What Is Happening In Spain?

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Above Photo: Dafydd Penguin/Flickr

The transition from dictatorship to democracy in Spain (1978) was carried out under conditions very favorable to the profoundly conservative forces that controlled the Spanish state and the majority of the media. The democratic forces (lead by the clandestine left wing parties) were institutionally weak. It is true that popular resistance against the dictatorship had been strong primarily among the working class, the base of these parties. Spain had the largest number of political strikes in Europe during the transition period (1975-1979), which played an important role in forcing the end of the extremely repressive regime (for every political assassination undertaken by the Mussolini dictatorship, Franco’s regime killed 10,000 people). Institutionally, however, the left wing forces were at a disadvantage. Their leaders were in jail, or exiled abroad, and there was an enormous imbalance of forces at the negotiating table. On one side, the inheritors of the fascist state controlled the state apparatus and had the support of the Army, of the Church, and of the major economic and financial interests in the country. On the other side were the democratic forces that had come out of hiding only a few months before the transition started. The popular mobilization was critical in forcing the end of the dictatorship, but the political branch of those mobilizations was not strong enough to break with the previous dictatorial regime. As an example, the King, appointed by the dictator Franco as the head of state, continued to be the head of the new democratic regime and the head of the armed forces, holding enormous power in guiding the process of transition.

The three major problems left unresolved by the transition: the democratic deficit

This unequal context was responsible for the three major deficits in the political regime that was established during the transition, which have exploded in the last years. One was the democratic deficit, based on an electoral law that deliberately discriminated against the progressive and urban areas, i.e. where the working class lived. This law was designed by the fascist party assembly (La Asamblea Nacional) as a condition for their dissolution: its main objective was to stop the left from achieving electoral success. As a consequence, large sectors of the Spanish population with left wing positions have been underrepresented in the parliament during the majority of the democratic period (1978-present). The most recent example of this was the last general election for the Spanish parliament of the 28th April. While the number of votes for the left was much larger than the votes for the right (by a majority of 1.2 million), the number of parliamentary seats of the left and right were not very different. Had the electoral system been proportional, the number of left-wing parliamentarians would have been much larger. This is with the exception of the Socialist Party (the PSOE), the largest left wing party in Spain, who already benefits – as the major conservative party, the Partido Popular (PP) does – from another characteristic of the electoral law: that it favors a bipartisan system. The leading parties receive a plus of seats, which enables two majority parties (the conservative-liberal PP and the left PSOE) to be the only two governing parties that Spain has had until now. In fact, the PSOE obtained the same percentage of the vote this year as back in 2011, when it was considered to be a very negative result (with the PP winning a majority government), while this year it was considered to be a great success, which was primarily due to the decline of the PP and the division of the right wing vote into three parties (the PP, Ciudadanos, and Vox). Another important event was the increase of participation in the elections of the 28th April, coming from the previously abstaining left. The point that needs to be stressed is that in Spain, the changes in the parliament do not necessarily reflect the changes in the political leanings of the population. This has been missed by the majority of the international press.

The consequences of a limited democracy: a very unequal society

This democratic deficit explains another major deficit: the social deficit. The enormous influence that the financial interests (i.e. banking) have in the Spanish economy and representative institutions explains the intensity of the neoliberal policies that have been applied during the great recession period (2007-2018). Under the influence of what is known in Spain as the Troika (the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund), the policies of austerity have a devastating effect on the poorly funded Spanish welfare state. Spain spends much less on public social expenditures that what it should spend according to its level of economic development. It is one of the countries of the European Union 15 (the more advanced economies of the European Union) that spends the least on public services such as health care, education, public housing and child care, and on transfers, such as pensions. The tax laws, while nominally progressive, are highly regressive. And public revenues are low. As a consequence, Spain is one of the countries with highest inequalities in the EU15. This polarization increased during the mandate of the Rajoy government (the president of the PP during 2011-2018) as a consequence of labor market reforms aimed at weakening labor (involving an enormous growth of precariousness and decline in wages); reforms that had already been initiated by the previous PSOE government under the presidency of Zapatero (2004-2011). Spain is, after Greece, the country in the EU15 with highest unemployment and work precariousness.

The appearance of new political forces as a consequence of the crisis

This instigated an enormous protest, known as the ‘indignados’ movement or 15M, that denounced the political establishment, referred to as the political class (la clase politica). It accused the politicians of not representing the interests of the population. It was a social-political movement that had an enormous impact, as it became very popular. Its slogan “no nos representan” (“they do not represent us”) became a popular cry. The party Podemos was established, rooted in this 15M movement. In three years it became the third largest political force in the country. Many things happened during these years, including the resignation of King Juan Carlos and the rebellion of the PSOE’s party base against the party’s apparatus (too close to financial institutions). A similar pressure also appeared among the militants of the Communist Party and allied forces (IU – Izquierda Unida) to change its leadership, who then allied IU with Podemos, establishing Unidos Podemos (UP).

The demand for democracy and social protest gave rise to many popular protest movements, including the current feminist movement, led by socialist women, which originated the 8th March demonstrations, demanding the abolition of patriarchal capitalism; the pensioners’ march, which protested the reforms imposed by the PP that cut pensions significantly; and the neighborhood movements protesting housing evictions. Such protests culminated with the expulsion of the PP from government, caused by a majority vote which forced their resignation. The movement to throw the PP out of government was initiated by UP and followed by the Catalan and Basque nationalists, as well as the PSOE.

The third unresolved question: the national question

The third deficit was the reproduction of the vision of Spain as a uni-national state, typical of the monarchist forces, against the pluri-national vision of Spain, historically characteristic of the republican left wing parties. During the anti-fascist underground struggle, all of the clandestine left wing republican parties called for a federal pluri-national state, with the right to self-determination for all of the different nations. The PSOE abandoned that vision, however, during the transition, becoming a major pillar of the monarchy. Although repressed, that vision continued to exist in Catalonia and the Basque country. And it was a left wing coalition in Catalonia, led by the very popular President of the Catalonian government, the socialist Pasqual Maragall, who made a proposal (among other reforms) to call for the recognition of Catalonia as a nation inside Spain. This proposal, after being approved by the Catalan government and the Spanish parliament (with substantial changes), and approved in a referendum by the Catalan people, was rejected in some key elements by the Constitutional Court controlled by the PP. This was the origin of the strength of the pro-independence movement in Catalonia: the pro-independence parties who used to receive only 10% of the Catalonian vote now receive 46%. Actually, the rigidity and repressive measures of the PP government were the primary reason for the growth of electoral support for the pro-independence parties in Catalonia. These pro-independence parties benefit electorally from the very unpopular (in Catalonia) provocative behavior of the central Spanish right wing nationalism, which supports a unified Spanish nation-state, who imprison or force to exile the leaders of those parties. On the other hand, the right-wing Spanish parties also benefit electorally, from the radicalization of the pro-independence parties (which unilaterally declared Catalonian independence in parliament, without having the support and approval of the majority of the Catalan population). This undemocratic behavior mobilized support from large sectors of the Spanish population in favor of the Spanish right-wing parties, known as the most anti-independence parties.

How the national question has been hiding the social question

Two nationalisms (the inheritors of the dictatorship on one side and the pro-independent groups on the other) have polarized the country into two blocks, and both benefit from this polarization. Both blocks have been led by right wing neoliberal parties: the PP and a new neoliberal party called Ciudadanos on the Spanish side, and Convergencia on the Catalan side, have implemented very neoliberal policies (claiming they did not have any other alternative) that have caused enormous pain among the population in general, and the working class in particular. In public, they all fight over the flags (the monarchic Spanish flag and the Catalan independence flag) with a very “patriotic” discourse, while in private signing (in the Spanish parliament) the same labor market reforms and cuts in social expenditures. The right wing orientation of most of the media explains why the whole electoral debate has been over the national question and has hidden the social question, i.e. the enormous social crisis caused by the parties who lead the nationalist forces on both sides.

In this scenario, Unidos Podemos and its allies, such as En Comú Podem in Catalonia and En Marea in Galicia, have defended the pluri-national nature of the Spanish state within a highly polarized situation, where the extremes on either side benefit from those tensions. From the Spanish right wing side, the PP, funded by ministers of the fascist regime; Ciudadanos, a party created by the financial institutions and the major employers’ association to stop Unidos Podemos (It is part of the Liberal International, of which the Democratic Party of the United States is an observer); and Vox, which is a new fascist party, grown from scission of the PP, are strong opponents of the pluri-national state and major proponents of neoliberalism. Vox is the most ultra-neoliberal party, asking for full privatization of pensions, such as Pinochet did in Chile. It is the party closest to the Trump and Bolsonaro lines. And on the Catalan side, there is the pro-independence block asking for secession from Spain, lead by another neoliberal party, Convergencia, with the support of ERC, also promoting neoliberal policies.

The leading parties of both blocks are clearly using the flags to hide their responsibility for the enormous crisis that the popular classes are suffering. Unidos Podemos and their allies are the only forces who are anti-neoliberal and call at the same time for a pluri-national, federal Spanish state. They try to put the social question at the center of the political debate, and at the same time they also denounce the use of flags to hide the responsibility of the right wing on both sides in establishing this crisis. The policies of national identity are clearly used to hide the social question. Unidos Podemos redefines the meaning of patriotism, emphasizing that importance should be placed on the wellbeing of the population instead of the symbols that represent them.