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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 22, June 1, 2024

The Left in Spain: An Overview | Martin Alonso Zarza

Saturday 1 June 2024, by Martin Alonso Zarza


To give an impressionistic view of the Spanish left, I will organise my presentation in three sections: the historical legacy, the territorial organisation and party system, and the current map.

a. The historical legacy

1. There are three significant aspects, albeit different in the scale of the consequences, in Spanish history in the cycle opened in Europe by the Second World War. A few days ago, the UN reprimanded Spain for the ’concord’ laws passed in the territories (autonomous communities) where the right-wing Popular Party governs with the extreme right (Vox). This has to do with the most decisive historical aspect, the Franco dictatorship following the defeat of the democratic Republic in the civil war (1939) in the context of the contestation of liberalism. While what was then called Western Europe experienced its "glorious thirties", for Spain (with Portugal and at times Greece) these were ominous decades of totalitarian national Catholicism. The main opposition party to Francoism was the Communist Party (PCE), which maintained close relations with its counterparts in the East but at the same time adopted early on a policy of so-called national reconciliation. A perspective of reconciliation that has been contested by a part of the right wing from a revisionist view that masks itself in the noble language of concord, debunked by the UN. (An effort to whitewash history is present in the current Italian government concerning fascism; Fratelli d’Italia, at the head of the government, has its origins in the Republic of Salo and has launched a legal campaign against intellectuals who accuse them of fascist leanings. This parenthesis is justified by Italy’s proven status as a laboratory of European policy. The normalisation of a far-right government within the European Union may perhaps be symptomatic. The current president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who is leading the European PP’s candidacy, admits that she will seek the support of the extreme right to repeat in office).

2. In the last years of Francoism, sectors of the sub-state nationalist parties (Catalan, Basque and, to a lesser extent, Galician) joined the fight against the dictatorship; in this context, groups in favour of violence appeared in them, the main one being the Basque group Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA), which carried out the fatal attack on the vice-president of Franco’s government, Carrero Blanco, but caused 95% of the deaths after the dictatorship and outlived it for 35 years. To the abandonment of Spanish democrats during Franco’s dictatorship is added the fascination that ETA’s terrorism (rarely referred to as such by major international media with a left-wing sensibility) provoked in sectors of the left, a terrorism that survived for decades to similar European phenomena of the so-called third wave of terrorism. Spanish campism is articulated in these two poles, which underlie the high degree of polarisation in Spanish politics at the moment: that of those who refuse to recognise the dictatorial nature of Franco’s regime and make reparations to its victims (part of the conventional right and the extreme right; in Spain there is a Francisco Franco Foundation with legal status and public funding), on the one hand; and that of those who refuse to recognise the terrorist nature of radical Basque nationalism until 2011, on the other. The arguments are interchangeable and rest on the assumption of equivalence or equidistance: there are victims and perpetrators on both sides. This age-old ideological dispute has been joined by the post-modern wave of culture wars, where sectors of both ideological extremes also sometimes converge. If the victims of Franco’s regime have unfortunately been an exclusive argument of the left, those of Basque terrorism have been the exclusive argument of the right, despite the trade unionists, socialists and ex-communists who have been murdered by ETA.

3. The third element to be pointed out brings the two previous ones together to some extent, when the rightist Popular Party government attributed the jihadist attacks in Madrid (11 March 2004, a year after the government-backed invasion of Iraq) to ETA, convinced that an ETA attack would favour its electoral prospects. It lost the elections and reacted by encouraging, with the amplification of nearby media, a conspiracy theory contrary to the court rulings; an additional piece to the current polarisation and to which actors from other ideological areas have subsequently contributed. It would be necessary to add the absence of explanations regarding the support for the Iraq war and the lie about weapons of mass destruction.

4. A few words on corruption should be added, it will suffice to evoke the sad and demoralising history of economic delinquency of the resigned King Juan Carlos I. It should also be remembered that Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE came to government in 2018 after a motion of censure motivated by corruption in the Popular Party (PP). There are currently two commissions of enquiry into corruption, one in the Senate, with a majority of the PP, against PSOE cases, and another in Congress, with a majority of the left-wing coalition led by the PSOE, against PP cases. The family of the patriarch of the new Catalan nationalism, Jordi Pujol, is also implicated in various cases of corruption; himself involved in capital evasion. Rodrigo Rato, former vice-president of the right-wing government of José María de Aznar, director of the International Monetary Fund and president of the Caja Madrid bank, is currently on trial.

b. Territorial structure and party system

The PCE’s successor brand has become irrelevant and is just another member of the Sumar [add] coalition, which won one seat in the last Basque elections, while the successor party to ETA, leader of the EH Bildu coalition, won 32.5% of the votes, which, together with the 35.2% of the centrist Basque Nationalist Party, makes 67.7% of nationalist votes in the Basque Parliament. If Basque violence played a leading role in Spanish public life until the first decade of this century, in the second decade Catalan nationalism took over, with the great difference that in this case there were no deaths. A second anecdote - if one can call the UN reprimand cited─ to explain this: the leader of a Catalan nationalist party, who was autonomous president during the years of the independence mobilisation and fled to Belgium from Spanish justice has campaigned for the elections being held in Catalonia from the French town of Argèles, a site significant because a camp was set up there to confine in inhumane conditions Spaniards who crossed the Pyrenees in January 1939 after Franco’s victory. Puigdemont, as part of Basque nationalism, has not stopped using Francoism to boast of being a democrat, but his supremacist and xenophobic positions (with his particular version of the ’great replacement’), his collaboration with Putin’s Russia and an attempted assault on Parliament by his supporters, years before what happened on Capitol Hill in January 2021, indicate well his ideological location. (To add a comparative element, the Catalan independence process has had a fragmenting and dysfunctional effect equivalent to that of Brexit).
Since the advent of democracy, nationalist parties have not only governed the vast majority of the period in Catalonia and the Basque Country, but, in a process of successful renationalisation, they have formatted the institutions and normalised a discursive framework with clear ethnicist connotations. Thus, ’Catalans’ are understood to be Catalan nationalists, as are ’Basques’, which is not the case with other patronymics or in France. In Catalonia, a Congress of historians was organised by the local government with the title "Spain against Catalonia". In both spaces, they have persistently used the framework of economic grievances in different variants of the ’Spain robs us’ coined by the Italian League or of colonisation, considering migrants from other parts of Spain as such (this term is not used for people born in Spain outside these two countries, nor is it used in the French counterparts). These spaces often link Spain to Francoism, ignoring the fact that Catalan and Basque nationalism were given preferential treatment under Francoism because of their Catholic component and the greater presence of the middle classes there.

It may be interesting that part of the Basque and Catalan nationalist propaganda is made from the French side of both territories. But both in terms of wealth distribution and political recognition, the Spanish part of both territories is in an advantageous position with respect to both the rest of Spain and to France, where there is no such thing as a regional government or official recognition of the corresponding languages. It is equally striking that this peculiarity has not attracted scholarly interest. The difference between the countries is largely due to the fact that Spain operates an autonomous system with extensive regional powers and an undisputed dominance of nationalism in the Basque Country and Catalonia. This is the particularity of the Spanish territorial organisation.

But perhaps what is most significant in comparative terms is not so much the duality of the party system, with a left-right axis and a constitutionalist (which includes Spanish nationalism) - autonomist (peripheral nationalist) axis, but rather that peripheral nationalism is assimilated as left-wing, as opposed to Spanish right-wing nationalism. The presence of a far-right pro-independence party, Alliança Catalana, in the Catalan parliament helps to dissolve this misunderstanding. A part of the Spanish left, especially to the left of social democracy (and also a part of the international alternative left), accepts this nationalist approach at the same time as the supposed plurinational character of Spain; this is illustrated by the anecdote that Pablo Iglesias as leader of Podemos did not attend the Spanish national holiday celebration but participated in the Catalan counterpart in the peak years of the nationalist mobilisation. This double standard, an illustration of what Orwell called a negative nationalism, fits well with the binary pattern and constitutes a necessary element for understanding the discursive logic of part of the new left in Spain.

c. The current map

Until the emergence of Podemos on the left, Ciudadanos on the centre right (progressively less ’centre’ and is currently on the road to irrelevance; it did not obtain representation in the last May elections in the Catalan Parliament, where it was the most voted party in 2017) and Vox (which marked the end of the so-called Iberian exception with the advent of Chega in Portugal) Spanish political life was dominated by two major parties, the Partido Popular (PP) on the right and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) on the left. The difference between them is that the PP is unitary while in certain autonomous regions there are socialist formations with their own status (PSE, in the Basque Country, and PSC, in Catalonia; especially, but not only); not to mention the never-ending fragmentation on the left, both territorial and identity-based (the feminist celebration of the last 8 March saw two separate demonstrations). A corruption-motivated motion of censure against Rajoy’s government, tabled by PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez, ushers in his first government. After the 2020 elections he governs in coalition with Podemos (with Pablo Iglesias, its leader, as vice-president. He left office without explanation to run in the regional elections in Madrid; after his failure in these elections he retired from politics and created Canal Red, an internet television channel of which he is the director) and after the 2023 elections with Sumar, a coalition of Unidas Podemos (United Left ─exPCE─ + Podemos) with numerous regional organisations from which the former leading force to the left of the PSOE (Podemos) has since split. As it does not have a majority, it needs the support of Basque and Catalan nationalist parties, including 8 decisive votes from Puigdemont’s ethnicist party. It is a highly unstable coalition, which forces the government to continually make compromises to meet the contradictory demands of its partners, some of them located in the identity framework of the differential facts (to the point of trying to expel Spanish from the classroom in favour of the indigenous languages, even though Spanish is the most widely spoken language in all the territories). Fragmentation is the term that best defines the left in Spain at the moment, and is a product of the lack of medium- and long-term objectives and horizons, which facilitates the search for occasional populist shortcuts, refuge in identity-based or simply affinity-based spaces, and personalism.

Let us look in detail at some features of the main formations on the left.

1. PSOE. High degree of personalism (the president of the government is the secretary general of the party, controls the Federal Executive Committee without counterweight; he also presides over the Socialist International), despite his liberal leanings, he has to his credit certain social measures, such as the increase in the minimum wage, but there is perceptible latent opposition due to opportunistic decisions towards the Catalan nationalists, such as the pardons and amnesty for those convicted of the procés, or the Basques, such as the transfer of responsibility for prisons, which is facilitating the release of ETA prisoners with blood crimes without complying with legal requirements. A possible early election ─in case of failure to reach an agreement for the government of Catalonia─ makes his continuity at the head of the government doubtful.

On the left of the PSOE, the dominant feature today is division. This was reflected in the poor results in Galicia, where the Partido Popular obtained a conclusive majority, and in the Basque Country, where Podemos, the party that got most votes in the 2015 and 2016 general elections, has been left out of Parliament and Sumar has obtained only one seat. In the Catalan elections, Comuns-Sumar has lost two seats from 8 in the last elections.

2. The collapse of Podemos. Podemos was born riding the wave of indignation known as 15M (May 2011). It took on a notable prominence and introduced doctrinal novelties, recognising itself not so much as heir to the classical theorists of the left as to populism with Schmittian resonances of Latin American origin (Ernest Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, also very influential in the Melenchonist sector in France), combined with a particular reading of Gramsci, while creating links with populist leaders such as Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro. At the time, it was close to the PSOE’s sorpasso. Its discourse against “the caste” is similar to that of right-wing populists, from Trump to the Grillini (M5E) in Italy. Personalism and organisational Leninism ─ precariously veiled by so-called consultations with the activist base and the cause of a series of splits─, together with sectarian tensions, the lack of a solid organic structure and a manifestly improvable argumentative repertoire are some of the reasons that account for its decline.

3. The unsure consolidation of Sumar. In a certain sense, Sumar is the heir to Podemos, as it was Pablo Iglesias who unilaterally and authoritatively appointed Yolanda Díaz, its leader, as his successor. The tensions have led not only to a separation between the two, but also to a fierce struggle around the creation of this new electoral brand that is decimating the already depleted forces of the left. It was formed to run in the last general elections (2023); it comprised 19 organisations (Podemos, IU, Mas País, Verdes Equo, Alianza Verde, Más Madrid, Batzarre, Chunta, Compromis, Iniciativa del Poble Valencia, Verds Equo del País Valencia, En Comú Podem, Catalunya en Comú, Iniciativa del Pueblo Andaluz, Izquierda Asturiana, Mes per Mallorca, Mes per Menorca, Drago Canarias) and obtained 31 seats (two less than Vox) with 12.33% of the vote. At the moment it has not set up a solid structure and sees competition from sectors such as Podemos, with different lists in the Galician, Basque and European elections. Yolanda Díaz, at the head of the labour portfolio, has to be credited with some notable social and labour-related improvements.

4. The irrelevance of Izquierda Unida (United Left); as I write, a debate is taking place within Izquierda Unida, the successor brand to the PCE. To lead a force that has become insignificant, four candidates are standing in a primary election, the irresistible temptation of division. The Catalan brand Iniciativa per Catalunya (IC), successor to the PCE’s Catalan variant of the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC), has no presence. The same in the Basque Country (EB-IU), which joined the nationalists in the Estella Pact to pursue an ethno-nationalist policy and has not raised its head since; a splinter of the formation is now part of EH-Bildu. The first representative of Izquierda Unida is in fourth place on Sumar’s list for the European elections on 9 June; the second is a Catalan pro-independence member of Sumar and the third is a Valencian nationalist from Compromis. At the general Spanish level, the socialist and workerist tradition has been thwarted. The rise of the middle classes and the transformations in the world of work have to do with this; as elsewhere in Europe and the United States, the former fishing grounds of the red belts are now successfully exploited by extreme right-wing parties. And it is important, when approaching a critical analysis of the positions of the left, not to forget the threat to democracy posed by right-wing ultra-populism. Concern about the drifts of the left, some of which have a reactionary slant, should not obscure the uncivil and threatening reach of the extreme right.

5. The unknown support of the Spanish Left (IE). This is a newly created formation that is standing for the first time in the 2024 European elections. It defines itself as left-wing, as opposed to the social-liberal tendency of the PSOE, and Spanish, as opposed to the tendencies towards identitarism and nationalism of the formations to its left. From this side and from peripheral nationalism, the party has been branded as ‘Spanishist’. It is a new, little-known force, which may recover some votes that would go to abstention or to the extreme right as a deaf expression of weariness with the high degree of tension, the sectarianism of supposedly feminist-trans sectors, and the concentration on identity issues linked to the culture wars. (The anecdote of endorsing the merits of a candidate by presenting her as deaf and lesbian may be illustrative of the drift). But the rejection vote is not enough; it needs to articulate a programme that takes the issue of social equality seriously and an organisation with a democratic profile, far removed from personalism, sectarianism and extreme right anti-immigration slogan. A left with a universalist horizon, in the most ambitious sense of the word, the one recognised in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

d. Concluding remarks

The left is no stranger to the rise of the far right predicted by the European elections. It is true that we live in a world that is both bewildered and forgetful of the pedagogy of the great disasters of less than a hundred years ago in Europe, which is why the articulation of a democratic and internationalist left that revitalises the great vectors of emancipation is so decisive, starting with combating the inequality generated by a globalised and predatory capitalism (a good example of which is that the payment in kind of housing does not cancel the non-payment of a mortgage or the fact that there is no public bank). In this endeavour, two unavoidable challenges must be faced. One is to offer proposals in the face of the feeling of perplexity and bewilderment that the set of superimposed crises that give the impression of a world out of control. Another is to avoid the temptation of the double standards that have manifested themselves in the different responses to the outrages in Ukraine ─with an unequal lens to visualise Nazism in the Ukraine and in Russia─ and Gaza. A part of the left has repeated for Ukraine a position it showed in the Balkan wars, abandoning the Bosnian population and siding with Milosevic. From other sectors, not only on the right, double standards operate in the opposite direction, accepting the pattern of Israeli extremism that any criticism of its policies is anti-Semitism; perhaps it is worth recalling the Jerusalem Declaration in this respect.

It is not easy to pay attention to nuances and at the same time not lose the ability to react appropriately to extreme human rights and international law abuses, to the crisis of civilisation and manifestations of acute dehumanisation, regardless of the location of those responsible. From the emancipatory postulates of a democratic and internationalist left, any reasonable initiative must begin by combating polarisation and encouraging the construction of a world that is, in all senses, hospitable. But the effort to restore the health of the left cannot disregard the threat posed by the extreme right, that group of currents gathered under the acronym REMVE (Racially and Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremism), which brings together conspiracy groups, ultra-nationalists, identitarians, and even terrorists, with affinities with extreme right-wing parties and connections to Putin’s strategies. An aside is appropriate here that connects this point to the bulk of this article. Latvian MEP Tatiana Zdanoka was sanctioned by the European Parliament in April for spying on behalf of Russia. This politician has worked closely with Catalan pro-independence and Basque nationalism, including supporting figures linked to terrorism, within the framework of the European Parliament’s Basque Friendship Group.

In the face of this ultra-populist confluence, there is nothing like in the left side. That is why it is necessary to finish by talking about Europe. The extreme right, adding its two groups together, could become the third force. European Conservatives and Reformists (Brothers of Italy, Vox, Polish Law and Justice) would grow by 22% from the current 68 MPs to 83, and Identity and Democracy (RN of M. Le Pen in France and M. Salvini’s League in Italy, characterised both by its ’Putinophilia’), by 56% from 59 to 92, according to some surveys. As internationalists, the objective is to support the existing Europeanist left while discussing the arrangements that need to be made within it and moving, if possible, towards larger-scale groupings. Europe must be both strengthened ─ against nationalism, the greatest scourge of the 20th century─ and reformed ─ against the neoliberalism that multiplies inequalities where the malaise instrumentalised by the nativist extreme right─. Because the pressing tasks are far-reaching, a democratic and internationalist left is more necessary than ever before.

Further Reading:

César Rendueles & Jorge Sola (2019) Strategic Crossroads. The situation of the left in Spain, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 64 pp

(Author: M. A. Z. is a retired professor, PhD in Political Science. Research areas: identity politics, nationalisms, political violence, social inequality and the authoritarian impact of canonical economic discipline. Latest publication, Alchemists of Malaise. From the Weimar Moment to Global Trumpism (2022, in Spanish), in collaboration with historian F. Javier Merino Pacheco.)

May 24, 2024

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