Spain: 26 May elections – bittersweet victory for the left and setback for the “City Councils of Change”

The municipal, regional and European elections of 26 May (26M) in Spain have once again confirmed the victory of the left in the general elections of 28 April (28A). In the municipal elections, the most relevant of the three, the left (both the Spanish as well as Basque and Catalan nationalists) got 48.7 percent, while the right (again, the Spanish as well as Basque and Catalan nationalists) received 42 percent.

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In the European elections, with a similar level of participation, the victory of the left bloc was even more marked: 51.13 percent against 41.33 percent. In addition to this, the votes for Junts (party of Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan President in exile) totalled more than one million (4.58 percent). It would be incorrect to automatically add these votes to right, since they reflect democratic and republican demands, and reject the neo-francoist regime of 1978.

Overall, the left has won in Andalusia, the Canary Islands, Castilla-La Mancha, Catalonia, Valencia, Extremadura, Galicia, the Balearic Islands, La Rioja, the Basque Country and Asturias. The results of ERC (Catalan Republican Party) and Bildu (Basque Left), respectively, were decisive for this, both in Catalonia and in the Basque Country. In Navarre, the votes of the left and of Geroa Bai (linked to PNV – Basque Nationalist Party), defeated the right bloc, Navarra Suma. The right, on the other hand, only won in Madrid, Castilla y León, Murcia and Aragón and only by a very narrow margin in Aragón.

With regards to the regional elections, PSOE has retained the Balearic Islands, Castilla-La Mancha, Extremadura and Asturias, improving upon their results from 2015. In addition, PSOE has snatched La Rioja from PP, and the Canary Islands from the right-wing regionalists: Canary Coalition. PSOE's only blot has been in Aragón, where the right won the election. As happened in December in Andalusia, with Susana Díaz, now Lambán in Aragón, some of the most right-wing leaders of the PSOE, who have most emphatically attacked Pedro Sánchez, have been punished at the polls. If García-Page, in Castilla-La Mancha, another right-wing socialist, has been saved, it was only because of the life-jacket of Podemos that, upon entering into a coalition government with PSOE, has completely concealed their real nature.

The PP has retained Madrid, its most important seat, Castilla y León, and Murcia. Cantabria remains within the coalition between Revilla's Cantabrian Regionalist Party and the PSOE.

Both the municipal and regional elections had turnouts similar to those of 2015, 65.2 percent compared to 64.9 percent. This contrasts with the 76 percent participation in the 28 April general elections and can be attributed to two reasons: firstly, the proximity of both electoral rounds and the understandable exhaustion of the population from two successive campaigns (three in the case of Andalusia), and secondly, the disappearance of the "Vox factor" as a mobilising element of the social base of the left, after confirming on 28 April the limitations faced by the extreme right in Spain of reaching a growing audience.

Before going into the analysis of the municipal elections, the result of the "City Councils of Change", and the role and perspectives of Unidos Podemos (UP), it is worth reflecting upon briefly, given the outcome of the European elections. Given that the level of participation in these elections was similar to the other two, (64.3 percent) and not being mediated by local or regional factors, they express in a “purer” sense the general political trends of society in the current moment.

Here, the PSOE was the party that received the most votes: 7.3 million (100,000 less than in the general elections of 28 April), or 32.8 percent. The PP got 20.1 percent and 4.5 million votes (150,000 more votes than in 28A). Ciudadanos got 12.2 percent and 2.7 million (it lost almost 2 million compared to 28A). Unidas Podemos got 10.1 percent, 2.25 million votes (850,000 votes less than 28A). Vox barely got 6.2 percent, 1.4 million (1.3 million less than 28A). Left regional nationalists (ERC, Bildu, BNG – Galician Nationalist Bloc) got 5.61 percent, 1.25 million votes (65,000 votes less than 28A). The result of Junts is very striking. Puigdemont won the European Parliament seat in Catalonia. Junts got 4.58 percent and more than one million votes. Thus, the pro-independence parties got 50 percent of the votes in Catalonia and 10 points more support than in the 28A elections.

The turn to the left is confirmed

What we see is that PSOE is reinforced from the 26 May elections, the PP regained positions at the expense of Ciudadanos and Vox, which were defeated. Unidos Podemos also continued their downward course. Even so, the traditional parties, PSOE and PP, only just surpassed 50 percent of the votes. The nationalist parties, mainly in Catalonia and the Basque Country, maintained their vigour, spurred on by the repressive and undemocratic drift of the 1978 regime against the democratic-national aspirations in both areas.

Strictly speaking, the fundamental features that we saw in the general elections of 28 April and the general turn to the left in Spanish society were confirmed. This is despite the poisonous vapours of Spanish nationalism, which remains the watchword of the Spanish right, which has succeeded in keeping its social base mobilised, and also influenced a backward – though not decisive – section of the working class.

Pedro Sanchez congreso PSOE EDIIMA20170618 0312 21PSOE is reinforced from the 26 May elections, the PP regained positions at the expense of Ciudadanos and Vox; and Unidos Podemos continued their downward course / Image: PSOE official

Apart from this general assessment, it is necessary to make an evaluation of the vote of Unidos Podemos in these elections. The decline of Unidos Podemos has a clear political explanation. The suicidal policy of Iglesias-Garzón, already initiated a year ago, of begging PSOE throughout their campaign for a place in the government, as it did in the previous general election campaign, has only strengthened PSOE. Their policy portrays UP as a mere subsidiary organisation of Sánchez. It erases any prospect of presenting itself as an alternative to PSOE, and of offering a clear and rousing change to the living conditions of working families. This tactic also liquidated the image that made it strong four years ago: of being a radical opposition organisation to the 1978 regime, its institutions and its corruption.

The clearest example of this has been the failure in Unidos Podemos in Castilla-La Mancha, where Podemos has been left without representation in the regional parliament. Having entered the previous legislature in a coalition government with the PSOE of García-Page, (one of the most right-wing PSOE politicians in Spain), it has become clear, in the eyes of the majority, that PSOE is a reliable party with progressive policies. Therefore, to avert a victory of the right it was best to deposit the largest possible number of votes in the party that appeared to be the safest bet in the elections: PSOE. This fact, which could be seen even by a five-year-old child, was considered by the leaders of Unidos Podemos to be the pinnacle of a "realistic" and "intelligent" policy. Worse still, one day after the elections, Pablo Iglesias continued to insist on this same policy. On this path, Unidos Podemos is heading for disaster.

Municipal elections

In the municipal elections, PSOE got 29.3 percent of the votes (one million more than in 2015), the PP 22.2 percent (one million less), Unidos Podemos and the slate of various related lefts got close to 11 percent, compared to 16 percent in 2015. Ciudadanos got 8.25 percent, just 470,000 more votes than in 2015 when it was still a newly formed party.

Although the left has won the municipal elections in general, however, it has regressed somewhat in the provincial capitals and large cities. Thus, while in 2015 the right only won two of the 10 largest cities in the country (Málaga and Murcia), now it has won four (Madrid, Zaragoza, Málaga and Murcia), plus other important cities that were in the hands of the left (Alicante and Córdoba). Overall, the right has gone from controlling 19 provincial capitals to 23. The left, which won in eight of the 10 most important cities in 2015, has now done so in four (Valencia, Seville, Palma and Las Palmas). Barcelona has also stayed with the left, but with the pro-independence left (ERC) as the party with the most votes. Overall, the left on a national level has gone from controlling 24 provincial capitals in 2015 to only 17. The left and right regional nationalists have gone from controlling seven to 10, including the three Basque provinces and the four Catalan provinces, since it was quite likely that Barcelona would be in the hands of the ERC, given that the Spanish right (PP and Ciudadanos) was unlikely to vote for a coalition of Colau and PSC (Catalan Socialist Party).

The reason for this right advance in large cities is due to several factors. The first is that, although there has been a general decrease in the vote for the right compared to 28A, the right has managed to mobilise a substantial part of its social base, with its usual campaign of hysteria regarding Catalonia, tax increases, etc. The drop of the vote in the working-class neighbourhoods has been much greater than in the bourgeois and middle-class neighbourhoods. Another reason has been the fall of the Podemos-Izquierda Unida (IU) joint vote, due in many cases to the division of the slates. This is mainly a result of the interests of the leadership and not due to political reasons, which has reduced the number of votes and councils in comparison to 2015. As we will now see, this has also weighed more heavily on the so-called "City Councils of Change", such as Madrid, Zaragoza and other cities, reinforced by the timid policies of accepting cuts, which have not brought about a substantial change to the working-class neighbourhoods, and instead have frustrated the enormous illusions and expectations that the working class had in them four years ago.

Nevertheless, the large industrial and workers’ belts (“red belts”) around the big cities: Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Asturias, Andalusia, etc. have remained in the hands of the left, and especially with PSOE.

Analysis of the "City Councils of Change"

The elections on 26 May have been a serious setback for most of the so-called "City Councils of Change", in the hands of coalitions close or linked to Podemos, IU and related groups, such as Madrid, Barcelona, Zaragoza, Coruña, Ferrol and Santiago. Other municipalities that had a left-wing majority, like Alicante, Córdoba or Oviedo, with unstable coalitions of IU, PSOE and candidacies related to Podemos, went to the right. In contrast, in others, such as Valencia, the left has maintained its majority and even reinforced it in Cádiz or Zamora.

In addition to the reasons explained in a previous section, what the experience has revealed in most of these councils has been the negative effects of confining their "progressive" policies to administering the crumbs of the system, without solving the fundamental problems of the working-class neighbourhoods: housing, infrastructure, etc. This is compounded by their institutionalist policy, the distancing of mayors and government officials from ordinary people, and the abandonment of and contempt for popular participation, with which they achieved their victory four years ago.

Unidos Podemos Image Flickr UPThe suicidal policy of Iglesias-Garzón, initiated a year ago, of begging PSOE throughout their campaign for a place in the government, has only strengthened PSOE / Image: Flickr, UP

Given the blockade imposed by the previous PP government on the increase in social spending, the councils did not call, in any municipality, for popular mobilisation to expose the political and economic blackmail of the right. They have not established genuine mechanisms of popular participation in the neighbourhoods that supervise the work of the councils, to reinforce the link to their neighbourhood base. Nor did the councils establish a common front of state-wide struggle, with action and simultaneous mobilisations for social demands, to wage a political battle against the previous government of Rajoy and the current one of Sánchez. Worse still, in Madrid, Barcelona and other cities, the left wing was purged from the local government and bureaucratic attitudes were celebrated, in the name of "governing for all". Carmena, in Madrid, yielded to the pressure of BBVA Bank to support the urban development project Operation Chamartín and took a shameful position when she endorsed the coup attempt of Juan Guaidó in Venezuela.

There were some progressive changes, but they were limited and insufficient to reinforce and broaden the social base of support for these councils.

Thus, in Galicia, with the general advance of PSOE, all these councils fell in step with the party. In Barcelona, in addition to all the above, the cowardly position of Ada Colau was combined with the Catalan national question, when in certain instances, she tried to compete for the anti-independence base of the PSOE and Ciudadanos in the working-class neighbourhoods, with speeches and reactionary positions that alienated the support of a section of the Catalan republican left, which has benefited the ERC.

Interestingly, the cities that elected mayors further to the left, such as "Kichi" in Cádiz, (from the anti-capitalist section of Podemos), and Francisco Guarido de Zamora (from the right-wing of Izquierda Unida), have come out reinforced with an absolute majority for “Kichi”, or close to an absolute majority for Guarido. In the case of Cádiz, with its enormous social problems, a more determined and courageous attitude in "Kichi's" policies, and her greater personal connection to the working-class neighbourhoods allowed her to expand her social base of support. This contrasted with the ivory tower of Carmena in Madrid, Colau in Barcelona and Santisteve in Zaragoza.

The battle of Madrid

Objectively, it was difficult to keep the mayoralty of Madrid in the hands of Carmena and carry the city away to the right, given the result of the general elections on 28 April. Both in the city of Madrid and in the region, the right (PP, Ciudadanos and Vox) won 53 percent of the votes versus 43 percent of PSOE and Unidos Podemos. To drop 10 points in a month, and with predictably smaller participation, was a complicated task. But that is only one aspect of the matter.

In cities with a traditional base for the right, such as Zamora, or that were in the hands of the PP for many years with solid majorities, as was the case of Cádiz or Valencia, the left has won resounding victories in these elections (and also in 2015). In fact, that was the case of the city council of Madrid in 2015.

It is true that, in Madrid, the right has a very strong base, because it is where the fundamental levers of the state apparatus are concentrated, with its legion of administrative officials, judges, military, police, lawyers, and their families, both in the state and regional administration. Likewise, the central headquarters of big business, with their thousands of qualified employees, the labour aristocracy are concentrated in Madrid, and to a greater extent than in other regions, with their petty-bourgeois and Spanish nationalist ideology. All this even permeates to other less-privileged sections of the class.

For this reason, in Madrid, more than anywhere else, much bolder and more radical organisations, leaders and policies are needed to shake the working-class masses (which continue to be the most numerous section of the population) out of their routines. They need to be set in motion by an expectation of real change that will also drag the lower layers of the petty bourgeoisie and the middle class into the struggle. In 2015 we saw that this was precisely what happened, when the left won both in the city council and in the region of Madrid, which the right could only retain because Izquierda Unida did not even get 5 percent of the votes at that time, but remained at 0.8 percent, and did not get a representation that would have automatically nullified the artificial majority of the right in the regional parliament.

The victory of the right in Madrid was not inevitable. Another bolder, braver policy from the left that offered substantial advances in the living conditions would have galvanised the working-class neighbourhoods, and even areas with a strong social base in the right. The aforementioned particular case of Zamora demonstrates this.

There is no evidence to suggest that the petty bourgeoisie of Zamora is in any way more progressive than Madrid's. In the general elections of 28 April in Zamora, the right (PP, Ciudadanos and Vox) won almost 56 percent of the votes, compared to 53 percent gained in Madrid; while the left took 41.5 percent compared to 43 percent achieved in Madrid. However, in the municipal elections this Sunday the right in Zamora took 31.1 percent and only Izquierda Unida, the party of the current Mayor Francisco Guarido, got a surprising 48.1 percent of the votes, with the PSOE getting an additional 11.7 percent. That is, the right got 56 percent on 28A (when all the left was mobilised to stop the Trifachito – right-wing coalition) and then the left won 60 percent on 26M in the municipal elections, in the same city and in the space of a month!

This shows that even the backward petty bourgeoisie is able to turn to the left and support advanced policies if it is demonstrated concretely that the policies can substantially improve the living conditions in the neighbourhoods and cities.

The fact that the difference between the right and the left was reduced in Madrid, both in the regional and municipal elections, from 10 to only three points, between 26A and 26M, shows that the conditions existed to have achieved victory for the left.

One of the reasons why this did not happen has already been explained: the timid policy of Carmena in the council, where the neighbourhoods have not seen substantial changes. Another factor, impossible to measure precisely, but which undoubtedly has had an effect, has been the divisive attitude of Carmena and Errejón who, just a few months before the elections, split Unidos Podemos and Ahora Madrid. This was a turn to the right, following their personal ambitions, transmitting an image of anxiety and distrust in the neighbourhoods and working-class areas of the city of Madrid and the region, which reinforced the right and the PSOE.

This left Unidos Podemos in a situation of extreme weakness in Madrid and the region. The weakness of Madrid en Pie, led by Sánchez Mato, driven by Izquierda Unida, Anticapitalistas and sections of Ahora Madrid, arrived late to the battle. It is not very understandable why Izquierda Unida has remained practically silent for two years about the inadequacy of Carmena's administration, and just two months before elections, went out to expose all their criticisms at once. The position of Podemos was worse, because of cowardice: they did not want to break publicly with Carmena so as not to appear defeated if they openly bet on the candidacy of Madrid en Pie, which was predicted a lower result. Although in the last few days leading up to 26M, Pablo Iglesias called very quietly for a vote for Sánchez Mato, his lack of explicit public support for Sánchez Mato throughout the campaign proved fatal in preventing him from reaching the five percent that would have automatically granted him three council positions.

The victory of the Errejón slate, Más Madrid, over Unidos Podemos in the region of Madrid, is not surprising and has no merit whatsoever. Errejón was, until recently, the number two of Podemos and was as well-known and popular as Pablo Iglesias for the broad masses of the population, unlike Isa Serra, the candidate of Unidos Podemos in the region, who was a complete unknown and lacking in charisma, as also happened with number two on the Izquierda Unida slate: Sol Sánchez.

Thus, Errejón benefited from his popularity with a large section of left voters who know little of the internal squabbles of Podemos. His victory over UP was reinforced, moreover, not by his qualities or the power of his rhetoric (he did not present a single policy in his meetings, only general statements), but by opportunistically grabbing the coattails of Carmena, whose image was what really led the campaign, which had no lack of resources.

As if this were not enough, both Carmena and Errejón received the shameless support of the media that surreptitiously silenced Isa Serra and, above all, Sánchez Mato. They tried to exploit the leftist electorate of Madrid on the question of a "useful vote" in support of Carmena and Errejón, and criminalised Mato for facilitating, according to them, the victory of the right in the capital. In the end, if Sánchez Mato's votes had all gone to Carmena there would have been no difference with what finally happened.

Of course, now the regime is going to promote Errejón, making him an example of the "winning" left, versus UP as the "losing" left. The regime would be delighted to have a "soft" left like Gaspar Llamazares when he directed Izquierda Unida, ensuring the social democracy offered loyal support for the system.

In any case, a political movement such as the one that Errejón intends to set up has few signs of taking shape, although it saw relative success in these elections, thanks to its skill in manoeuvring, this was ephemeral. Unfortunately, now there is very little political difference between PSOE and UP. Trying to establish an organisation halfway between the two becomes enormously difficult. Faced with the inevitable social polarisation, the bland "left" of Errejón may excite peripheral sections of the working class and the progressive petty bourgeoisie, but not the broader layers of the working class. It is significant, to reinforce this conclusion, that the candidacies of the supporters of Errejón, were behind Izquierda Unida, Podemos and their confluences in the “red belt” of Madrid, in almost all cases.

Unidos Podemos: to avoid disaster, must radically change its policy and programme

For many months, we have warned ad nauseam that the turn to the right in the speeches and policies of UP, and its servile approach to the PSOE of Sánchez, could only lead to disaster for UP, which was originally seen as a radical reference point of struggle for the overcoming of the system in general, and the Spanish monarchical regime in particular.

The fundamental political problem is that UP leaders do not consider the orientation of the working class to be central, and lack a programme in line with them. This disconnection with the real-life conditions of the class explains the scepticism of an increasing number of workers and young people towards UP.

What is needed is a class-based, socialist policy, which raises great ideals to fight for: an alternative model of society that ignites the imagination of millions, and which today is absent in UP. Unfortunately, we do not see any hint in the current trajectory of Podemos and Izquierda Unida of moving in this direction.

A re-foundation of Unidos Podemos is necessary, which includes Podemos itself and Izquierda Unida. It is necessary to establish a clearly socialist, republican and internationalist conception that aims to be based on popular mobilisation and mass action in order to get its ideas to ever-wider layers.

UP should not be proposed as a companion of PSOE in a government, limited to granting some crumbs, and sacrificing its own programme in the process. That would be the most direct path to complete disaster, as has already happened in Castilla-La Mancha. On the contrary, it must offer an alternative government that favours working families. It must be equipped with a programme that covers all social and democratic demands: the repeal of labour reforms and the Gag Law; the expropriation of the energy monopolies; expropriation of empty housing in the hands of banks and vulture funds; a general salary increase; elimination of temporary employment; a general reduction of the working day to lower unemployment; increased taxes on the rich; ceasing payment of external debt that perpetuates austerity and cuts; purging the state apparatus of fascists and reactionaries; committing to democratic referenda on the right to self-determination for Catalonia and on the continuation of the monarchy. To carry all this out they must call to put the commanding heights of the economy (banks, big business and large estates) at the service of the majority, through their expropriation into common ownership, under the democratic control of the workers that allow them to function.

Unidos Podemos 2 Image Flickr Adolfo LujanA re-foundation of Unidos Podemos is necessary. It must establish a clearly socialist, republican and internationalist policy based on mass action / Image: Flickr, Adolfo Lujan

It is necessary to clearly explain that a prosperous, dignified and democratic future for the majority of society is incompatible with this regime and its neo-francoist state apparatus, at the service of the 200 families of the oligarchy. We therefore have to build a democratic, socialist republic, which offers all the peoples of the Spanish state a voluntary union on an equal footing, and which would be the prelude to a revolutionary and socialist movement in the rest of Europe and the world.

These ideas and demands would galvanise millions, who would finally be given a great ideal to fight for, and demonstrate concrete ways in which we can transform this society to end the obsolete and barbarous capitalist system.