With final postal ballots counted at the end of last week, it appears that the rise of the Right has been temporarily stalled in Spain. Andy Durgan takes stock of the results and what they mean for the Left in Spain.
In the general elections of 23 July, Spain’s “progressive” coalition government unexpectedly held its ground. The overall result is a stalemate, with the Catalan nationalist party, Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) holding the balance of power.
Following sweeping right-wing gains in local and regional elections in May, it was widely expected and predicted in opinion polls that the conservative People’s Party (PP) and its far-right allies Vox would win an overall majority. In the end, after postal votes from abroad were counted on 28 July, the PP won 137 seats, an increase of 48 compared to the last elections in 2019. Vox lost 19 MPs, ending up with 33 seats.
The spectre of a PP government with far-right participation has – for now – been blocked. Undoubtedly, fear of such a government led to a response by voters and the polarisation between the two main parties: the PP and Socialist Party (PSOE) – who between them took 65% of the vote, compared with 48% four years ago. Participation, with the notable exception of Catalonia, rose by 4%, to over 70%.
The PSOE unexpectedly won an extra million votes and increased their seats from 120 to 121. Their coalition partners, now grouped in Sumar, won 31 seats, 4 less than Unidos Podemos in 2019. Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez can, potentially, count on the support again of not only Sumar, but, also Basque, Catalan and Galician left nationalist MPs, which would give him 171 votes in parliament, the same as the rightist bloc (PP, Vox and a MP conservative People’s Union of Navarra). To govern a majority of 176 is needed.
Of the remaining 8 seats, 7 are in the hands of Junts per Catalunya. While Junts will never support a PP government, the Socialists and Sumar hope they will back their coalition. But this seems equally unlikely.
After the referendum of 2017 and widespread repression, with Catalan political leaders being jailed in 2019 and hundreds of activists still facing court cases, Spanish political opinion was convinced that, as Sanchez recently claimed, the upsurge of independentist sentiment in Catalonia was a mere “anecdote”. It has now returned, with a vengeance, to centre stage. And this despite the apparent decline in the movement’s support, reflected in a loss of 700,000 votes since 2019, and a drop from 23 to 14 Catalan independentist MPs being sent to Madrid. In the face of the threat of a right-wing government, even more hostile to Catalan rights, many independentist voters opted to support the Socialists or Sumar, or abstain.
Junts, led by former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, exiled in Brussels since 2017, are the heirs, in large part, of the bourgeois nationalist party Convergencia i Unió (CiU), which dominated the Catalan government, the Generalitat, from its restoration after the transition to democracy in the late seventies.
Over the years, CiU had been content to offer support to either the PSOE or PP in Madrid and obtain concessions for Catalonia. But they abandoned their moderation when a new statute of autonomy, product of an agreement with the Socialists in 2006, was thrown out by the Constitutional Court after a massive campaign by the right. CiU now defended the need for independence in an attempt to keep control of the mass movement which culminated in the “illegal” referendum of 2017. The repression that this movement led to the disintegration of CiU, and, eventually, to the regrouping of sections of its supporters in Junts.
The fact that the other principal independentist party, the left nationalist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia), which presently runs the Catalan government, has opted to negotiate with the Socialist Party government, has strengthened Junts’ claim to represent the true voice of independentism. By talking to the PSOE, and backing its government in parliament, ERC have managed to get the crime of “sedition” revoked and the subsequent release of the independentist leaders jailed after the referendum. But the PSOE has remained wedded to its support for “Spanish unity” and the government has recently re-issued its warrant for Puigdemont’s extradition from Brussels.
In exchange for supporting Sanchez, Junts demand the right to self-determination and an amnesty for the around 4,000 people still waiting trial for taking part in the mobilisations of 2017 and 2019. As both demands have always been flatly rejected by the Socialists, convinced that any further concessions to the Catalan nationalists would lose them votes throughout Spain, new elections are a real possibility.
Sanchez’s government claims to be the “most progressive in (Spain’s) history”. Among the measures it has adopted have been a hike in the minimum wage, more indefinite contracts in the private sector, legislation favouring trans’ rights and rent control. But while wages have risen 3% over the last year, inflation has been at 8%, with food prices rocketing. Neither, as promised, has the coalition government repealed the PP’s draconian “gag” law which seriously undermines civil rights, giving police widespread powers of arrest and limiting the right to protest and banning the filming or photographing of police actions. And the previous government’s radically pro-business labour law has only partly been changed, despite assurances that it would be repealed in its entirety.
A new round of austerity is on the horizon, whoever forms the next government. Most dramatically, the PSOE dominated government has upheld the PP’s repressive policies in relation to immigration. In June 2022, at least 37 would-be immigrants were massacred by Moroccan riot police while attempting to cross the border into the Spanish enclave of Melilla in North Africa. Many of the victims had been returned illegally to Moroccan territory by Spanish police once they had scaled the massive barbed-wire fences along the border.
Opposition to Sanchez’s government has been muted, compared with the great wave of mobilisation of 2011-2013, with the Indignados’ movement (occupation of the squares) and mass opposition to cuts in public services; followed by the Catalan independence movement, which mobilised millions between 2017 and 2019.
Nor does the newly formed left electoral platform Sumar, led by the popular Labour Minister, Yolanda Díaz, offer an alternative to the pro-business policies of the PSOE. In fact, Sumar openly presents itself as a left appendage of the Socialists. Gone is the rhetoric which characterised Podemos when it was formed in the wake of the Indignados’ movement of “storming the heavens”, of being a radical alternative to the social democracy. Sumar has even ditched Podemos’ commitment to self-determination, fearing, like the PSOE, that this would alienate voters in much of Spain.
The emergence of Sumar is, in part, a consequence of the crisis in Podemos, which had rapidly evolved into classic reformist party, ran from above and centred on elections. A series of splits have seriously weakened Podemos. Díaz, who replaced Pablo Iglesias as parliamentary spokesperson of the coalition formed by Podemos and the Communist Party-led United Left (Unidos Podemos), has pulled the fragments together, along with ecologist and left nationalist groupings (in Aragon, Valencia and the Balearic Islands for instance). Politically, Díaz comes from a trade union (Workers’ Commissions) and Communist Party background. Sumar is very much based around her charismatic leadership. It has no formal structure or programme.
Building a Fightback
The construction of an alternative to the institutional-based politics that Sumar represents, will not be easy, but that does not make the task any less urgent.
Outside of Catalonia, the anti-capitalist left is in no condition to seriously challenge the reformist left at the polls. And even in Catalonia, the anti-capitalist United Popular Candidature CUP admits it needs to “relaunch” its organisation on a new basis after having lost its two MPs and 60% of its vote on 23 July, down from 250,000 to 100,000. While some CUP sympathisers opted to support Sumar to stop the right, others have abstained in protest of the continuing repression suffered by the independentist movement at the hands of the Spanish state.
Outside Catalonia, it was hoped that the radical left coalition Andalucia Adelante (Forward Andalucia), influenced by the revolutionary socialist Anticapitalistas, could build on its successes in recent years. But in its former stronghold of Cadiz, Andalucia Adelante only won around 9,000 votes (1.5%), being squeezed out by Sumar, which received 81,500 votes (13%) in the province.
The need to oppose the far-right remains a priority. Vox is now sharing power with the PP in scores of local governments and in the regional governments of the Balearic Islands, Extremadura and Valencia. They have wasted no time in withdrawing funding for equal rights, announcing crack downs on “illegal immigration” and removing material from public libraries favourable to LGBTIQ+ rights or simply for being in Catalan. The use of Valencian and Mallorcan (varieties of Catalan) in public administration and education, bitterly fought for during the transition to democracy, is now under direct attack.
But to fight Vox, it is necessary to understand the basis of its appeal. Anti-racism is obviously a central question in the fight against the far-right, but on its own is not enough. Vox has also built its support on the basis of its outspoken opposition to both gender and minority national rights.
In particular, Vox’s growth in electoral support has emerged in response to the upsurge in the Catalan independence movement. An effective anti-fascist movement will not be built without unequivocal support for women’s and LGBTIQ+ rights and the right of national self-determination. Claims that the Catalan question is “divisive” will only make the task of opposing the fascists that much more difficult. Equally, references to “anti-fascist and anti-racist united fronts” which have no real support on the ground, only clouds the necessary work to be done at a grassroots’ level.
Like far-right parties elsewhere, Vox claim to put Spanish (not “foreign”) people’s material needs before all else, for instance, opposing measures in defence of the environment as leading to job losses. In the face of the parliamentary left’s incapacity to challenge the priorities of the bosses, there is a need to offer a real socialist alternative to a system that leads to poverty and injustice.
Andy Durgan is a member of Anticapitalistas.