthrift ways. All three countries had positive balances until the real estate bubble pumped up by private speculators and banks burst in 2008, and taxpayers picked up the pieces. The “bailouts” from the troika came with onerous austerity measures attached, and most of the money went straight to the banks that had set off the crisis in the first place.

 

For small or underdeveloped countries, it will be impossible to pay off those debts. When Germany found itself in a similar position after World War II, other countries agreed to cut its debt in half, lower interest rates and spread out payments. The 1952 London Debt Conference led to an industrial boom that turned Germany into the biggest economy in Europe. There is no little irony in the fact that the current Berlin government is insisting on applying economic policies to debt-ridden countries that would have strangled that German post-war recovery had they not been modified.

 

It is possible that the EU cannot be reformed, but it seems early in the process to conclude that. In any case, DiEM25’s proposal to practice union-wide civil disobedience has not really been tried, and it certainly has potential as an organizing tool. It is already being implemented in several “rebel” cities like Barcelona, Naples, Berlin, Bristol, Krakow, Warsaw and Porto, where local mayors and city councils are digging in their heels and fighting back.

 

For that to be successful throughout the EU, however, the left will have to sideline some of the disputes that divide it and reach out to new constituencies. If it does not, the right has a dangerous narrative waiting in the wings.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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