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Issue #1753      October 19, 2016

Meltdown in Spain, EU

While the chaos devouring Spain’s Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) mixed elements of farce and tragedy, the issues roiling Spanish politics reflect a general crisis in the European Union (EU) and a sober warning to the continent: Europe’s 500 million people need answers, and the old formulas are not working.

Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) leader Pedro Sanchez (left), and the party’s Secretary of Organization and Electoral Action Cesar Luena (right).

On the tragedy side was the implosion of a 137-year-old party that at one point claimed the allegiance of half of Spain’s people. It’s now reduced to fratricidal infighting. The PSOE’s embattled General Secretary Pedro Sánchez was forced to resign when party grandees and regional leaders organised a coup against his plan to form a united front of the left.

The farce was street theatre, literally: Verónica Pérez, the president of the PSOE’s Federal Committee and a coup supporter, was forced to hold a press conference on a sidewalk in Madrid because Sánchez’s people barred her from the party’s headquarters.

There was no gloating by the Socialists’ main competitors on the left. Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, somberly called it “the most important crisis since the end of the civil war in the most important Spanish party in the past century.”

That the party coup is a crisis for Spain there is no question, but the issues that prevented the formation of a working government for the past nine months are the same ones Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, Irish – and before they jumped ship, the British – are wresting with: growing economic inequality, high unemployment, stagnant economies, and whole populations abandoned by Europe’s elites.

Double deadlock at the polls

The spark for the PSOE’s meltdown was a move by Sánchez to break the political logjam convulsing Spanish politics. The current crisis goes back to the December 20, 2015 national elections that saw Spain’s two traditional parties – the right-wing People’s Party (PP), led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, and Sánchez’s Socialists – take a beating. The PP lost 63 seats and its majority and the PSOE lost 20 seats. Two new parties, the left-wing Podemos and the right-wing nationalist party Ciudadanos, crashed the party, winning 69 seats and 40 seats, respectively.

While the PP took the most seats, it was not enough for a majority in the 350-seat legislature, which requires 176. In theory, the PSOE could have cobbled together a government with Podemos, Catalans, and independents, but the issue of Catalonian independence got in the way.

The Catalans demand the right to hold a referendum on independence, something the PP, the Socialists, and Ciudadanos bitterly oppose. While Podemos is also opposed to Spain’s richest province breaking free of the country, it supports the right of the Catalans to vote on the issue. Catalonia was conquered in 1715 during the War of the Spanish Succession, and Madrid has oppressed the Catalans’ language and culture ever since.

The Catalan issue is an important one for Spain, but the PSOE could have shelved its opposition to a referendum and made common cause with Podemos, the Catalans, and the independents. Instead, Sánchez formed a pact with Ciudadanos and asked Podemos to join the alliance.

For Podemos, that would have been a poison pill. A major reason why Podemos is the number one party in Catalonia is because it supports the right of Catalans to hold a referendum. The June 26 election saw PSOE lose five more seats and turn in its worst ever performance.

The current crisis is the fallout from that election. Rajoy, claiming the PP had “won” the election, formed an alliance with Ciudadanos and asked the PSOE to either support him or abstain from voting and allow him to form a minority government. Sánchez refused, convinced that allowing Rajoy to form a government would be a boon to Podemos and the end of the Socialists.

There is a good deal of precedent for that conclusion. The Greek Socialist Party (PASOK) formed a grand coalition with the right and was subsequently decimated by the left-wing Syriza Party. The German Social Democratic Party’s alliance with the conservative Christian Democratic Union has seen the once mighty organisation slip below 20 percent in the polls. England’s Liberal Democratic Party was destroyed by its alliance with the Conservatives.

The “Brexit” was a shock to all of Europe and hit Spain particularly hard. The country’s stock market lost some US$70 billion, losses that fed the scare campaign the PP and the PSOE were running against Podemos.

Even though Podemos supports EU membership, the right and the centre warned that, if the left-wing party won the election, it would accelerate the break-up of Europe and encourage the Catalans to push for independence. The Brexit pushed fear to the top of the agenda, and when people are afraid they tend to vote for stability.

What next for the left?

The path for the Socialists is less certain.

If the PSOE is not to become a footnote in Spain’s history, it will have to suppress its hostility to Podemos and recognise that two-party domination of the country is in the past. The Socialists will also have to swallow their resistance to a Catalan referendum, if for no other reason than it will be impossible to block it in the long run. Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont recently announced an independence plebiscite would be held no later than September 2017 regardless of what Madrid wants.

The right in Spain may have a government, but it is not one supported by the majority of the country’s people. Nor will its programs address Spain’s unemployment rate – currently at 20 percent, the second highest in Europe behind Greece – or the country’s crisis in health care, education, and housing.

For the left, unity would seem to be the central goal, similar to Portugal, where the Portuguese Socialist Workers Party formed a united front with the Left Bloc and the Communist/Green Alliance. While the united front has its divisions, the parties put them aside in the interest of rolling back some of the austerity policies that have made Portugal the home of Europe’s greatest level of economic inequality.

The importance of the European left finding common ground is underscored by the rising power of the extreme right in countries like France, Austria, England, Poland, Greece, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Germany. The economic and social crises generated by almost a decade of austerity and growing inequality needs programmatic solutions that only the left has the imagination to construct.

One immediate initiative would be to join Syriza’s and Podemos’ call for a European debt conference modelled on the 1953 London Conference that cancelled much of Germany’s wartime debt and re-ignited the German economy.

But the left needs to hurry lest xenophobia, racism, hate, and repression – the four horsemen of the right’s apocalypse – engulf Europe.

People’s World

Next article – BRICS nations’ stronger ties

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