In the Wake of Last Month’s Vote, Spain’s Sliding to the Far, Far Left
Podemos and other leftist parties were big winners in municipal elections. Now they’ve got to figure out how to run Spain’s big cities—and maybe the country.
MADRID — It’s been two weeks, now, since the bombshell results in the Spanish municipal elections, and the dust has settled, but the shock and awe remain. The implications are clear and they are radical: six months before the next elections for the national government, the country’s “new” communists are taking off.
But the wider world, continuing to watch the drama of little far-left Greece in its showdown with global financiers, has not quite focused on the implications of what’s happening in a country with almost four times as many people and an economy almost six times as big.
Last February we said Spain has become communist and didn’t know it. Well, now we know.
In Spain, the most searched-for phrase on Google during the election night last month was "Podemos political program for municipal election." The new communists of the Podemos (We Can) party led by Pablo Iglesias, a friend and advisor of the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez, have won in the most important big cities, where they have just about erased the color blue of the ruling center-right Partido Popular. Mayoral candidates got the punishment the public really wants to inflict on Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Nor have things gone well for the Socialist Party in opposition.
One thing is certain: the elections demonstrated the end of what has been for most of the last 30 years a two-party system.
The emerging parties, the communists of Podemos and the center-leftists of Ciudadanos (Citizens), now have the master key. General elections will be held, most likely, in December. If they were held today, Spain would have a communist president, an event for which the European Union is most likely ill prepared.
Spaniards voted against Rajoy so enthusiastically, in fact, that almost nobody had bothered to read the political program of the new parties to which they threw their support. Hence the frenetic Googling as the results came in.
What voters discovered was that they’d cast their ballots massively for a coalition of the extreme left that promised more government spending, new municipal taxes, free housing for all, water and electricity to households that cannot afford them, and punishment for real estate speculation. They would favor small businesses and impose restrictions on the activity of large corporations, declare the cities “live-animal-show-free zones,” and create public land banks for agro-ecological farming.
The Petri dishes where these experiments are to be carried out now include Madrid, Barcelona, Zaragoza, Valencia and Santiago de Compostela.
Despite its crash in the final results, the Partido Popular still got the most votes, but that is not enough. The pacts made by the parties of the left, both the new and traditionalists, will prevent the right from governing in cities where, until now, it held sway.
The only thing that could wipe out the communist aspirations would be a great national pact between the Partido Popular and the Socialists. From Brussels to the business community of Madrid we’ve heard timid proposals to that effect, and even talk about the formation of a "concentration government," a term harking back almost 100 years when efforts were made to include representatives of the whole political spectrum in the name of national unity. Otherwise, it is said, Spain coul be "at the mercy of extremists."
Even personalities like former socialist Prime Minister Felipe González have spoken out in favor of this political pact to save the Transition to Democracy agreement signed by all democratic parties in 1978 after the death of the dictatot Francisco Franco.
Although the music sounds nice, the lyrics are treacherous. This would be a fatal decision for the Socialists: if they cut a deal with Rajoy, their voters will not forgive them; if they make a pact with Podemos and allow the extreme left to ascend, they’ll be gobbled up. To die, or to die: I would like to be in the skin of Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez.
What does the government think? In a much anticipated press conference soon after the results came in, Prime Minister Rajoy said he was "satisfied" with the results and ruled out "making any changes to his government" after losing two and a half million votes and all of the absolute majority of he enjoyed in municipalities throughout Spain.
The president's advisers have convinced him that it’s a good thing to have lost these elections. They tell him that many of his traditional voters did not go to vote this time in order to "punish" errant government policies. "People on the right in Spain had not perceived Podemos as a real threat,” said a source at La Moncloa (the Spanish White House), "and now when they see their cities ruled by Bolivarian communists they’ll be encouraged to vote again for Rajoy in the general elections.” In short, Rajoy can count on fear to get him votes: fear that the ghost of Venezuela’s Chavez will be installed in the Moncloa.
To better understand why this is happening, remember that Spain is still weathering an endless economic crisis, with an unemployment rate of 23.2 percent, and 22 percent of Spaniards living under the poverty line. Rajoy's center-right prescription during his three years in government has combined the austerity policies demanded by the European Union with a fiscal voracity unprecedented in a right-wing government. But at the same time corruption schemes have come to light involving senior members of the party.
The issue of corruption in the main traditional parties served as a springboard for the emerging parties which, for the moment, remain clean of such sins. Corrupt real estate deals are a particular sore point with the public, so it’s little wonder the new mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, rose to prominence on a “Stop Evictions” platform, complete with widely published photographs showing her being dragged out of buildings by police as she joined with protesters against evictions.
Pablo Iglesias and Podemos, meanwhile, have emerged as heirs of the movement of the "indignados” that filled squares across Europe in May 2011 protesting against austerity, capitalism, and in favor of what was called democratic regeneration, while inspiring the Occupy movement that flowered a few months later in the United States. Meanwhile, Albert Rivera, leader of Ciudadanos, has tried to attract centrist voters dissatisfied with the Partido Popular and the Socialist Party, by promising a united Spain with fewer taxes, greater social sensitivity and one unalterable condition: Rivera will not support any party that includes on its lists people implicated in corruption schemes.
The main thing now, however, is to reach agreements. Thanks to the peculiarities of our electoral system that guarantees chaos, municipal elections have left an indecipherable web of new acronyms, coalitions and minority parties, all of which have to agree with each other in the coming weeks to make Spain’s 8,000 municipalities governable.
Whether the same can be done for the national government after elections at the end of the year is, of course, an even bigger question.