The End Of Left And Right: Spanish Elections 2015

MADRID turns awfully cold in December. The city sits high and dry on the Meseta plateau, about half a mile above sea level but nowhere near the sea. As the temperature drops, the engine fumes rise into the still air to knit a winter cap of smog overhead that locals call “the beret”. Pollution is a major issue in the Spanish capital. Homelessness is another.

At last official count there were almost 2000 homeless people in the relatively compact city centre. An estimated third of those sleep rough in the streets and plazas. I live in Los Austrias, near the Royal Palace, and every morning I walk my dog past clumps of bodies huddled under blankets around the Sabatini Gardens and along the Paseo Del Pintor Rosales.

Many are Spaniards, from what I can gather, others are incomers from Eastern and Southern Europe or North Africa. I can’t say that I know any of them, but one guy in particular seems to love my dog, and the feeling is mutual because he always feeds her something. I probably shouldn’t allow this – he surely needs that bocadillo more than she does. He has told me that his name is Vicente, and that he’s a native madrileño from the nearby suburb of Aluche.

The other day, I asked him who he would vote for in the Spanish general election later this week. I wasn’t sure if he was even eligible without a fixed address, and I worried that he’d find the question rude. Still patting the dog, and addressing his answer to her, Vicente said “Manuela” in a flat, abstracted tone that I found hard to read. He might have been joking.

Manuela Carmena, now familiar to most locals by her first name alone, has been mayor of Madrid since the municipal elections of last May. A retired judge pressed back into service to lead a leftist citizen platform called Ahora Madrid, Carmena seemed no less surprised by her victory than her enemies in the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party, or PP), who had held a near-absolute majority on the city council for more than 20 years. (It’s worth noting that the PP’s mayoral candidate, Countess Esperanza Aguirre, claimed that the homeless were scaring off tourists and pledged to forcibly remove them from the vicinity of major attractions.)

Carmena has since repeatedly made clear that she has no political ambitions beyond improving the lives of madrileños. Early moves toward that end include anti-pollution measures that restrict traffic in the city centre, and the safeguarding of rental contracts for scores of families threatened with eviction from social housing. But, much as her admirers might like her to, she is certainly not standing for parliament this Sunday.

She is not even actively supporting Podemos, the upstart party led by her much younger ally Pablo Iglesias, the man who talked a reluctant Carmena into running for office in the first place. Podemos, meaning “We Can”, was formed as recently as 2014, and inspired by the nationwide anti-austerity demonstrations of the 15-M Movement (also known as the “Indignados”, or “Indignants”) a few years earlier. Iglesias, a pony-tailed, guitar-playing former TV presenter and lecturer in political science at Madrid’s Complutense University, affirmed the party’s intention to “throw the PP and PSOE out of power”. And many seemed to agree that it was about time.

The right-wing PP and their binary left-wing opponents the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) have effectively taken turns to run the country since La Transición, when the death of General Francisco Franco – 40 years ago last month – phased out his long dictatorship and ushered in the current age of social democracy.

The latter party first came to power with a landslide victory in the epochal election of 1982, the former party last returned to government in 2011, near the nadir of the Spanish financial crisis. That crater-like depression was triggered by the global banking meltdown, but also deepened by the implosion of the domestic housing bubble, widened by sovereign debt obligations, and roundly blamed on the PSOE government under then-Prime Minister José Zapatero.

His successor Mariano Rajoy is now taking credit for Spain’s ongoing recovery, and the incumbent PP are campaigning for this Sunday’s election with a steady-she-goes slogan that warns “now is not the time for experiments”. This certainly refers to the reformist agenda of Podemos, a clear sign of how much that party has spooked the Spanish establishment.

In less than two years, Iglesias’s spreading network of activists, intellectuals, grassroots campaigners and community organisers gathered upwards of 350,000 card-carrying members. Their written resolutions, drafted via citizen’s assembly late last year, focused on improving public education and healthcare, legislating against corruption, establishing a right to housing, auditing and restructuring the national debt.

Strong Podemos backing helped Carmena and 19 other new faces conquer Madrid City Council, and like-minded housing advocate Ada Calou to become the radical new mayor of Barcelona. For a while there, some polls were showing Podemos on target to win the next general election. But six months later, on the eve of the vote, it’s polling in fourth place, well behind the PP, PSOE, and Ciudadanos, another upstart party whose star is now in the ascendant, outshining Iglesias with an even younger, more market-friendly leader.

Handsome, athletic, charismatic, 36-year-old Albert Rivera is the man who posed nude on the campaign posters that heralded the formation of Ciudadanos, or “Citizens” in Catalonia back in 2006: “Your Party Has Been Born.” Its original remit was to push back against the burgeoning pro-independence movement in that region, but it has since spread far beyond Barcelona and across Spain to occupy a centrist position that seems highly irregular in a nation so habitually divided on a right-left axis.

It promises “cambio sensato” (or “sensible change”) with a manifesto that ranges from corporate tax cuts and income tax caps to the legalisation of marijuana and prostitution. Which is to say, such a mixed bag of conservative and progressive tactics that some still don’t know what to make of it. Is the party centre-left or centre-right? Rivera is selling it well though, drawing voters from both sides of the line. And if he doesn’t become Spain’s next prime minister this Sunday, he may at least decide who does. “Here’s what’s going to happen … ” said Alejandro Martinez last Thursday night.

We were drinking in El Pentagrama, a spartan rock bar in the Malasana district that was once a sort of rebel base for La Movida, the anarchic artistic movement that erupted with Franco’s death and ran pretty wild through the transition years. “The PP will keep most of their seats,” continued Martinez.

“But not enough for a majority. So Ciudadanos will make a coalition with them, and Rivera will allow Rajoy to stay on as Prime Minister.” “No no no,” said Martinez’s friend Juan Ornia. “Okay, yes, the PP will win, and yes, they’ll be short of a majority. But Ciudadanos will support the PSOE, and [Socialist Party leader] Pedro Sanchez will be Prime Minister.”

Between them, my companions had just outlined the two most likely results of this election, as indicated by the polls and generally agreed by the pundits. Across the capital and the country many Spaniards were likely having much the same conversation and reaching the same conclusion. Catalans too – and those who self-identify as such could not be happy about either outcome, given that all three parties in question are firmly opposed to independence.

(The Podemos position would seem to favour a public referendum on the matter, but not so emphatically as to impress anyone staunchly for or against.)

Martinez and Ornia are both 22 years old, both engineering students, both products of middle-class homes and private schools. They are also co-founders of Undermad, a self-consciously “underground” collective of local DJs, club promoters and event planners devoted to electronic music, which automatically colours them as leftists in the eyes of many older madrileños.

“Maybe it’s the same in every country,” said Ornia. “Most actors or directors or painters or musicians are usually coming from the left. But in Spain you sometimes feel this … prejudice against creative projects, these assumptions about your politics, based on old-fashioned ideas that go right back to the Civil War. And I think that feeling is probably strongest in Madrid.”

Orin comes from Asturias, a mountain principality in the northwest with a long tradition of socialism rooted in its mining industry and related labour unions. Throughout the modern democratic era, the regional government has been dominated by the PSOE. But Ornia has never much cared for that party or any other. Having reached the age of majority in 2011, he voted “blank” in that November’s snap election, marking “none of the above” on his ballot paper.

It’s a valid option here, a common form of civic protest. Martinez, feeling much the same way, didn’t vote at all last time. “It was cowardly, I know,” he told me. “ But I wasn’t left, I wasn’t right, I just wasn’t interested.” Growing up here in Madrid, under a PP-directed city council, he never felt “left or right”, and was never influenced either way by his parents. But he’d lately been increasingly vexed by what he called the “anti-cultural agenda” of ruling conservatives. His growing list of peeves included the recent, massive VAT hikes on movie and concert tickets, and the 600 euros he was fined by a cop for drinking beer outside a friend’s house not long ago – especially galling in a city with so many licensed plazas and terrazas, where alcohol is served outdoors late into the night. In this year’s municipal elections, Martinez “voted Manuela”.

He said it was still too early to say if Carmena was doing a good job, but he found her agreeable so far. As for this Sunday, he still hadn’t decided, though he gave Podemos and Ciudadanos the credit for his newfound engagement. “Because of the new parties I’m thinking and talking about politics a lot more than I used to. I like Pablo and I like Albert Rivera. But I don’t really trust either of them. They both promise far too much and I’m not sure if they could actually deliver any of it.”

Ornia said he shared those doubts, but he’ll be voting Podemos anyway. “Rajoy tells us this is no time for experiments, but I think it is. Let’s try someone else. They might turn out to be the same as the others, but let’s at least try.” Signs of recovery notwithstanding, some 47% of Spanish under-25s are still out of work – almost half a generation.

And while the PP can semi-rightly claim that more jobs were created in November than any other single month in Spanish history, the fact remains that over 98% of those were temporary hires. Spain’s two-tier job market tends to separate a privileged, salaried class of the securely employed and pensioned from a much larger majority of white and blue collar workers with low pay, few benefits, and no guarantees beyond a short-term contract of two years max.

This collapsible structure served to worsen the fallout from the crash of ‘08, as hundreds of thousands were simply let go. Given the valid concern that the same thing could happen again, it makes sense that the entry-level end of the workforce should now be more inclined toward reform. Ornia has a low-paid part-time job at an engineering firm, where he has also seen plenty of his middle-aged superiors laid off. Unless the economy were to improve more rapidly, and radically, before he and Martinez finish their degrees, it seemed likely to both that they would have to join the exodus of skilled graduates to Germany for well-paid jobs in their field.

The irony of this would be especially acute for a Podemos voter – that party was practically founded on the fear of Spain becoming a “German colony” in servicing its debts to that particular creditor through the European Union. Pablo Iglesias modelled his fiscal policies and stance toward the EU and IMF on Greece’s ruling leftist party Syrzia.

He explicitly aligned himself with Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and radical chief economist Yanis Varoufakis in their intensely hostile, high-stakes bailout negotiations with German counterparts Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble through the summer of 2015.

Many Spanish observers cross-referenced the decline of Podemos to Syrzia’s eventual acceptance of a third “memorandum of understanding” on repayment back in August – widely seen as a capitulation. I later spoke to Jorge Galindo, an analyst for the website Politikon, which helpfully translates polling data and demographic surveys into clear, straight, social-scientific exposition. In this respect, it stands way out from Spain’s mainstream newspapers and TV networks, with their long-standing allegiances and habitual angles of attack.

But when viewers, readers, voters here saw footage and photos of the Greek public lining up to empty their accounts through the ATMs, a Podemos path to the future looked as starkly unappealing as critics in the press had projected.

“The lesson Spain learned from Greece,” Galindo told me, “is that a social democratic party in a country like ours just cannot negotiate with Angela Merkel.” Over the last couple of years, he said, it may have briefly seemed as if the recession-stricken electorates of Southern Europe were turning left in reaction to post-crash austerity cuts mandated from the north.

“In reality,” said Galindo, “neither Italy, nor Greece, nor Spain have actually gone that way. And that’s basically because they can’t. Europe’s inter-governmental bureaucracy gives so much weight to creditor nations that debtors have no real leverage, and they have to make a deal.”

Politikon’s domestic surveys on voter intent and ideology don’t so much show Spanish voters as turning left, right, or even to the centre, “but away from the government, and the opposition, and perhaps the whole two-party system”. Galindo went on to talk me through the growing cracks and fissures in the country’s political map, some of which he traced all the way back to when it was first drawn up. “For so many years under Franco, Spain was a one-party state,” he said.

“So after Franco, the very existence of other parties was considered democratic in itself. Probably that made sense at the time. But once in power, they had a lot of control, and a lot of opportunities for corruption. And when they were out of power, they had a lot of public servants affiliated to them, just waiting for their party to win again and advance their own position.”

Galindo comes from Valencia, a city and “autonomous community” so routinely associated with political graft that it’s “something of a local joke”. As with other such communities across Spain’s heavily federated post-Franco patchwork, much of this dirt stuck to the regional councils of the early-1980s to mid-1990s, when Spain’s ongoing construction boom generated one backhander scandal after another. More recent crisis years have seen the PSOE linked to fraudulent use of funding for struggling businesses in Andalusia, while many top officials of the current PP government were implicated in the labyrinthine Gürtel case – another kickbacks-for-contracts scandal that forced the resignation of Health Minister Ana Mato, among others.

“For those who really care about corruption, who think it is the biggest issue, both parties are as bad as each other,” said Galindo. “If it wasn’t such a problem, new parties like Podemos and Ciudadanos and Compromís [the anti-corruption coalition that now holds power in Valencia] would probably not exist, and would certainly not be so popular.” I told Galindo what my young friends had told me – that they had the sense of this election marking the start of some new cycle, after 40 years of Franco, and 40 years of compromised democracy. The analyst agreed that something was about to change.

That for the first time in the modern age, more Spaniards might vote on issues than on ideology, and that the result will likely be a national coalition government.

“That’s basically unprecedented in this country,” said Galindo. “We just don’t how big the change will be. We don’t know if the new generation has been truly socialised with these new parties, or whether they can really force the older parties to reform. If they can, we’ll see a slow transformation of the social structure that will probably take a decade to crystallise.”

But the angry young people of Spain may not be willing to wait. A demonstration was provided last Wednesday night in Pontevedra, where Mariano Rajoy was campaigning through his home region of Galicia. There, in the middle of a standard pre-election walkabout, a local 17-year-old boy – too young to vote this Sunday – punched the Prime Minister square in the face.



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