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Is it a Betrayal for Podemos to Join the Spanish Government?

In the aftermath of the November 10 elections in the Spanish State, the left-wing Podemos party has agreed to join a government with Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE. It is an alliance fraught with traps for the Spanish working-class.

Scott Cooper

November 25, 2019
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“No one has anything to fear with a PSOE–Podemos government.” So said Pepe Álvarez, secretary-general of Spain’s General Union of Workers (UGT), three days after the November 10 election in Spain. “Surely the Stock Exchange and the businessmen … were caught by surprise. But they will see that nothing happens.”

In many respects, those words encapsulate everything one needs to know about what happened just over two weeks ago in the Spanish State. And Álvarez, whose union confederation is historically linked to the PSOE (Spain’s old social democratic party), is essentially correct. The rich have nothing to fear, the new government will protect and defend the constitution and institutions that have steered Spain as part of the “Regime of ’78,” erected after the Francoist dictatorship, and the neoliberal policies embraced by the bourgeoisie will continue to be promulgated. Indeed, “they will see that nothing happens.”

Or will they? The class struggle and the fight for Catalonian independence will have something to say about that.

Election results and a new coalition government

The election was Spain’s fourth in as many years, and second in 2019. The general election in April, out of which PSOE Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez failed to form a government despite his party winning the most seats in parliament, unleashed a crisis that has rocked the bourgeois order for seven months—a period during which the Catalonian independence movement has grown exponentially and taken to the streets. The PSOE hoped to emerge on November 10 with a way to keep Sánchez in power, through more seats and perhaps a clearer potential partnership, and achieve greater parliamentary stability without depending on any of the pro-independence forces in Catalonia that it has brutally repressed.

That was not to be. While the PSOE won more votes than any other party, its total was less than 29%, and it won three fewer seats in parliament than in April—hardly the makings of a “strong government.” The right-wing People’s Party came in second, winning 22 more seats than in April. Meanwhile the extreme right gained significant ground, with Vox more than doubling its seats to become the third most-powerful party in parliament. 

As the German news outlet Deutsche Welle put it, the “upstart party Vox became the first far-right grouping in the Spanish parliament since the country returned to democracy after the Franco dictatorship.”

Faced with this outcome, Sánchez turned to Podemos (“We Can”), the main party within the Unidas Podemos electoral alliance with the United Left and other left-wing parties formed originally to contest the 2016 election. In the November elections, Unidad Podemos took fourth place.

Podemos itself was founded in January 2014. It grew out of the anti-austerity movement known as the 15-M Movement and also as the Indignados Movement. It’s a party that seems to wear the “populist” moniker with pride, even as that term is used to deride it. It has a general economic program that emphasizes a basic income, more taxation of large corporations, and reducing poverty. It is often compared to Syriza in Greece.

In the wake of the November 10 vote, Sánchez concluded that the only way forward for staying in power and “holding back” the extreme right is to form a “progressive government” with Podemos, whose leader, Pablo Iglesias, was a willing partner. When the PSOE and Podemos presented their preliminary coalition government agreement, it became abundantly clear that the “social liberals” of the PSOE and the reformists of Podemos are coming together to solidify two things in particular: they will go forward with implementing the budgetary adjustments and controls on public expenditures demanded by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund; and they will drop any pretense of repealing the most recent anti-labor laws.

All this will be done on the backs of Spain’s workers and popular sectors. Iglesias has admitted as much, telling the Podemos Unidad affiliates that the agreement reveals “many limits and contradictions” and that Podemos is having to “give in on many things.” The neoliberal policies that have been used to bludgeon the people of Spain will continue. And just to reassure capitalism’s global institutions, Nadia Calviño—once a candidate to lead the IMF—will become the next vice president.

In addition, the new coalition government will continue to broaden the fight against Catalonian independence, with its police repression and jailing of political prisoners. This resolve to keep Catalonia within the Spanish State cannot be overstated. Nothing the EU and IMF demand can be accomplished otherwise. Catalonia is Spain’s economic backbone and most prosperous region. It has the highest GDP of any other region, its exports account for more than one-fourth of the national total, and it attracts foreign direct investment at a significantly higher rate than other regions. While Catalans are only about 16% of the country’s population, Catalonia’s contribution to the overall Spanish economy is huge—even larger than the contribution California makes to the entire United States.

The danger of the Podemos path

In a July 2016 interview, Pablo Iglesias responded to a question about the electoral path this way: “That idiocy we used to say when we were on the extreme left that things are changed in the street and not in institutions is a lie.” Since then, Podemos has functioned to halt the mobilization of the Spanish masses against its oppressors—the very sort of mobilization from which it was born. Now it enters into a pact with the very institutions it once claimed to fight against, joining a government in which it will take ownership of all the neoliberal steps required to meet the demands of the IMF, the EU, and Madrid’s stock market. In the name of adherence to the Constitution, it will be one of the executors of whatever is required to ensure that Article 135, which prioritizes payment of Spain’s debt over all other expenditures—is followed. 

This is not only a betrayal of the Spanish masses of the first order; it is also a willing refusal to acknowledge the history of Spain in the post-Franco era. Vox’s rise has been an important factor in mobilizing a large part of the country’s youth, who reject its racist and reactionary message. But what has bred this rise of the extreme right? It is the very neoliberal policies that the PSOE and Podemos will continue to apply.

In this respect, the danger of the “idiocy” remark Iglesias made in 2016 comes into clearer focus. As Ernesto Castilla wrote in Izquierda Diario (the newspaper of the Workers’ Revolutionary Current, CRT, in the Spanish State): “The danger of the PSOE-UP coalition is twofold: as it continues to govern for the super-rich and against the popular classes, it will divert the mobilization, which is the only way to stop attacks [by Vox] and the extreme right. Demobilizing—not confronting in the streets the anti-working-class policies to come—lays the foundations for an even more forceful rise of the extreme right. So many more people will become discouraged and discontented by the betrayal of those who called on them to trust in their ‘progressive’ government—and removed them from the streets so they could then apply all the adjustments the IMF demands.”

That’s like fighting vampires by feeding them blood.

What Next?

Now that Pablo Iglesias—and the trade union bureaucracy led by Álvarez—have risen to the occasion to play the role of reformism throughout history, what comes next? After all, there’s no sign that the crisis of the regime, the pressure of austerity and adjustment, and the uprising in Catalonia are going to do anything but intensify.

The latter is particularly instructive. Catalonia’s uprising cannot be separated from the general rise of the class struggle we have seen in the past few months, particularly in Latin America and in some Arab countries, and with which it shares in common the central role of young people. On October 14, tens of thousands of Catalan youth walked out of their schools and filled the streets. They cut off the roads from Barcelona to the airport. And when the inevitable police attacks came, they erected barricades in Barcelona and other cities to defend themselves.

Madrid’s refusal to heed Catalonia’s demands for independence—and in fact to jail its leading politicians, with sentences up to 13 years—will only fan the flames of further protests. It is only a matter of time before the youth in other parts of the Spanish State, who have been mobilizing against the rise of Vox, see that the Catalonian youth are their ally. This will happen at the same time as Spanish workers are being cudgeled by the policies of a new “progressive” government that aim directly at their ability to survive from day to day.

This is a recipe for intensified class struggle if ever there was one. But how will it move forward to confront the coming attacks on workers?

In both the Spanish State and Catalonia, what is posed today is the need for a definitive break with Podemos. For the Anticapitalistas group within the Podemos coalition, this cannot be delayed. An organization that claims to be revolutionary socialist is not if at the same time it provides cover for the PSOE–Podemos “progressive” project. The break ought to have happened by the time you read this article.

Beyond the Anticapitalistas, though, there is much other work to do to build a genuine political alternative to the neoliberal–reformist alliance. The Spanish State needs a united left with a revolutionary program, a left that fights for a true anti-capitalist program and is completely independent of the parties of the new regime. Its focus must be on expanding the mobilization of the masses, not obstructing it, and putting the self-organization of workers, youth, and the social movements at the center of the struggle. And it must be internationalist—which includes unequivocal support for Catalonian independence.

Catalonia needs the same united left, independent of the Catalan bourgeoisie, ready to link up with its allies in the Spanish State.

These are the forces that together could build a movement to bring down the “Regime of ’78” and advance to solve the problems that besiege the Spanish and Catalonian masses today. Signing on to be the guarantors of rule by the rich and the corporations—or even adopting the pretense of being the “official opposition” to the institutional framework—is the same dead end on the Iberian Peninsula as it has been in every country of the world throughout history.

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Scott Cooper

Scott is a writer, editor, and longtime socialist activist who lives in the Boston area.


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