Chris Bambery analyses the Popular Party’s success in Madrid’s elections, and the increased power of the far right Vox party
A fascist party is set to enter into an agreement with the centre right to govern one of Europe’s key cities and regions. That is the Community of Madrid, containing Spain’s capital and the centre of government. It is the wealthiest region of Spain.
The city was, in 1936, a symbol globally of resistance to fascism as it was under siege by the forces of General Franco during the Spanish Civil War. It was central too to the opposition to the Franco dictatorship in the 1960s and early 70s, along with Barcelona and Bilbao.
On Tuesday, in elections to the regional assembly, the Popular Party won 44.7% of the vote, taking 65 seats in Madrid's 136-seat regional assembly – just short of an absolute majority of 69. They will need the support, directly or indirectly, of the far right Vox with its 13 seats to govern. The three left wing parties could only muster 58 seats between them.
The pattern across Europe is that when centre right parties try to compete on the ground of the far right, it’s the latter who emerge victorious. Yet the Popular Party’s Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the outgoing regional premier, chose to shift right to deal with the challenge of the far right Vox party. It is a strategy which paid off.
At the last regional elections, in 2019, the difference between right and left was just four seats. Now that number is 18. Díaz Ayuso doubled the number of PP seats. Madrid has shifted further to the right.
Vox leader Santiago Abascal said on Tuesday night that “our seats will be at the disposition of Ayuso to facilitate her investiture… to ensure that there is no way for the left to govern in Madrid”.
During the election campaign a poll found that 78% of PP voters were in favour of their party forming a coalition with the far-right.
The results were a major blow to the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, whose Socialist Party (PSOE) saw their vote slide 10 percentage points to just 16.85 percent, just behind the radical left More Madrid.
They were also a blow to two other parties. The junior party in the Spanish coalition government, Podemos gained just two percentage points despite its leader and former deputy prime minister, Pablo Iglesias, resigning that post to head his party’s campaign. On Tuesday evening Iglesias announced he was leaving the political stage for good.
An even greater disaster befell the neoliberal Ciudadanos (Citizens) party whose support has collapsed, shifting in the main to the PP and Vox, meaning it polled less than five percent and won no seats.
Madrid has been governed by the Popular Party for 26 years. For the last two years it did so in coalition with the neoliberal Ciudadanos party. Diaz Ayuso, the outgoing PP leader of the Madrid regional administration, broke with Ciudadanos in March, after they had ditched coalition agreements in the region of Murcia, leading to a snap election.
Díaz Ayuso immediately posed the election as being a choice between her promise of “freedom” and the left’s “socialism.” After Iglesias entered the election that changed to a choice between “freedom and communism.” That rhetoric raised long memories of the right’s battle cry in the build up to the Spanish Civil War and to the anti-communism of the subsequent Franco dictatorship.
The PP leader said her campaign slogan, "Freedom", summarises her libertarian, right-of-centre ideology. At the start of the campaign she also said, “When people call you a fascist you know you are doing well, that you are on the right side of history.”
In an interview with El Mundo newspaper last month, she said her party and Vox were "different parties but have agreed on fundamental issues, and that will continue to be the case".
In line with her slogan, “Freedom,” Díaz Ayuso has resisted central government pressure to impose tighter Covid-19 restrictions, arguing that keeping Madrid’s economy afloat is vital.
Madrid has had Spain's lightest virus restrictions. It has been the only major European capital to keep bars, restaurants and theatres open with few restrictions during the second wave lockdown. The price for that has been high with Madrid having the highest percentage of intensive care beds occupied by Covid-19 patients in the country, at nearly 45 percent – and one of the country's highest infection rates.
The election campaign was bitterly overshadowed by seven death threat letters containing bullets that were sent to politicians, as well as to the head of the Guardia Civil. The first death threat was sent to Iglesias, which provoked a bitter confrontation between Iglesias and Vox’s Rocío Monasterio, who cast doubts about the death threats during a radio debate.
Iglesias posed the election on Twitter as a choice between “Democracy or Fascism.”
Vox brought its campaign to a close in Colón square, with party leader Santiago Abascal there to support Madrid candidate Monasterio. Abascal said that his party’s goal was to “prevent the social-communist assault on the Madrid region.”
On a campaign poster Vox falsely claimed that unaccompanied underage migrants receive ten times as much state aid as pensioners. Now prosecutors are looking into whether Vox committed a hate crime.
The posters were put up in a busy Madrid subway station, saying that unaccompanied foreign migrant minors received "€4,700 a month", while "your grandmother's pension" was only "€426 a month."
Madrid's regional elections are coming up. This poster from the far-right party VOX was found in one of Madrid's train stations.— salvia (@nessiebis) April 21, 2021
"A MENA (unaccompanied foreign minor) costs 4.700 euros/month.
Your grandma gets 426 euros/month as her pension.
VOX, protect Madrid" pic.twitter.com/1ldracNjlp
Vox has promised to hacer España Grande otra vez (make Spain great again). It’s a slogan which clearly echoes those of Franco. Francoist paraphernalia is peddled at its events. It vehemently rejects gender and racial equality and targets migrants.
The Catalan question
Vox, the PP and Ciudadanos have been competing as to which is hardest on the Catalan question. In response to the 2017 independence referendum, enacted by the vote of the Catalan Parliament but declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court, Vox wants to scrap Catalan autonomy and to impose Madrid rule and to ban all pro-independence parties and media.
For readers who enjoy visits to Barcelona the vehemence of the Spanish right in opposing Catalan aspirations must seem puzzling but defence of the unity of Spain is central to rightist ideology, by which they mean the state created around Castile, the region centred on the capital, and its reconquest of the country from the Muslims.
The PP rebuilt itself in the middle of the last decade by a campaign against a new statute of autonomy for Catalonia agreed between the Catalan government and the then Socialist government in Madrid, including boycotts of Catalan products such as Cava and mass street petitioning.
Myths such as children in Catalonia are not taught Spanish have won widespread belief.
In 2019, I visited Madrid to attend the trial at the Spanish Supreme Court of Catalan leaders charged with “sedition” in regard to the 2017 referendum. Nine would get jail sentences up to 13 years. Spanish flags were being displayed off balconies not just in the upper class north of the city but in the poorer south.
A tale of two Madrids
The region of Madrid is greater than the city, containing double its population. It contains towns to the north and west which are home to some of Spain’s wealthiest inhabitants as well as rich North Madrid boroughs like Salamanca, Chamartín, Moncloa and Aravaca. The left’s support is in the south of the city and the region, but even there the PP and Vox win votes.
Spanish governments of whatever stripe have followed the Francoist policy of concentrating investment, and consequently wealth, in Madrid at the expense of Barcelona. Subsequently Madrid is today the wealthiest region of Spain. Under PP rule that has also been accompanied by much social engineering.
Across the globe, cities have seen the growth of social segregation, with working class people being forced out of their traditional inner-city neighbourhoods. In Europe, Madrid has taken a lead.
Social housing in Madrid is at an all-time low, with the conservative Madrid City Council having sold off most of Madrid’s social housing to Blackstone, an American vulture fund, since 2008.
According to the 2020 Amnesty International report on extreme poverty, social housing stock in Spain currently accounts for only 2.5% of all dwellings. This is compared to 30% in the Netherlands, 24% in Austria, 17.6% in the UK or 16.8% in France.
Spain is one of the European countries with the highest number of ghetto schools, a situation which occurs when the level of concentration of students with low socioeconomic resources in the same centre exceeds 50%. It is, therefore, one of the countries that most divides primary school students into different educational centres based on their family income, according to a pioneering study by the NGO Save the Children and the EsadeEcPol study centre, which analysed data from 64 countries.
Within Spain, the Madrid region has the highest level of segregation.
Last November, when the Spanish government succeeded in getting a law passed aimed at reducing segregation in schools, some 5,000 vehicles took part in a motor cavalcade against it. They were joined by leading members of the conservative Popular Party (PP), including national party president Pablo Casado, Madrid regional premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso, and the mayor of the city of Madrid, José Luis Martínez-Almeida, all three of whom took part in inside Casado’s car.
There were similar protests in cities such as Seville, Malaga and Grenada but none in Catalonia, the Basque Country and the Valencia region where greater recognition of the languages spoken there was widely welcomed, underlining a fault line in Spain.
For the past quarter-century, politics in the Madrid region have been spectacularly corrupt. All four of Ayuso’s predecessors have been investigated or indicted on corruption charges. Meanwhile, the region has become a laboratory for neoliberal economic policies. The PP steadily lowered taxes for the wealthiest (Madrid is the only region that doesn’t tax wealth and inheritance), while cutting social services—like healthcare—and privatising public services including waste collection, elder care, higher education, and public housing.
As a consequence of this is that the PP has built a greater constituency of voters who appreciate its commitment to low taxation, privatisation and neoliberalism. It is also a champion of the centralisation of Spain on the city and region, which benefits the better-off there.
If, as looks certain, Vox give Díaz Ayuso and the PP the votes it needs to take office, this will be the second region of Spain where this has happened. Vox did the same in Andalusia after the 2019 elections there.
By agreeing this, the PP is clearly giving a Francoist party respectability. But Díaz Ayuso’s success can only encourage the PP to follow her rightward shift further.
Vox’s support grew by just 0.2 percent and it added just one seat in these elections, but its presence contaminates Spanish politics.
The fact that Pedro Sánchez could only get his budget passed with the support of the pro-independence Catalan and Basque parties, Esquerra Republicana Catalana and EB Bildu, sent the right into orbit, seemingly confirming their belief Spain was in danger of breaking up (the PSOE is in reality 100 percent unionist). The election results in Madrid can only cause concern in both Catalonia and the Basque Country, feeding belief that both must escape Spain.
For the left there is some relief in the Mas Madrid vote. It separated from Podemos because of its curtailed internal democracy and its centralisation on Iglesias. There needs to be an assessment of Podemos’s initial success and its subsequent fall, its decision to enter coalition with PSOE and its failure, shared with much of the Spanish left, to champion Catalan self-determination.
These election results leave Spain even more polarised than ever. Across the Spanish state a united anti-fascist movement is needed to oppose Vox but a revitalised radical left is needed to offer working people in Madrid and elsewhere hope.
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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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