New government won’t solve Spanish crises

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"Political prisoners freedom" in Catalan. Pic: popicinio/Flickr

With an authoritarian atmosphere and ongoing political questions Héctor Sierra argues that the change in leadership won’t deal with the problems ahead for capitalism in the Spanish state.

Mariano Rajoy is gone after seven years of austerity with an iron fist. The now ex prime minister lost a motion of no confidence in late May and his People’s Party (PP) lost control of government. The motion was put forward by the Labour-type Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), following pressure from the anti-austerity party Podemos. PSOE’s Pedro Sánchez announced he will lead a “transitional government” to reestablish “governability” and “democratic normality” before calling general elections. The legislative term is due to finish in 2020.

The trigger for the motion was a court ruling that saw numerous individuals linked to the PP, including the former treasurer and whistleblower, convicted of using illegal slush funds to finance party election campaigns.

This hardly came as a surprise. Evidence of endemic institutional corruption sponsored by the PP has mounted. The judge dismissed claims by Rajoy that he didn’t know anything, and a certain “M. Rajoy” appears on the treasurer’s list among those on the payroll of the illegal scheme.

Yet a previous motion of no confidence against Rajoy had been refused support by the PSOE when tabled by Podemos in June 2017. The reason was this happened months before the people in Catalonia were due to take part in the “unconstitutional” 1 October referendum on independence. The PSOE rallied behind “the national interest” and said they would not undermine the government during the crisis. Indeed, they gave cover and backing to Rajoy’s measures to crush the Catalan movement.


The independence movement has, at least temporarily, been held back as Rajoy imposed direct rule on Catalonia and pro-independence politicians, campaigners and grassroots activists were either jailed or went into exile.

Rajoy has been a political zombie since at least 2015 when he lost his majority and held on to power only because a PSOE-Podemos government failed to materialise. Cuts to public services, high unemployment and mounting corruption scandals have turned his party into the recipient of deep-seated, widespread hatred. The PP had become a liability for the Spanish ruling classes.

There were now alternatives. The PSOE had become untrustworthy under Sánchez as the steep decline of its vote made it draw closer to the left wing rhetoric of Podemos. Now their unequivocal support for the brutal measures against the Catalan movement was reassuring of their commitment to capitalist stability. The PP has also been increasingly challenged from the right by the new right wing party Ciudadanos (Citizens). From coming fourth in the 2015 and 2016 general elections, some polls now give them a first position. Polls also predict that, for the first time, the far-right party VOX would enter parliament with two MPs.

Underpinning the growth of Ciudadanos there is the rightwards shift of Spanish society following the crushing of the Catalan revolt. The PP is responsible for bringing in the thousands of police that left 900 injured on the referendum day and the authoritarian drift that followed. However, its institutional position meant there were powerful restraints on how far repression could go. Not being subject to these, Ciudadanos could use the most incendiary anti-independence rhetoric, denouncing every measure as “too mild”, whatever Rajoy did.

This was disastrously enabled by Podemos. From supporting a referendum as the only democratic solution to the Catalan crisis, they then sided with the other Spanish parties to reject the 1 October vote as unconstitutional.

The idea that the Catalan movement was a national threat that had to be stopped by whatever means necessary became an unchallenged consensus among political parties. The implications of this were that Spaniards from all classes had a common interest in seeing the movement defeated and that opposition to Rajoy had to be suspended until the threat was over. Spanish flags hanging from balconies became a common sight in Spanish cities and Spanish nationalist demonstrations drew hundreds of thousands including fascist elements.

However, this shift to the right has proved to be fragile and uneven. In the first months of 2018, the country has been shaken by abrupt outbursts of mass struggle. Pensioners’ demonstrations of hundreds of thousands have taken place in major cities in defence of public pensions. International Women’s Day saw demonstrations and some strikes in 120 cities, while the women’s movement showed its strength again when hundreds of thousands joined spontaneous protests across the country after five men were cleared of a young woman’s gang rape. The hold that the ruling ideology seemed to have on a majority of Spanish working class people at the height of the repression in Catalonia was not so tight after all, as attacks on living standards and institutional sexism placed them in opposition to the system.

It is within this context of growing unrest that the PSOE decided to present the motion against Rajoy. The formation of their new government is bound to raise the expectations of those protesting and many other ordinary people, although in many cases this will be due to Rajoy’s exit rather than the return of a greatly discredited social democracy.

The leaders of Podemos have stated that their role will be to support the PSOE government — a far cry from their claim in 2015 and 2016 that Podemos was destined to overtake the PSOE as “the new social democracy”. The court rule condemning the PP caught Podemos in the middle of another crisis. Its leaders Pablo Iglesias and Irene Montero had just been revealed by the right wing media to have purchased a house worth €615,000, something many felt was at odds with the party’s stance against austerity and the elite. Members were called to vote on whether Iglesias and Montero should continue at the front of the party; 31 percent said no, arguably the biggest show of discontent at the grassroots since the party was created in 2014.

Iglesias has insisted that Podemos should not only support but join the PSOE’s government, but his calls have fallen on deaf ears. The PSOE hope they can regain part of the vote they have lost to Podemos by isolating them and posing as the safe alternative to Rajoy.


Had Podemos been accepted as a junior partner in Sánchez’s government as Iglesias wanted, this could have been a disaster for the left. Their scope to implement radical reforms and to alter the course of the PSOE-led government would have been very limited. More importantly, it would have meant opposition to Sánchez’s government was abandoned to the right.

This is crucial because such opposition is bound to exist. Sánchez has already announced that he will not scrap the PP’s budget — hence his economic policy will be a continuation of austerity and more bowing to the designs of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The PSOE is faced with the impossible task of pleasing both big business, who want the economy to continue being subordinated to the payment of national debt, and the masses of people expecting change.

Its position in the Spanish parliament is weak. The PSOE has only 85 out of 350 MPs. Even with the support of the Podemos-led coalition’s 71, the sum of 156 is still less than the combined 169 the PP (137) and Ciudadanos (32) have. At the time of writing, the PP have announced that they are considering tabling their own motion of no confidence against Sánchez soon. The arithmetic makes the PSOE reliant on tactical alliances with the Catalan and Basque parties. These supported the motion of no confidence against Rajoy, but major differences will soon arise that will make long-term collaboration impossible.

Sánchez has said the Catalan crisis needs a political solution, but his government has also stressed that any negotiation with the Catalan institutions will preclude the possibility of independence or another referendum. Neither will they release the political prisoners, still in pre-trial detention. Bitterness and alienation among the Catalan population is growing and although the right of the movement will seize every opportunity to backtrack, pressure on the leaders to continue pressing for independence will be high.

June also saw the biggest mobilisation in decades for the right to self-determination in the Basque Country, with nearly 200,000 joining a human chain. This had the dissolution of the armed group ETA in May as background, but also the repression in Catalonia and a case of young Basques facing charges of terrorism and receiving long prison sentences for a bar fight with off-duty police. 90,000 protested their imprisonments a week after the human chain.

When in the opposition, the PP behaves very differently from when in office. A race to the bottom between them and Ciudadanos will start to see who is the most ardent defender of Spanish unity. They will place the most unrealistic demands on Sánchez and any move to conciliate the secessionists will be called out as treason. This will give rise to tension between Sánchez and the right wing of the PSOE (which already questioned whether they should sack Rajoy if the price was accepting support from the secessionists) and will increase the likelihood of clashes between the PSOE government and the Basque and Catalan parties.


All this makes Sánchez the opposite to the long-term solution the elites want. When it becomes clear that the PSOE can’t resolve the problems all classes face in Spain, the right cannot be allowed to be seen as the only alternative. Whatever their limitations, Podemos can still become a left wing focus for the anger in society if it abandons its current moderation and ambition to become a “respectable” party and embraces the radicalism demanded by many at its grassroots.

The contradictions of Spanish capitalism and the Europe-wide economic and political crisis has thrown up spontaneous outbursts of mass struggle that have shaken the foundations of the Spanish state. What was lacking was the mass revolutionary organisation that could have united the struggle for democratic rights and a better society in Catalonia or the Basque Country with the women’s movement, the fight for pensions and strikes and give them a common focus against Rajoy and the system. We will see more of these explosions of anger as the crises of Spanish capitalism deepen. But what direction they will take is uncertain.

As the revolutionary Leon Trotsky argued in an article on the impending Spanish Revolution written in 1931: “for a successful solution of all these tasks, three conditions are required: a party; once more a party; again a party!”