The Socialist Party has won the most seats in Spain's parliament but falls short of a majority amidst gainst made by the far right, writes Chris Bambery
The next Spanish Government will be headed by Pedro Sánchez, the Socialist leader – that’s the one certainty from yesterday’s General Election, the third to be held in four years. But while Sánchez's Socialist Party (PSOE) was the winner in this election, winning 123 seats in the Spanish parliament, 37 more than in the last election in June 2016, it fell short of the majority of 176 seats needed to form a government.
Yet, while there will be a sense of relief in Brussels and in corporate boardrooms that the result means a government can be formed, there is also awareness that this result does not end the fragmentation of Spanish politics. The old model where the centre-left PSOE and the centre-right Popular Party alternated in office was blown away by the shock of the 2008 financial crash and the devastating recession which followed, accompanied by harsh austerity measures, and there is no sign of it being pieced together again.
The PSOE took 29 percent of the vote, up from 23 percent but falling way short of its pre-2008 totals.
The Socialists “won” the election not because of any enthusiasm among their voters for Sánchez and his programme but because of fear that the right, including the fascist Vox Party, might take office. That revived bitter memories of the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship of General Franco (Spain is second only to Cambodia for the number of unmarked civilian graves, victims of Francoist repression).
This lack of enthusiasm is unsurprising. Sánchez took office last summer after tacking left to rebuild a degree of support. In typical social democrat style, once there he moved rightwards. But the polarisation and the fear of a fascist revival meant the turnout of 75.8% was well up on the 66.5% of two years ago.
The PSOE’s old rival, the Popular Party, suffered the biggest loss of this election, dropping from 137 seats to just 66. It had entered into a competition with Ciudadanos and the fascist Vox Party as to which was the most hardline, particularly over Catalan independence, but saw its voters switching to its two competitors – the PP government of Mariano Rajoy, in office at the time of the 1 October 2017 Catalan independence referendum, had been judged to be too indecisive over repressing the Catalan independence movement and parties.
For the first time since the death of Franco fascists will sit in Spanish Parliament, though Vox fell short of its hopes, winning just 24 seats, coming fifth, it did so largely at the expense of the PP.
This is important because overall the three right-wing parties failed to break into working-class support for the left because they were tainted with Francoism (in Andalucía the three parties had entered into a regional governmental agreement at the close of last year). Spain is polarised.
Another key faultline is Catalonia. Pro-independence parties won there.
The interesting question is who will Sánchez broker a coalition or an agreement to vote for his Government on key issues like the budget, with. The radical left Unidas Podemos has said it will back a PSOE Government but its 42 seats (down by 29) are not sufficient to give Sánchez a majority.
The two pro-independence parties, the Left Republicans (ERC) and Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) voted with him to bring down the Popular Party premier, Mariano Rajoy over corruption issues in May 2018.
The ERC has indicated it would be willing to come to an agreement and their 15 seats would be sufficient to secure Sánchez the support he needs. The ERC took that position on the basis the right had to be kept out of office, but the three parties of the right cannot secure a majority in Parliament and have no obvious allies.
Complicating matters for the ERC is that 12 Catalan leaders are still on trial in the Spanish Supreme Court on charges of rebellion and sedition, including Oriol Junqueras, who headed their parliamentary list. In the election campaign Catalan aspirations for independence was a key issue with the right not just competing among themselves as to who took the hardest position on Catalonia, but slating Sánchez for betraying the unity of Spain by entering into a pact with the Catalan pro-independistas. He responded by stressing his opposition to Catalan independence and pledging that he would impose direct rule if the Catalan Government attempted to hold an independence referendum.
Interestingly, the PSOE secured a majority in the Spanish Senate which would have to vote through such an imposition of direct rule.
What price the ERC might demand for backing Sánchez is the big question. He has made it clear previously he will not halt the trial of the 12 Catalan leaders, citing the independence of the Judiciary (ignoring the small fact that so many Judges are political appointees, made by the PSOE or PP) and it would be virtually impossible for him to allow a Catalan referendum.
Another possibility is that Sánchez seeks a deal with Ciudadanos. Its enthusiasm for neo-liberalism would not be a problem as the PSOE shares that, but it ruled out such a deal during the election campaign and won votes in Spain by outflanking the PP on the right over Catalonia. Again it’s hard to see this happening but it would be the hope of Brussels and the boardrooms.
The mood among PSOE supporters was made clear when Sánchez gave his victory speech late on Sunday, with supporters chanting "Not with Rivera!" - a reference to the Ciudadanos leader - making it clear they also did not want a coalition with them.
One promise Sánchez made in the campaign is that the cadaver of Franco will be removed from the grotesque basilica outside Madrid, built by the slave labour of those defeated in the Spanish Civil War, which is maintained by state funds. But he made that promise when he first became premier last summer and did not deliver. The significance of this should not be ignored. Spain has failed to deal with the legacy of the Civil War, an issue literally swept under the carpet in the rushed transition to democracy which followed Franco’s death.
In Catalonia, the ERC gained six extra seats while JxCat lost one. It underscores the support for Catalan independence but also indicates that there is rivalry between the two pro-independence parties (they form the coalition Catalan Government headed by JxCat’s Quim Torra). The ERC seemed to have benefitted from being the best bet to open dialogue with Madrid.
There is little question that the trial of the 12 Catalan leaders has impacted on Catalonia; some 80 percent of the population oppose this trial - far, far greater than the number backing independence.
In the Basque Country, the radical left pro-independence party, Bildu, doubled its seats, taking four, with the centre-right Basque Nationalists taking six. Together they took 10 of the 18 Basque seats in the Spanish Parliament. The success of Bildu will further infuriate the Spanish right who portray them as being the heirs of the old ETA, the now-dissolved Basque terror group.
While Sánchez tries to broker a deal the Spanish right will continue to jostle among themselves. The leader of Vox, Santiago Abascal, greeted his party’s breakthrough by promising to commence what he termed “a reconquest of Spain” – this is a chilling reference to the long military campaign against the Muslim conquest of Spain which ended in 1492 with the expulsion of all practising Muslims and Jews, the imposition of the Spanish Inquisition and the evolution of a Spanish nationalism based on the exclusion of others. The key "other" being, these days, the Catalans.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
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