Right and left gain in Spain elections

On Sunday, May 22, the ruling Socialist Workers’ Party of Spain, the country’s social democrats, took a severe beating in regional and local elections, while the right-wing People’s Party surged ahead. Communists, starting from a small base, also picked up a significant number of votes and seats. Meanwhile, demonstrators who have been sitting in at Madrid’s Plaza del Sol and other public places throughout the nation vowed to continue their protests against austerity measures that are being imposed on Spain in the context of Europe’s worsening financial and economic crisis.

Spain has been plagued by severe unemployment (now at 21 percent) since the 2008 world financial crisis, although its budget is not as far in the red as are those of the other poor Western European countries, known as PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain).

Under pressure from the European Union and the Central Bank of Europe, the Socialst Workers government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has been implementing severe austerity measures, which include 5 percent cuts in public employees’ pay, an end to cost of living adjustments of pensions, and the elimination or cutback of aid to regional and local governments, among others. Unfortunately many of these things exacerbate the unemployment problem.

As in the other PIIGS countries, austerity and privatization have led to public protests by unions, students and other sectors. Over the days leading up to Sunday’s elections, tens of thousands of people have converged for a massive protest at the Plaza del Sol, the main central plaza of Madrid, right next to Spain’s royal palace. Demands have been for a rescinding of the austerity measures, on pain of losing votes. Ordered to leave on the pretext that public political agitation is not allowed in Spain right before elections, the demonstrators refused, and other similar demonstrations have arisen all over Spain. The protestors have vowed to continue these “May 15” protests beyond the elections.

Spain’s multiple communist parties have taken different stances toward the protests, which are heterogeneous in social origin and therefore sometimes confused in their messages. The Communist Party of Spain and the Communist Party of Catalonia hailed the demonstrations and urged their members to support them. The Communist Party of the Peoples of Spain, however, has withheld its support.

In the event, on Election Day, the governing Socialist Workers took a drubbing, losing to the People’s Party and its right-wing allies in all provincial governments and most local ones. The popular vote went 38 percent to the rightists and 28 percent to the socialists, a sharp change from the 2007 regional and local elections, in which the People’s Party had a slight advantage, and from the 2008 parliamentary elections, won narrowly by the socialists. Losses included such former Socialist Workers strongholds as the city of Barcelona, which the social democrats and Catalan allies had ruled for many years.  The United Left, which unites the Communist Party of Spain with smaller left-wing groups, advanced, raising its popular vote total to 6.33 percent, compared to 5.48 percent in 2007, and picked up 200 municipal council seats and 12 provincial ones. However, they lost their control of the city of Cordoba in Andalusia to the right.  A new left-wing Basque nationalist party, BILDU, also advanced, gaining 18 new municipal council seats out of 83 in the historically Basque provinces of Bilbao, San Sebastian and Vitoria, plus three out of 27 in Pamplona, in spite of government attempts to prohibit it, which were based on accusations of connections to the armed Basque guerilla organization ETA.

Seeing their opportunity, People’s Party leaders immediately asked for a vote of confidence in parliament, hoping to force an early national election that otherwise would not be due until next year. Prime Minister Rodriguez Zapatero had announced before the elections that he would not run for reelection.

The Spanish scenario is similar to that of Greece and Portugal, economically beleaguered countries also ruled by social democrats. Pressure from their own ruling classes, from the European Union and its wealthier countries, the European Central Bank and the IMF leads these social democratic governments to implement austerity programs, slashing social welfare programs that they themselves had introduced many years ago. This leads to massive labor and social protests.

The communist parties and their allies grow and advance electorally, but do not have the numbers to force the social democrats to back away from austerity or to form socialist-communist electoral blocs and governing coalitions, let alone to take power themselves. The right then moves into the vacuum, taking advantage of anger with the social-democratic governments in power, in spite of the fact that, after all, the social democratic governments are only enforcing policies that the right itself has always advocated.  

How to break this pattern is the great problem now to be tackled by the European left.

Photo: Pamphlet from the United Left electoral alliance.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.