The Spanish Impasse

At the end of May, following a right-wing surge in the Spanish regional and municipal elections, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez – leader of the centre-left PSOE – announced that the country would soon return to the polls. A snap general election would decide whether Spain would be governed by a coalition of the Partido Popular and Vox: the reactionary alliance presiding over many of the country’s autonomous communities. It was widely anticipated that these parties would form a governing majority after the vote on 23 July. Yet the final results came as a surprise: an even split between the progressive and right-wing blocs. The PP picked up 137 seats while Vox won 33. The PSOE retained 121, and Sumar – the grouping of left-wing parties previously led by Podemos – came away with 31. Given the current parliamentary arithmetic, this leaves only two possible options: either a reinstatement of the current coalition of the PSOE and Sumar, backed by smaller nationalist parties, or another election. The right, which had made extensive preparations for government, was dismayed by the outcome. What were the dynamics behind it?  

A decade ago, Spanish parliamentary politics was based on a two-party system in which the electoral landscape was overwhelmingly dominated by the PP and PSOE. These sprawling apparatuses would sometimes rule with absolute majorities, sometimes with the biddable support of conservative Catalán and Basque nationalist parties. Today, that landscape has been reconfigured, with both the PP and PSOE consistently unable to govern without the support of parties that are situated to their right or left respectively. As a result, there are now two polarized political formations, each subject to various internal tensions.

The main problem for the PP, led by Alberto Nuñez Feijoo, is Vox – the party of the extreme right, which emerged out of a rupture within the PP itself. These outfits have a common genealogy and, up to a certain point, a shared social base. They are both descended from the cadre of Francoists that survived the transition to democracy and adapted without much effort to the new regime: ultra-monarchists, Spanish nationalists and cultural conservatives. Yet they represent distinct fractions of this sector. While the PP is an organic party of the bourgeoisie, Vox was always rooted in the old middle classes, infected by a nationalist-Catholic discourse that rails against modernity, denies the existence of sexism and climate change, and identifies itself with far-right forces elsewhere in Europe.

Vox articulates the grievances and moral panics of a stratum that has seen its privileges threatened by gradual changes in social life during the neoliberal era. Its unique combination of radicalism and conservatism is, at present, the main obstacle to the advance of the traditional right. On the one hand, the PP relies on this combative political formula to unite its base and mobilize it against progressivism. On the other, its use undermines the PP’s chances of reaching an accord with regionalist parties, whose support is essential to form a parliamentary majority. It is still too early to tell how the right intends to resolve this basic contradiction.

Moreover, by rallying the left-leaning electorate, Vox has been the decisive factor in creating the possibility of another progressive administration. Sumar, led by the Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz, lost more than 600,000 votes and seven deputies in the recent election; but given that its primary aim was to maintain a position that would allow it to play a role in cabinet formation, this result was not so bad. It was offset by the relatively strong performance of PSOE, which increased its constituency by more than a million votes.

At present, reviving the current coalition depends on the participation of Catalán nationalists, represented by the centre-left ERC and centre-right Junts. The present outlook for independentism is bleak, given the general exhaustion with the Catalán process. The ERC, ceding votes to the PSOE and to abstention, has fallen from 13 to 7 seats, while Junts has lost one deputy, bringing its total to 7 as well. Yet these weakened organizations now find themselves in the paradoxical role of kingmakers – able to make or break the governing alliance.

While the ERC’s support can be taken for granted, Junts is less predictable. Its demands – amnesty for more than 3,000 people charged with involvement in the unauthorized independence referendum of 2017 – are reasonable from a democratic perspective. But it is difficult for the PSOE and Sumar to accept them, for they are liable to alienate their supporters and spark conflict with the right-wing judiciary. As a result, everything depends on the calculation of the Junts leader and former Catalán president Charles Puigdemont. Will he capitulate, or will he hold the line? His party exemplifies the ‘autonomization of the political’ like few others. Though it started out as the vehicle of the Catalán business elite, today it answers only to itself, with a radicalized and committed base, but without a coherent programme or strategy for independence. This makes its next move all the more uncertain.  

If Puigdemont falls in line with Sánchez, the prospective coalition can only be understood as a transformist alliance of the forces that have dominated Spanish politics over the past decade: a PSOE that has reestablished itself at the centre of political life by winning enough passive support from the electorate, especially the youth; a Sumar that has banished and buried the radicalism of the early Podemos, remaking itself as a party with bland technocratic pretensions, akin to the German Greens; and a flaccid independentism that must choose between accepting Sánchez’s negotiating framework or remaining mired in perpetual crisis.

Behind the current parliamentary instability, then, lies a restoration of the status quo ante. If the 15M movement issued in a crisis of the two-party system, it has been revivified by these elections, with the PP and PSOE winning 65% of the vote between them – a significant increase on the previous four ballots. This surge in support by no means correlates to confidence in the PSOE’s programme, however. Its voters are no longer seduced by its siren songs of ‘change’ or ‘social transformation’. The only factor that allowed the centre left to avoid collapse was the emergence of Vox, and the fear it inspired among a large part of the public.

This being the case, how did the left move from a position of strength – aspiring to ‘overthrow the regime of 78’ – to one of weakness, if outright defeat, over the past ten years? The government formed by the PSOE and Unidas Podemos in 2019 was the first coalition since the start of the Republican period. Its rhetoric suggested a historic rupture. Yet, in practice, the administration made little progress on its social priorities, dedicating most of its efforts to stabilizing the constitutional order rather than pursuing any confrontation with the dominant classes. There were obvious reasons for this ‘reformism without reforms’. Unidas Podemos aimed to compensate for its lack of power in Sánchez’s cabinet by pursuing a limited legislative agenda which it hoped would lay the groundwork for future gains. Yet, as we know, it is much easier for a vitiated social democracy to pass superficial laws than to make deeper structural changes amid low growth and falling profitability.

For instance, although it passed some measures to increase the minimum wage, the PSOE-UP government failed to undertake any far-reaching action to reverse the secular decline in working-class purchasing power. Inflation peaked at 10% last year, while average wage growth stood at only 2%. Yolanda Díaz’s labour reforms may have expanded waged employment, but they left many injurious policies untouched – including the laws that make it easy for bosses to dismiss workers. EU ‘stimulus’ funds merely fattened the accounts of large energy companies, while the millions gifted to banks following the 2008 financial crisis were never repaid to the public. In foreign policy, Unidas Podemos aligned itself fully with NATO’s imperial project, augmenting the military budget by 25% at its behest. It was complicit in the state’s racist border policies, with shocking instances of fatal violence against African migrants on the Moroccan frontier. It could perhaps boast of streamlining the legal recognition of trans people and improving paternity leave – but such measures hardly validated its self-description as ‘the most progressive government in history’.

If this was the balance sheet of the last legislature, nobody expects its successor to be any better. In the progressive camp, debate is now focussed on how this precarious coalition might reproduce itself in power. This will involve some kind of political rebalancing among the different territories of the Spanish state, within the constitutional framework and without any federalist fervour. It will also mean maintaining social stability and avoiding labour unrest at all costs. Towards this end, the major trade unions, the CCOO and UGT, will assist the government in suppressing militancy and engaging in civil dialogue with employers’ organizations. With public expectations low, Sumar hopes that this will be enough to consolidate its support and see off challenges from the right. One factor that might threaten its agenda, however, is the EU’s return to fiscal discipline. Mechanisms to contain the previous social crisis through public spending – creating new civil service jobs, distributing meagre aid to the poorest sectors, managing the decline of public services – may no longer be possible in 2023, given the iron laws of the Commission.

This impasse – a PSOE-led government precariously in power, yet with no real programme for government – marks the termination of the previous Spanish political cycle, characterized by 15M, the Catalán independence process, the rise and fall of social movements and the eventual formation of the progressive coalition. Most of the forces that claimed to be anti-systemic during this period have now been reabsorbed into the dominant power structure. This reflects a deeper dialectic between the political sphere and civil society. It is at the level of politics that social mobilizations assume their ultimate form. The dynamics of the former determine the fortunes of the latter. In Spain, 15M found its final articulation in Podemos. The party’s rightward shift was then translated into widespread social passivity – marked by the integration of key activist layers into an ‘expanded state’. Thereafter, the public was further pacified and Spanish social contradictions were managed through the implementation of modest military-Keynesian policies.

Even so, the country remains riven with precarity and hardship, which poses a perennial threat to its political system. There is a growing proletarianized layer, comprising both migrant and native workers, excluded from official society and lacking electoral representation. Deindustrialisation and peripheralization has devastated swathes of Andalusia, Extremadura and the forgotten Spanish mezzogiorno. At the same time, sections of the working and lower-middle classes that once enjoyed relative stability are tending towards immiseration. A university degree no longer guarantees a stable job, nor does a job assure a decent salary. Rising inflation has created a gulf between a shrinking fraction of the middle classes capable of maintaining their living standards and ordinary workers – many of them in the manufacturing, logistics and service sectors – who are merging with the impoverished mass. This group is organizationally atomized. There is some trade union capacity in industry, but it remains negligible in services.

Spain’s peculiar class configuration is bound up with three major unresolved crises that will continue to shape its political landscape over the coming years. One is purely a domestic phenomenon, while the others are outgrowths of global capitalism. The first is independentism – most acute in Catalonia, Euskal Herria and Galicia. This forces the country’s progressive camp to make alliances with nationalist forces which it will struggle to hold together in the long term. It also serves to isolate the right, whose fanatical unionism allows it to collect votes in Spain while losing them in the stateless nations. Nationalist parties, meanwhile, have failed to move past the defeat of the Catalán process. Caught in a strategic crisis, they have sought their own transformist path via reintegration into the Spanish constitutional framework.

The second major crisis concerns Spain’s role in the world economy. As a minor post-imperial nation, its international position is that of foot-soldier to the US and the EU. Its link with these prosperous powers makes it ideologically invested in the fantasy of neoliberalism: the limitless possibilities opened up by free markets and unfettered enterprise. But, in reality, its relatively backward form of capitalism makes it dependent on the oscillations of European monetary policy. This is particularly damaging in the current global conjuncture, where the American Leviathan is stimulating ‘green growth’ while its European partners are forced to bear the brunt of the Ukraine war. The EU’s relegation to the role of second-tier power will have damaging effects on its weaker member states: deflationary contraction, further cuts to public spending, and attempts to shift the burden of a future recession onto the working class. These factors will further constrain the programme of any Spanish government.

Finally, the structure of the Spanish economy impedes its adoption of increasingly necessary environmental measures. It remains reliant on tourism, devoid of energy autonomy, and beholden to a parasitic business class that benefits from generous state subsidies. There is an urgent need to transform the country’s productive base to cope with the impact of climate change – already manifest in deadly heatwaves and droughts over the past season. Yet none of the mainstream parties is willing to contemplate this shift. Without it, the country’s crisis tendencies will only deepen.

In the near future, we will see whether Sánchez can assemble a parliamentary majority or whether he will have to call new elections. Alongside the process of transformismo, the influence of the radical left continues to wane, as demonstrated by the poor showing of the CUP in Catalonia and of Adelante Andalucía. To reverse this trend, socialists must refuse to be tied down by electoral cycles and abjure any association with state progressivism. Their first priority should be to develop a programme for this new conjuncture and radicalize what remains of the social and trade union movements. Given the limitations of the ruling parties, new outbursts of resistance are likely to occur over the coming years. But they will be futile in the absence of a new left project, actively supported by significant sectors of the working class and independent of the governing bloc. Only such a movement could reopen the political possibilities that parliamentarism has foreclosed.  

Read on: Pedro M. Rey-Araújo & Ekaitz Cancela, ‘Lessons of the Podemos Experiment’, NLR 138.