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The Troubles of Spain’s Faltering Left

Indietro    Avanti

Just as Mariano Rajoy recently warned, Spain will likely face its third general election in less than a year after the two parties that secured the largest share of the vote in its latest poll again failed to strike a power-sharing deal. Despite being asked to form a new government by King Felipe VI after two inconclusive elections, Rajoy’s People’s Party (PP) has been unable to secure the support it requires from the socialist Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), even after months of drawn-out negotiations.

At a time when Spain’s battered economy is finally showing signs of recovery, helped along in no small part by increased tourism revenues and lower oil prices, this continued uncertainty could seriously undermine confidence in the country and its long-term economic health. Spain has now been without a fully functioning government for nearly eight months, leaving the nation in limbo at a time when it needs strong leadership to capitalize on the green shoots of recovery. Rajoy told reporters this week that the continuing political deadlock could have a devastating impact on the country’s attempts to repair its economy, and that a failure to reach a power-sharing agreement could undo all of the efforts made in recent years to pull Spain’s finances back into shape.

While the PSOE continues to stubbornly refuse a role as kingmaker for their conservative rivals (and especially Rajoy), the far-left grassroots Podemos party – which capitalized on anti-establishment/anti-austerity sentiment in last December’s vote – has found itself a much-diminished force after June’s second vote. In the run-up to the most recent elections, pollsters had predicted Podemos would beat the PSOE to become the largest left-wing party in Spain after its successful showing in the December vote. Instead, the upstarts fell flat, losing some 1.1 million votes after forming a coalition with the United Left (IU). 

Podemos is struggling as a result of internal disagreements and its leadership’s focus on political gamesmanship. In the fallout from the June vote, party leaders issued a poll to ask supporters what could have gone so badly wrong since December, when its leader Pablo Iglesias hailed the birth of “a new Spain” and the death of decades of two-party politics. Suggestions included the party’s handling of coalition negotiations after the December vote, its outright rejection of the idea of a Socialist Prime Minister, and the tone of its campaign, during which Iglesias described old leftists as being“sad, boring and bitter.”

One of the founders of Podemos, Juan Carlos Monedero, used a blog postto blame the party’s decision to get into bed with the former communists in the IU as one of the major reasons for its poor showing. Monedero said the party should return to its anti-corruption and anti-austerity roots, refocusing more on the needs of the people than on slick presentation. This was seen as a direct attack on Íñigo Errejón, Podemos’ number two and campaign leader, who attracted criticism for toning down some of the party’s more radical policies. IU’s election campaign manager, Clara Alonso, blamed the shabby performance in part on the “fear factor” caused by Brexit. The shock of the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU, she said, played “right into the electoral strategy of the right.” 

Internal machinations aside, Podemos likely suffered from the failure of its ideological brethren elsewhere in Europe. After campaigning against austerity before winning power, Greece’s left-wing Syriza Party was forced to abandon its ideals and acquiesce to the very same privatizations and cost cutting measures it campaigned so vigorously against. Even in its new role as implementer of austerity, however, Alexis Tsipras and his ministers have made some quixotic decisions. These include attempts to nationalize and then sell off Greek assets to Chinese investors, including shipyards like Skaramangas, which is already privately held by foreign owners.

Like Podemos, Syriza was born out of frustration voters felt towards traditional leftist parties who they viewed as having consistently failed to offer any viable alternative to austerity. By giving in to the realities of Greece’s debt obligations and then mishandling inevitable economic reforms, Syriza is alienating both Greek voters and outside partners. Unsurprisingly, the party has been lagging in recent polls and has now resorted to changing electoral laws to keep power.

Syriza’s abrupt U-turn demonstrated to Spanish voters that the left still has to deal with the realities of monetary union and debt repayments when in power, regardless of its lofty aspirations. The Greek government’s near-total capitulation to debtor demands was a factor in Podemos’s ability to sway the Spanish electorate, with voters apparently deciding to stick with known commodities as opposed to going with what could ultimately be empty promises.

Podemos had its chance – one it will likely not be presented with again. As Spain’s economy improves in spite of the current political uncertainty, the party’s anti-austerity message will have less of an impact. Even if it does return to its more radical roots, the party will struggle to explain how it can avoid the obstacles its sister party in Greece succumbed to. Much as the center-left wing of the U.S. Democratic Party ultimately overcame Bernie Sanders and his insurgent campaign, Spain’s establishment socialists have managed to fend off Pablo Iglesias and Podemos . 

As Iglesias himself said after the June poll, failure to live up to expectations will likely result in Podemos losing some of its anti-establishment allure. With right wing parties enjoying a surge in support across Europe in the face of a spate of terror attacks and the continent’s ongoing migrant crisis, Podemos and other parties of the left will only find it more difficult to get their messages across to voters.


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