The Politics of Attrition

How Spain’s Corrupt People’s Party Stays Afloat
Courtesy of European People's Party Flickr: Mariano Rajoy

On June 26, Spaniards went to the polls to choose a new national government. They did so just a little more than six months after the previous election. The reason? The major parties in the December elections, none of which came close to winning a majority, could not agree on the formation of a stable governing coalition. For more than six months, Spain has been in political limbo.

To understand how the country arrived at this impasse, one needs to delve into the country’s recent past. With the financial crisis of 2008, Spain’s three decades of material and social progress—fueled in no small measure by massive injections of foreign capital—came to a halt. A people who had witnessed the almost overnight construction of a first-rate transportation infrastructure and a world-class public health-care system were now being forced to take considerable pay cuts under the new and unforgiving logic of austerity.

The sense of betrayal was heightened by the failure of Spain’s governing Socialist Party (PSOE). That Party was never shy about taking credit for the enormous progress achieved during the 1980s and ’90s, but it now failed to mount any resistance to the demands of the Troika—the triumvirate of institutions (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) responsible for enforcing the European Union’s austerity regime. Indeed, in August of 2011, while most of the country was off on vacation, José Luis Zapatero, the Socialist Prime Minister, joined hands with his supposed archrivals on the right, the People’s Party (PP), to push through an “express” modification in the Spanish constitution designed to placate officials in Brussels and Berlin, who were concerned about Spain’s public debt. This maneuver earned Zapatero the everlasting enmity of many formerly loyal PSOE voters, especially the younger ones, who bore the brunt of drastic cutbacks in state spending. So when a young academic and activist named Pablo Iglesias announced the formation of Podemos in early 2014, many of these alienated young voters greeted the new party with enthusiasm.

 

THE GROWING BREACH between Spain’s traditional party of the left and many of its voters has coincided in recent years with a dramatic rise in pro-independence sentiment in Catalonia—a development that has had important secondary effects within the Spanish political system. The Statutes of Autonomy for Spain’s three historic bilingual communities (Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia), which emerged in the years immediately following the approval of the new constitution in 1978, were very much compromise documents. Fearful of provoking strong reactions either from Franco loyalists whose understanding of Spanish identity remained rigidly unitary or from the hard core of defeated Catalan, Basque, and Galician nationalists still bitter about the harsh suppression of their communities during the long dictatorship, the authors of the 1978 constitution formulated its decentralizing provisions in deliberately vague terms.

During the last two decades of the twentieth century, Catalan’s local government, operating under the skillful leadership of Jordi Pujol and his center-right CiU party, sought to maximize the cultural and financial power of their “nation” as much as the ambiguous Statutes of Autonomy would allow. But by the end of Pujol’s twenty-three-year tenure (1980-2003), there was a widespread sense in Catalonia that his practice of nation-building through tactical opportunism had run its course. After the Socialist Pasqual Maragall became head of Catalonian government and Zapatero won in the Spanish general elections of March 2004, there was a renewed effort to clarify and expand the Statutes of Autonomy. In fall 2005, a new statute was drawn up by Catalan lawmakers and then approved—after some modifications—by the Catalan parliament in Barcelona and the Spanish national parliament in Madrid. In June 2006, it was put to a referendum of the Catalan people. It was approved with 74 percent of the vote.

The center-right People’s Party (PP), whose leadership had recently passed from José María Aznar to Mariano Rajoy, would have none of it. Having failed to muster the votes needed to block the measure in Parliament, they sought to have its key elements canceled by the country’s Constitutional Court. While the court was considering the legal challenges they had raised, the People’s Party and its well-disciplined media apparatus brazenly sought to intimidate, discredit, and/or disqualify those members of the court believed to be favorably disposed to the new statute. After four years of deliberation, the court removed or drastically altered key provisions of the new statute. Most distressingly for many Catalans, the court nullified Catalonia’s right to refer to itself as a nation.

In the aftermath of this decision, there was a surge in the number of Catalonian citizens who favored complete independence from Spain. Under Pujol, the CiU party had never openly embraced independence as a goal. Now its new leadership suddenly began speaking and acting forcefully in favor of the idea. Along with the other major nationalist party in Catalonia, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), CiU politicians began to ask how it was that the Spanish government could alter the constitution virtually overnight to please bankers in Germany when it had done everything in its power to block constitutional changes approved by a strong majority the Catalan people.

As the drive toward Catalonian independence went into high gear after 2011, the Socialist Party in Madrid, which had shepherded the effort to revise the Statutes of Autonomy only a few years before, began to mimic the People Party’s intransigent approach toward the Catalan question. This seems to have shored up the Socialists’ standing among their historically important base in Andalusia, but it has almost wiped out their traditionally strong support among Catalans. And without Catalan votes to complement their support in the south, it suddenly became much more difficult for the Socialist Party to achieve a stable parliamentary majority. And that was before Podemos arrived on the scene, threatening to peal off another large block of voters.

Aware of the importance of Catalan votes for the Spanish left in national elections, Podemos has been consistently inconsistent about Catalonia’s “right to decide” on independence. The party’s leaders have offered vague signs of flexibility to attract Catalan votes, but not so many as to turn off leftists in the rest of Spain, whose views on the question have been colored by half a decade of hostile media coverage depicting the Catalan independence movement as illiberal or even criminal. Within Catalonia, Podemos has had to compete for former Socialist voters with both the aforementioned ERC and the neo-anarchist Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP).

Though both the ERC and CUP are officially in favor of independence, the CUP views that goal as ultimately subordinate to achieving greater social justice within Catalan society. The CUP’s clashes with other members of the pro-independence coalition that achieved a parliamentary majority last September have postponed the long-promised “Unilateral Declaration of Independence.”

Meanwhile, the changes in Catalonia during the past five years have also led to the rise of a new party on the right, Ciudadanos, led by the young Albert Rivera. While the People’s Party has never been very popular in Catalonia, it could traditionally count on winning between 12 and 18 percent of the vote there in most elections. But the party’s implacable hostility to greater Catalonian autonomy, as well as its well-documented record of corruption, seems to have turned off a substantial number of these highly conservative voters. Rivera’s goal has been to forge a new anti-independence party that joins these disaffected PP voters with the more conservative members of the fast-imploding Catalan Socialist party (PSC) and key elements of Catalonia’s powerful business community. Encouraged by positive polling and a surprisingly strong showing in the Catalan elections of September 2015, Rivera’s party tried to capitalize on its local success in the Spanish general elections of December 2015. To the surprise of many, Ciudadanos came in third, finishing ahead of Podemos in total votes.

 

IN THOSE SAME December elections, neither the two major parties of the right (the People’s Party and Ciudadanos) nor the three major parties of the left (the Socialist Party, Podemos, and Podemos’s Catalan affiliate, Podem-En Comú) could combine to reach the threshold of 176 parliamentary seats needed to form a government. At first it looked as if the best shot at a stable coalition would involve the center-left Socialist Party joining forces with its longtime rival, the conservative People’s Party. Given the Socialists gradual turn toward the right on both economic matters and the Catalan question, this marriage of convenience would have been less strange than it sounds.

But the Socialist Party’s new leader, Pedro Sánchez, believed that joining forces with a party still widely viewed as both corrupt and authoritarian would dash the PSOE’s hopes of ever regaining its role as a credible party of the left, leaving that role to Podemos. The search for a way beyond the impasse was further hindered by the reluctance of the two traditional parties to legitimate Ciudadanos or Podemos. A coalition of the People’s Party with Ciudadanos might have worked, but it would have forced the PP to admit that it no longer had a stranglehold on Spain’s right-wing voting block. Likewise, a possible coalition between the Socialist Party and Podemos was prevented partly by the Socialists’ reluctance to let its more youthful and telegenic ideological competitor into the henhouse. A left coalition would also require the Socialist Party to make concessions on the question of Catalonian self-determination. Sánchez has reason to worry that if he were to show any flexibility on this question, the party’s Andalusian base would revolt.

In the weeks before the June 26 election, there was a great deal of speculation in the Spanish press about whether Podemos would be able to overtake the Socialist Part at the polls, which would give it control the coalition-building process on the left. There was also much talk about the ability of Ciudadanos to exert greater leverage on the People’s Party. But to the surprise of almost everyone, especially the pollsters, both of the upstart parties suffered small but important setbacks. The Socialist Party also lost ground. The big winner? The People’s Party, which went from winning 123 seats in the December elections to 137 seats in June.

This is the same People’s Party that has been lurching from one corruption scandal to the next for most of the past five years. To mention just one these: All of its top-level leaders (including Prime Minister Rajoy!) were furnished with “over-salaries”—that is, cash payments from fat-cat donors that effectively doubled their official paychecks. This is also the party whose number-one candidate for Catalonia in the June elections (and Minister of the Interior in the current Spanish government) could be heard in a secret recording released three days before the election conspiring with the head of the Catalan Parliament’s anti-fraud office about how to dig up and circulate information that would discredit leaders of the current campaign for Catalonian independence.

 

HOW COULD A PARTY so mired in scandal finish first in the general elections? Following his re-election as Prime Minister in 2000, Jose María Aznar—the son of one of the Franco regime’s more notable propagandists—moved quickly to put his party on a new footing. Unlike the party’s older ex-Francoists who had served in government during the first two decades of Spain’s new democracy, Aznar and his cohort made little effort to muffle their authoritarianism. In their desire to govern “without complexes,” they borrowed from Karl Rove’s playbook and began practicing a new form of extremely hard-knuckled sectarian politics.

There were two main strategies: the first was to provide the more fearful and authoritarian-minded voters with enough narratives of menace to ensure their adherence to the party of law and order. The second was to ruthlessly discredit any and all political options other than those propagated by the leaders of the People’s Party. Aznar and his camp assumed that about 30 percent of voters would always vote PP. To these it would try to add voters who, under the constant media campaigns of disparagement and innuendo, had begun to reconsider their centrist or left-wing political allegiances. By combining a few independents with a loyal base of reactionairies, the People’s Party expected that it would frequently be able to cobble together a governing majority. Even today, however, when its own systemic corruption has undermined the PP’s ability to attract disaffected voters, its open appeal to the authoritarian third of Spain’s population gives it a solid base of support in a time of increasing electoral fragmentation. Now that it is competing with four or five major parties, and not only with the Socialists, the People’s Party might not need much more than 30 percent of the vote to retain control of a coalition government.

In the aftermath of the June elections, Felipe Gonzalez, the man who led Spain’s Socialist Party during its glory years in the ’80s and ’90s, announced that he favored a grand coalition between the Socialists and the People’s Party. While such an agreement might finally provide Spain with a functioning government, it would do little to resolve the problems behind the country’s increasing social and political fragmentation. Given that such a coalition would almost certainly maintain the Spanish government’s current austerity policies while also refusing to budge on the question of Catalonia, it is likely to deepen the country’s social and political divisions.

Thomas Harrington is professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford where he teaches courses on twentieth- and twenty-first-century Spanish cultural history, literature, and film. He is also a frequent commentator on political and cultural affairs in the United States and abroad. 

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