Spain’s Fragmenting Left

As one of Podemos’ top leaders jumps ship, Enrique López traces the latest twists in Spain’s new left movements

Once cheered as the great hope for many leftists, the political situation in Spain has deteriorated in recent months as the far right obtained regional parliamentary representation while the impetus of the left has apparently been lost.

To understand it we need to know a bit about the recent Spanish political history. In 2014, six years after the Great Recession, the big two-party system was rocked by the appearance of Podemos, a new political force that tried a new angle at political communication and largely succeeded in obtaining representation, first at the European Parliament and then in the following regional, local and general elections.

The old players

This came as a shock to the two big parties, the PP and PSOE. The PP is the Spanish traditional conservative party, founded by Manuel Fraga, who used to be a minister during the Franco regime and for most of its existence, it had managed to gather votes from a broad spectrum of right-wing voters. From Christian Democracy style “moderate” voters to liberal technocrats who wanted to privatize healthcare and education and let the market or hardline Franco nostalgics, the PP had struck a complex balance which had allowed it to emerge as one of the two main parties in Spanish politics, taking turns in power with the PSOE, the Spanish Workers’ Socialist Party.

The PSOE has a proud history during the late 19th and early 20th century, being founded by Marxist and union activist Pablo Iglesias Posse (no relation to Podemos) and struggling for workers’ rights. It faded into obscurity during the Franco dictatorship, where the mantle of opposition to the regime was taken up by the PCE, the Spanish Communist Party. When the transition into a liberal representative democracy took party, the PSOE was favoured as the “sensible” left force, which many younger, new figures like Felipe González becoming media darlings who had dropped Marxism as a key ideological point of the party.

This was in contrast to the PCE, which always retained a more “radical” characterization, even though it had agreed to many crucial demands of other political forces such as supporting the Constitution, the Spanish red and yellow national flag (as opposed to the red, yellow and purple Republican Spanish flag), the monarchy, etc.

The PSOE eventually went on to rule Spain and, even though they have always retained a more left-wing flank, started to thread the path of social-liberalism, following the Third Way set by Tony Blair and other center-left figures. NATO membership, de-industrialization and a worshipful membership application into the European union are the legacy of the PSOE during the 80’s and early 90’s.

End of an era

But this solid two-party system seemed to be coming to an end in 2014 with the eruption of Podemos. Several cases of embezzlement and corruption had weakened the PP’s public image and the Great Recession that had happened six years before had contributed to grow the political awareness of many younger and working class people who were fed up with the establishment.

Thus, 2015 would see the PP lose its grip on several historical regions, called comunidades autónomas in Spain (although the term “regions” is used more often in English, these territories have in some cases such a distinct culture, language or identity that they could be compared to nations such as Wales or Quebec).

The PP also lost control of the regional council of Madrid to a coalition supported by Podemos, Más Madrid, headed by Manuela Carmena, and of València, to a left-wing nationalist party, Compromís and its candidate Joan Ribó. Barcelona changed hands: from the conservative Catalan party Convergència I Unió to another coalition supported by Podemos, Barcelona en Comú, which put Ada Colau, a leftist activist involved in anti-eviction protests in power.

The three most populated Spanish cities now had mayors that were perceived as being on the left-wing of politics. These, along with several other cities, started to be branded by some, including several in Podemos, as the “city halls of change”.

2015 also brought us two big developments which would mark the following political events: the support for independence from Spain started to grow dramatically among Catalans, which steered several of their nationalist parties toward more pro self-determination positions and caused a realigning of its political scene. A new political force Ciudadanos, which seemed to project the image of being a social-liberal, pro-EU technocratic project and who styled itself as “against nationalism in Catalonia” while waving Spanish national flags, also started to gain traction.

General elections were set to take place in 2016 and many people on the left thought that they would result in a resounding defeat for the PP. Some even dreamed of a sorpasso of the PSOE, a mythical overcoming of the historical center-left party, by Podemos. On the road to the elections, Podemos was shaken by what seemed to be an internal crisis, when it transpired that Errejón, one of the high-up members of Podemos had conspired against its General Secretary, Pablo Iglesias Turrión (no relation to Pablo Iglesias Posse mentioned above).

In public, the schism between Iglesias and Errejón was seen as not only a case of cloak and dagger political intrigue, but also having ideological undertones. The general idea was that Iglesias wanted to have a more leftist profile and Errejon a more moderate one. Of course supporters of Errejon tried to paint it not as moderation but as being strategic, outmanoeuvering your enemies through discursive tactics, overcoming “obsolete categories” such as class struggle and the like. The usual postmodernist claptraps, the citations of authors such as Ernesto Laclau (or, in recent months and for a more selected audience who clings to their old Marxist garbs, those of Michael Heinrich), are profuse.

But there was also backstabbing and intrigue, it seems. Enric Juliana, a prominent journalist published an article about how Errejon supporters tried to take control of the party in Madrid when Iglesias was MEP in Brussels: dirty tricks, inner cliques and conspiracies to oust Iglesias, with the comical mistake by the Laclauian discursive strategists of being uncovered by someone who stumbled upon the personal computer of one of them.

The computer was still turned on and had text message groups on the screen detailing all their moves. Iglesias himself publicly recommended reading the article to know what had happened, which was as good as an endorsment of it. A party conference was organized which pitted Iglesias against Errejón. The former won, while the later went into hiding. Podemos formed a single ticket with Izquierda Unida, the coalition that included the PCE within.

The results in the general elections were, however, a disappointment for Podemos. Spain got hung parliament with PP having a simple plurality. Not only had Podemos not overcome PSOE, it couldn’t even muster an absolute majority together with them in order to oust PP from power. The PP ended up forming government with the support of Ciudadanos and the abstention (tacit support) of PSOE. PSOE could have formed government but Catalan parties were demanding a referendum a la Scotland in order to support them. PSOE was not willing to be seen as making “concessions” to separatists and thus abstained in the voting for the position of prime minister, effectively giving Mariano Rajoy, of the PP, another four year term in power.

After the party

Just a year later, in October 1st 2017, the Catalan referendum for self-determination took place, which left us images of policemen confiscating ballot boxes and beating people trying to cast their votes across Catalonia. The Catalan regional government was suspended and several of its members sent into remand. In 2018 there was a court ruling that was particularly unfavourable for the PP. The PSOE seized that moment to propose a motion of no confidence during last September.

They wanted to get their leader, Pedro Sánchez, elected prime minister in Parliament, and made it look as it they have had “enough of corruption” so they had changed their mind on their previous abstention. It was a smart move as it forced Catalan parties and Podemos to support them or else look like they didn’t feel outraged about the zillionth corruption case by the PP. Pedro Sánchez thus became the current prime minister of Spain. Podemos managed to scrap some measures such as raising the minimum wage, but they have no ministers and have stagnated in the polls.

And then December happened. In that month, regional elections held in Andalusia fell like a jar of cold water on many Spaniards. Andalusia, a historically neglected autonomous community in Spain, with both acute problems of poverty and inequality, but also a proud tradition of working class struggle, seemed to have turned right. Besides the PSOE losing its majority for the first time since democratic elections after Franco had taken place, VOX, the Spanish far-right party that had so far held no political representation finally stepped into the Andalusian Parliament.

Their 12 deputies meant two things: one, that they were now in position to act as kingmakers in Andalusia, capable of supporting PP and Ciudadanos to oust PSOE from power and end their 36 year place in power in the autonomous community. Two, that a “true” far-right party had finally arrived in Spain. Many people watched their TVs in dismay that night as the party, which publicly decries “communism”, “gender ideology”, “separatism” and “the illegal invasion of Spain by immigrants” celebrated their results with a big grin.

And when it rains, it pours. Inside Podemos, the power struggle mentioned above came back with a vengeance. Last January, Errejón phoned Iglesias, then on parental leave and taking care of his infant twins. He let him know, five minutes in advance before tweeting it to his hundreds of thousands followers, that he was to join Manuela Carmena, the mayor of Madrid, in her political project, in a bid to win the elections for the government of the Madrid region.

This wasn’t such a big surprise to everyone. By this time, the seizure of power of the three big capitals, Madrid, Barcelona and València by different tickets (the first two involving Podemos) had had time to be put to test against the expectations from 2015. In València, Compromís had managed to stay away from Podemos’ influence, a party which had collapsed and become of little relevance in the city and barely so at a comunidad autonoma level. Compromís had managed gain a solid footing on both the autonomous community and the city. Barcelona’s Ada Colau had received a certain degree of criticism from the left and at the same time had managed to maintain independence from the Catalan branch of Podemos, which had suffered under the polarizing effect of the independence movement and the effects of the October 1st referendum for self-determination.

But it was Manuela Carmena’s Más Madrid which had long been claiming to be able to “govern for all”, a discourse with centrist undertones that tried to present power as something neutral, best left to “experts” and technocrats. This, of course, would sound strange to anyone that was aware of her city council pushing real estate operations such as those criticized by many leftists such as United Left or Anticapitalistas (the Trotskyite branch in Podemos) from Madrid.

Politics to these parties and activists is never neutral, but a stageplay where different social forces clash. Carmena, for her part, had replied to criticism of the Operación Chamartín real estate operation that “those who want a world without corporations have no place governing Madrid”.

The process had been quiet, almost insidious, but by January, Más Madrid and Carmena had shown the biggest steer in the “city halls of change” towards the feeble liberalism that many people in the 15-M movement had abhorred and her policies, discourse and public positions were not far off from the PSOE.

The whole change had undertones of a farce, because by keeping the semantic wordplay of “change” politics, Carmena and her coalition were able to still maintain a facade of being a progressive force, with an unfinished task in the city council.

The letter they published together had all those elements thrown in together: references to “a democratic and progressive majority” that “needs a project to renew its hope and confidence”. The following days Carmena published recipes for cupcakes on Instagram posed as a warm grandma. Errejón played his skills at political marketing staking out his personal brand of being the savvy, responsible wunderkind in contrast to Iglesias’ radicalism.

He gave interviews where he stated he wanted to govern with “experts” who could solve problems or reneged of his previous political commitment to Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution (years ago he had enjoyed research stays in the country and supported Hugo Chávez’s political project), calling for elections in the midst of the current political crisis where the US and other foreign governments are trying to topple the government of that country.

Iglesias’ response also came in the form of a letter, this one long and emotional: “This has left me shaken and sad,[…] I can’t believe that Manuela and Íñigo would have kept from us that they were preparing to launch their own electoral bid [..] This is a bitter day”. He made it clear that Podemos would present a candidate for the Madrid region elections, thus competing with Errejón.

The situation in Podemos reached surreal heights because Errejón’s bid for the region of Madrid received the support not just from members of Carmena’s coalition such as Rita Maestre or Clara Serra, but also some who claimed influence by Marxist ideas and were close to Errejón and once to Podemos such as Clara Ramas or Carlos Fernández Líria, some of them still part of Podemos like Jorge Moruno.

While the party faced internal splits and dwindled in polls, the resurgent Spanish nationalism summoned people to oppose the current Spanish Government and to “defend the unity of Spain”. PP, Ciudadanos and Vox rallied together in the Colón Square in Madrid and shouted slogans against Pedro Sánchez and Catalan independentists.

Although there were opposing estimates of attendance, the photos of the leaders of all three parties were proof of the assurance they felt in stirring Spanish nationalism in order to gather votes. Just a week ago Sánchez announced he would hold a general election on April 23rd, after Catalan indepenentist parties who were instrumental in bringing him into power refused to vote for his budget in response to the current situation of several Catalan politicians now facing trial for the October 1st referendum.

These general elections will take place before the European, autonomous community and local elections. All parties entered full campaign mode, and just several days ago, four families were evicted from their houses in Madrid, with six people arrested after trying to stop the police from kicking them out of their houses. In a press conference that took place after the event, Carmena looked visibly uncomfortable when asked about it and begged to be asked different questions.