Spain has seen increasing calls for independence for Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia, alongside strikes and protests. Joel Sans Molas argues that economic turmoil and austerity are creating the biggest political crisis in the country since the overthrow of Franco's regime 35 years ago
The economic crisis in the Spanish state continues to deepen, intertwined with a political crisis of ever greater dimensions. The conservative Popular Party (PP) government is under pressure on all fronts: economic, political and social.
In economic terms, it is becoming ever clearer that the Spanish state is following the path of Greece. The European Union has already bailed out the Spanish banking system with an injection of up to 100 billion euros, but even this is insufficient. The collapse of the huge speculative bubble is dragging the banks down. The banks have 307 billion euros invested in the real estate sector, of which at least 180 billion is "toxic".
The government's rescue of the private sector (especially the banks) since the start of the crisis has pushed public debt up sharply. In a vicious circle, payment of the debt is an ever-increasing burden on public finances; and the recession makes it impossible to meet the deficit targets. This pressure results in new cuts, which depress the economy still further. It is calculated that this year the economy will shrink by between 1.5 and 2 percent. For 2013, the IMF forecasts a further drop of 1.3 percent, with only Greece expected to contract more out of all 188 IMF member countries.
The PP government, with less than a year in power, looks increasingly frayed. The 2013 budget figures and the government's economic forecasts are believed by no-one, not even by the IMF, which has disavowed them. Prime minister Mariano Rajoy is postponing his request for a full bail-out for as long as possible, with a view to negotiating a better deal and also because he knows that the bail-out would mean speeding up the cuts offensive and losing more economic sovereignty. For weeks, however, the bosses' organisations have been urging the government to request a bail-out.
An idea that is beginning to be heard on the left in the Spanish state is that there is a "regime crisis". Though the idea is ambivalent and there are no obvious divisions within the state apparatus, there is undoubtedly a growing crisis in the institutional framework agreed at the end of the Franco dictatorship 35 years ago and in the party system in place since then.
Pressure on the mainstream
As in Greece, the two main parties are under enormous pressure. The PSOE's (Socialist Party) electoral support has plunged as it pays for its commitment to austerity and the PP is losing support. Despite its overall majority, the PP is incapable of providing economic or political stability. Many leading newspapers are calling on the PP and PSOE to negotiate an accord. The ruling class wants a strong, united political force in the "centre" to avoid the rise of more radical political options, as we are witnessing in Greece. Wishing is one thing, but achieving it is another.
A specific feature of the crisis in Spain is the effect of the economic crisis on the tensions between centre and periphery. The dynamic of the crisis is leading to a recentralisation of the state and the imposition of austerity from the top downwards: from the EU to Madrid and from Madrid to the Autonomous Communities (regional governments). Eight Autonomous Communities have already asked Madrid for a bail-out, to the tune of 17.5 billion euros.
The crisis of the Autonomous Communities as the economy worsens intersects with the national question. The Spanish state is based on discrimination against and non-recognition of the Basque, Catalan and Galician nations. More central state control and economic crisis mean that growing numbers in these nations are looking to secession from the Spanish state as an answer.
Significantly, the three Autonomous Communities where early elections have been called this autumn are the three historic nations. In the Basque Country, EH-Bildu, a broad coalition of the pro-independence left, won a historic 25 percent of the vote in the 21 October elections. Its success, following the end of ETA's armed struggle, means it cannot be ignored and places the question of independence on the political agenda.
In Galicia's elections on the same day the PP maintained power, despite losing votes, due to the sharp fall in support for the Socialist Party. But the AGE (Galician Left Alternative), a left coalition inspired by Greece's Syriza and a defender of Galicia's national rights, won 14 percent of the vote, indicating a turn to the left.
But the most marked break is occurring in Catalonia. This Autonomous Community, one of the most economically developed in the state, has long suffered low state investment (the tax deficit - the gap between what Catalonia pays in taxes to the central state and what it receives back in spending reaches around 8 percent of Catalonia's GDP). Several business sectors defend the idea of independence for economic reasons. At the same time, many people have false illusions that no cuts would be required in an independent Catalonia with more resources. This mood was seen in one of the biggest demonstrations in Catalonia's history on 11 September (Catalonia's national day), when 1.5 to 2 million people filled the streets of Barcelona.
CiU (Convergence and Union), the Catalan-nationalist right-wing coalition now in government, took advantage of this situation to bring elections forward to 25 November. Riding the wave of separatist feeling, it is seeking to divert attention from the huge cutbacks it has made. However, whatever CiU's perspectives and desires, a majority of Catalonia supports independence and is mobilising to achieve it.
The PP, the heir to Franco's social support base, is reacting to the "Catalan front" with putrid Spanish nationalism and well-worn reactionary phrases like the minister of education's call for "Catalan school students to be Hispanicised" (just what Franco attempted!).
However, such rhetoric will not succeed in breaking the rise in support for independence: just the contrary - it is pouring petrol on the fire. The possibility of a break with the notion of national unity enshrined in the 1978 Spanish Constitution, one of the state's most prized ideas, is on the agenda.
This autumn is seeing growing social protest. Though the "indignados" movement has failed to hold onto the centre stage it briefly seized, it has contributed to changing the mood of mobilisations. Since the 29 March general strike there have been at least three important protests.
Miners, supermarkets and strikes
The first was the all-out strike in the mines, which lasted two months from June to August. The miners' geographical and political isolation meant they lost, but they received greater solidarity than anything seen for a long time. The march from the Asturian mines on Madrid was met by 150,000 people. Shortly afterwards Madrid's public employees reacted to new cutbacks with combative, spontaneous demonstrations, blocking traffic, showing how a struggle like the miners' can be contagious.
The second was the "supermarket assaults" this summer, led by the militant Andalusia Workers' Union (SAT). These were symbolic actions, in which dozens of workers "liberated" trolley-loads of foods from supermarkets to distribute among the poor. After the actions, the SAT organised huge marches across Andalusia.
The third was the "Surround the Congress" demonstration. Called on the internet, tens of thousands of people surrounded Madrid's parliament buildings on 25 September, demanding the resignation of the government and a new constitutional process. Despite the police's rubber bullets, there were two further days of mobilisation. This protest recovered the spirit of the indignados movement, with an important political advance: its focus now was not just on the banks, but aimed directly at throwing out the politicians in power.
There is little doubt these protests have pressured the trade union bureaucracies. Since the start of the cutbacks in May 2010, the unions' policy has been to seek agreements for less damaging cuts. But the toughness and consistency of the PP's attacks have meant that the union leaderships are having to shift slightly. Aware of the fragility of their social legitimacy and seeking to channel mass rejection of the PP, they created the Social Summit, grouping 150 entities together and calling a major demonstration in mid-September.
Now they have taken a further step with a new general strike called for 14 November. This will be the second general strike in the same year, unheard of in the last three decades. It will coincide with a day of action throughout Europe, with general strikes in Portugal, Malta, Cyprus and possibly Greece. The unions are accusing the government of failure to meet any of its electoral promises a year ago, giving the strike a clear political content. They are also demanding a referendum on the cutbacks, a positive proposal, but one that should not be used as a substitute for mobilisation.
The anti-capitalist left faces the challenge of combining slogans such as "No payment of the debt" that offer an alternative to the dominant economic logic and pushing forward continued struggle from below, while taking advantage of the union leaderships' occasional and insufficient mobilisations. At the same time, we have to respond to the rise in independence feeling with a consistent defence throughout the state of the right to self-determination, to stop the PP from using Spanish nationalism to deflect away from the cuts.
Lastly the combative left urgently needs to speed up its efforts to provide an alternative in the political arena. The excellent results of left coalitions in the Basque and Galician elections, based on the defence of both national and social rights, show the growing space that exists.
Joel Sans Molas is a member of En lluita/En lucha in Barcelona and is the editor of the anti-capitalist magazine La Hiedra