The first day of the new parliament was one of high drama and low deals, writes Alastair Stephens
The opening of the Spanish Parliament, the Cortes, on Wednesday was expected to be rather more interesting than usual, following the electoral upset of 20-D – and it was. One of the surprises was just how little the old parties seemed to realise how much things had changed.
The day started with the arrival of the new members of parliament. Whilst members of Equo (a left Green party) arrived by bike wanting to go through the main gate, only to find that they couldn't get in that way, the Valencian deputies of Compromis(the Podemos franchise in that region) arrived accompanied by a band.
The fact that the new assembly is like no Spanish parliament before it became immediately apparent when it sat. It was younger and more female than ever. There has certainly been a turnover of members: only 40% of those who sat in last session of the Congress of Deputies (as the lower house of parliament is called) retained their seats. That being said, many of the newcomers, namely the deputies of the new right-populist party, Ciudadanos, led by Tory-boy Albert Rivera, seemed determined to ape the old guard.
Like the people who elected them
Not so Podemos's sixty nine new deputies. Among them there was a profusion of styles, but the emphasis was on the everyday. They looked like the people who had elected them: shirt sleeves, t-shirts (one if which proclaimed "working class hero") and jumpers, and Alberto Rodriguez’s dreadlocks. Sat in the front row was Pablo Iglesias himself, alongside his 32-year old No. 2, Iñigo Errejón. Directly behind them was Rita Bohaso, a Compromisdeputy for Alicante, and Spain's first black MP (read here an English language interview with her)
But the show was stolen by Carolina Bescansa, who also sat in the front in row with her baby son, Diego, whom she proceeded to feed. This of course become the centre of media interest (as well as interest in the chamber, as Iglesias and Errejón cooed over Diego) and the centre of a social media storm. Bescansa though was the centre of attention for other reasons, which we shall come to in a moment.
First the new deputies had be sworn in and a new speaker elected.
One by one they were asked if they promised to comply by the constitution. And one by one the deputies replied with “Yes, I promise”, and sometimes a few other words. Podemos’s deputies pattern was set by their first member called who replied "I promise to respect the constitution and will work to change it. Never again a country without its people". Others added to at, the most lengthy statement probably from Errejon who, to what had become by then the standard Podemos formula, added “for the sovereignty of the people, for a new Spain, per la fraternitat entre els pobles [for the fraternity of peoples – in Catalan]. Because they were, are and will be.” The only way to compete with Errejón’s mini speech was silence, and Iglesias ended his promise in sign language.
The oath caused more sparks to fly in the upper house, the Senate, as the newly elected members for Podemos and the nationalist parties pledged variously in Castilian (Spanish), Catalan, Galician and Basque only to be told they had to do it in Castilian as there was no interpretation available at the session (!). The first deaf member of parliament, Pilar Lima, was sworn in with the aid of an interpreter. Podemos’s leader in the Senate, Raúl Espinar, greeted each of the new Senators with a hug, an action greeted each time by ironic cries of “Oooooo” from the Popular Party benches.
A front against self determination
Back in the lower house Carolina Bescansa again stepped onto centre stage with the election of the speaker.
She had been put forward at the last minute as Podemos's candidate for this role in response to the other parties’ refusal to agree to the demand that Podemos and its allies be allowed to create four parliamentary groups, and also to the Socialist Party's opportunistic deal with the right wing Ciudidanos to get one of the party's own elected to the speaker’s chair.
In the general election Podemos had ran its candidates in Galicia, Catalonia and Valencia as part of broader alliances. In Galicia, a poor, rural region where Galego (a relation of Portuguese) is spoken, long dominated by the right, the Podemos backed the En Mareaalliance topped the poll. They also came first in Catalonia where the En Comucoalition was centred on the party led by Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona. In Valencia, the neighbouring Catalan speaking region, they ran as Compromis.
These parties had asked that their deputies be registered as independent parliamentary groups, separate from Podemos (a demand which Podemos supported) as recognition of the multinational nature of Spain. The other parties rejected this, however, claiming that they should not get the extra money and parliamentary time accorded to recognised groups, claiming that they were all really Podemos. This of course hardly really matched up to reality as the alliances had pledged not to take the extra time and money (as Podemos's deputies had already promised to not personally take all the rather generous parliamentary salaries and allowances to which they were entitled).
In reality these were just further shots in the growing conflict over the rights of the Spain's non-Castilian speaking peoples to self-determination, a right which their equivalent of Labour, the Socialist Party (PSOE) has firmly aligned itself with the right in denying. The issue is fast becoming the central dividing line in Spanish politics as Catalonia, banned from having a legal referendum on the issue, has now started down the road towards unilateral independence.
The PSOE's dealings with the right was also on display in the election of the speaker.
PSOE had done a deal with Ciudidanos to elect Patxi Lopez to the chair (which caused the main right-wing party, the Popular Party, to pass on the election, despite having the most MPs). The choice of Lopez is significant. He is a former Lehendakari (Basque Prime Minister), and headed the first and only administration of that region, since its establishment in 1980, not of the moderate Basque Nationalist Party. The choice was yet another signal that the PSOE was going to line up against demands for self-determination.
He was of course was elected, comfortably beating Bescansa (the only ballot ruled null was the vote for “Bescansa’s child”).The other parties then went on to carve up the lower house’s presiding committee, the Mesa, between them. The reaction from Podemos was strident, condemning the three-coloured deal between the Socialist Party and the two rival parties of the right, Ciudadanos and the PP. Iglesias declared on Twitter that “the three of the ‘bunker’ ride out" an evocative and provocative phrase as the 'bunker' was the name given to the hardliners of the last years of Franco's rule in the 1970s who wanted to perpetuate the Fascist regime.
The Socialist Party at present do not seem to be displaying such resolution though. They are zigzagging wildly. Only last week the party leader Pedro Sanchez was in Lisbon talking to the new Portuguese Prime Minister, Antonio Costa, who heads a recently inaugurated left government sustained in parliament by the Communist Party and radical Left Bloc. Then the idea a government of 'the lefts' (de las izquierdas, the Romance speaking countries share the conception of the ‘left’ as something that can be plural) seemed to be in play. It now seems to have been kicked very much into touch.
Still no government though
A deal over the speaker though does not at present seem to presage any deal over the government. The only combination with the numbers for a parliamentary majority would be an opportunistic ‘grand coalition’ between the Socialist party and one or both of the right wing parties, and this is what the leader of the PP and caretaker government, Mariano Rajoy, has called for. It might sustain a government for a time, but it would probably also be electoral suicide for the PSOE.
Business as usual has been rudely interrupted by the power of the social movements sweeping Podemos into parliament as their voice, a role they have so far played admirably. If they continue to do so nothing may ever be the same again in Spanish politics.
The first day of this new politics was one of high drama and low deals. We can expect to see many more such days in the months ahead, or at least until, as seems likely, the country has to again go to the polls.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.