The decay of Spanish opposition

26 Aug 2016

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is likely to remain at the head of the country for a third consecutive term, despite his right-wing People’s Party (PP) losing votes in December and June elections.


In December, no government was formed, as no party or coalition had the required majority. A left-wing coalition between centre-left wingers PSOE and new far-left party Podemos would have formed a government, but Podemos’ support for a referendum on Catalan independence does not sit well with PSOE.


Come June, PSOE lost seats, and Podemos’ coalition with another far-left party Izquierda Unida – together as Unidos Podemos – did not gain as much as had been hoped. A left-wing coalition was no longer possible. PP and new centre-right Ciudadanos looked to PSOE to complete a coalition of ‘constitutionalist’ parties, meaning parties against a referendum in Catalonia. PSOE rejected this coalition as well.


On 30th August Rajoy will attend a ‘sesión de investidura’ in which the parliament must vote him in or out. PSOE will likely vote him out, Rajoy will probably not gain enough support, meaning there will be a third set of elections. If turnout drops again, Rajoy may gain a majority with a Ciudadanos-PP coalition.


The hopes for a new left-wing government are fading. Why has the establishment prevailed, and what went wrong for Spain’s new multipartite opposition?


The Catalan case for independence has recently come to unprecedented prominence; calls for a referendum have multiplied since Spain’s financial crisis, and the response from government has not exactly been attentive. In 2012 the Catalan regional government proposed a referendum which took place in November 2014. Rajoy dismissed it as illegal, and the right-wing media approached it with bitterness (ABC front cover attached reads: ‘Farce and Disobedience’). The establishment’s approach to Catalan demands for more autonomy have been to ignore them.


This is a matter over which the left has split. Podemos defend the right to self-determination, making them popular in Catalonia. There is little space to compromise on this policy. PSOE have the same dismissive stance as PP on Catalonia, as do Ciudadanos, so the issue has allowed the centre-left and right to alienate the left as extremist and unconstitutional.


After the recent elections, Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera talked in a press conference of his interest in a pact between ‘constitutional’ parties. PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez has also dismissed Podemos as ‘extremists’. The use of the ‘extremist’ label is not limited to politicians; the media frequently questions Podemos and its leader Pablo Iglesias on whether they condemn Basque terrorist group ETA, for example.


By pushing contempt for Podemos, PSOE, Ciudadanos and the media have done PP a huge favour. This is the first major factor of the opposition’s ongoing failure; rather than focussing on opposing the government, PSOE and Ciudadanos, along with the government and the media, have depicted Podemos as a bigger threat. The fear of the left has overshadowed the mistrust in Spain’s government.


Corruption is arguably Spain’s biggest problem, and not enough is being done by the opposition to expose it. Rajoy, a man who knows about corruption in his party and fights to sweep it under the carpet, is still winning elections. The Bárcenas affair in 2013 showed ex-PP treasurer Luis Bárcenas to have kept a slush fund for 18 years through which illegal bonuses were given to PP politicians including Rajoy, who knew of this and sent messages of support to Bárcenas when he was caught. Of the long list of corruption scandals in Spain, this has been the most significant.


Corruption in Spain is persistent; even the ‘Socialist’ party PSOE has its own long history of scandals. There is a culture of party solidarity in Spain, and especially in PP, which protects corruption. Transparency International and the European Commission have both targeted Spain as a particularly serious case in corruption reports. In the Commission’s report, Spaniards are said to be the Europeans most likely to feel directly affected by corruption.


Spain’s political class has alienated its people, who feel increasingly disenfranchised. PP is not merely a party with a history of corrupt politicians, and the time has come to stop treating corruption as such. PP is a party which continues to embody and protect Spain’s culture of corruption. PSOE’s refusal to negotiate and pact with Podemos, who are particularly critical of corruption, shows Spain’s centre-left to be more of an establishment party than anything else.


Most dangerous of all is the misconception that Spain’s culture of corruption will pass with time. Despite still winning elections, PP have lost a lot of support, and Rajoy has been criticised and smeared with corruption. The problem however, is the focus being put on Rajoy, and not the culture which has produced him. There seems to be an idea that replacing Rajoy as party leader would renew the party, putting corruption behind it. Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera said in March that if Rajoy were to step down as prime minister, it would ‘change everything’ in the exercise of making coalitions. Rivera is a harsh critic of corruption, but again, he does not go far enough in exposing its depth. In the run-up to the December elections in 2015, a face-to-face debate between Rajoy and Sánchez of PSOE saw Sánchez accusing Rajoy of being ‘indecent’, and this, not wider criticism of PP, is what grabbed the headlines. In the media this time, Rajoy was under fire, not his party. There is little realisation that a vote for PP consolidates those toxic elements of traditional Spanish values of family, religion and party solidarity from which political corruption stems.


Should Rajoy come out on top at the end of this political ordeal, he can continue to be mocked as old, uncharismatic, corrupt and useless by the press and his political opponents, thus facilitating the victory of a seemingly young yet equally corrupt and intolerant leader in four years time. The PP is not a party led by a corrupt individual, it is a party whose very mechanism is plagued by corruption.


The end to the Spanish political deadlock lies, or at least lay, in the hands of PSOE. Wanted by Podemos to form a left-wing government, and wanted by the right to form a ‘constitutionalist’ government, Sánchez and his party faced a dilemma. But there has been no intention of cooperation with either side for fear of losing its credibility.


PSOE should be taking a proper stance against the divisions which plague Spain. They should be confronting PP, not Podemos. The alienation of the left as a mob of angry hippies squabbling over non-issues must stop. I fear the December elections were the best chance PSOE will get at forming a left-wing government. The party must acknowledge its now smaller role and obligation to form coalitions. It must respond to the frustration of Spanish youth and start challenging those elements of Spanish society which divide the country through corruption and intolerance.


The opposition, led by PSOE, should now more than ever make it clear; there is a problem in Spain and the PP are defending it. If this message is not brought clearly, it may be a long time before we see this problem addressed, let alone solved.  



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