Podemos falters in the face of austerity and crisis

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Even after its second general election in six months, the Spanish political parties remain incapable of forming a government – a symptom of the capitalist crisis gripping the country. The second election held on 26 June strengthened the conservative Partido Popular of Mariano Rajoy, but not sufficiently to allow him to form a majority government despite the Socialist Party achieving the worst results in its history. Meanwhile, the apparently radical Podemos, once the posterboy group of modern-day social democracy, managed to lose a million votes – as its socialist-lite rhetoric rings increasingly hollow to a working class facing rising unemployment and a new tranche of austerity measures. JUANJO RIVAS reports from Madrid.

Yet despite savage public sector cuts and attacks on benefits and wages, Spain has failed to reach its European Union-imposed deficit targets for four years running. Last year, the deficit was 5.1% of GDP, compared with a 4.2% target, making Spain now officially liable for a fine of up to €2.1bn. The Spanish Minister of the Economy is optimistic that the penalty will be merely symbolic, as the government has complied with EU demands. In fact, the European Commission has suggested whatever fine is eventually imposed may depend on the willingness of the new government to satisfy those demands. Brussels has instructed Spain to make an ‘adjustment’ (cut) of €10bn until 2017; it also announced that it will freeze €1.1bn of EU funding to Spain. But it is clear that the European Union does not want to see a repeat of the defiance shown by neighbouring Portugal, which has refused to impose the additional austerity measures demanded by the EU and also faces financial sanctions.

June elections: political uncertainty

After the general election in December 2015, no party had a sufficient majority to establish even a coalition government. The June recall election strengthened the conservatives, with the PP winning 137 seats out of a total of 350, 14 more than in December. The social democrats of the Socialist Party suffer major losses, winning only 85 seats, but still managed second place. The biggest surprise was the slump in support for Podemos, whose support fell from over six million votes in December to five million, although the alliance it had formed with the United Left Unity meant that the ‘Unidos Podemos’ coalition came in third place with 71 seats.

Podemos – the failure of left social democracy

The leadership of Podemos was disappointed and astonished at the results. The party had agreed joint candidates with the United Left-People’s Unity for purely tactical rather than principled reasons, expect to increase its votes. This has become the only measure that counts for Podemos, which adapts everything it does or says to attract the necessary votes, with even its leaders adapting their speeches in an opportunist way. But the party does not actually mobilise any forces into action – rather it creates the illusion of change from above, change from simply voting Podemos into office.

So they do whatever it takes, with inevitable contradictions. One day Podemos Pablo Iglesias is seen hugging retired left-wing leaders surrounded by republican flags; the next, he talks about defending ‘the homeland’ flanked by the official Spanish flag. At one meeting he will denounce a European Union that serves the interests of transnational capital; at another he claims to be building a bright new social democracy that should be supported by all entrepreneurs. These contradictory messages serve the suspicions on the right that ‘he has a hidden radical agenda’ and on the left that he turning Podemos – which initially presented itself as a radical new grassroots movement – into a traditional parliamentary party. This view is confirmed by Iglesias himself, who declared after the election that ‘we have been partisans and now its time to turn into a regular army’. He went as far as to say Podemos’s leaders  had been naïve in their youth when they thought the struggle was on the streets. He has stressed that Podemos is all about opening up ‘a new social democratic space’ and creating a serious parliamentary alternative to the conservative PP. But In a neat game of semantics aimed at reassuring his left-wing allies, he claims that Marx and Engels had been, after all, ‘social democrats’, ignoring the completely different meaning of the label at the time.

Inevitably, the media has played a major role in undermining the Unidos Podemos alliance. The alliance seemed to be doing well before the June elections, but a few weeks before the poll the media bombarded people with news about Greek misery and Venezuelan scarcity, drawing similarities with what could happen to Spain if ‘extremists’ seized power.

Meanwhile, political repression against all emerging resistance to austerity measures continues. In the first seven months since the Law of Citizen Security was approved, 40,000 fines have been imposed. Nearly 30 people a day are fined for ‘disrespecting the security forces’, with penalties between €100 and €600,000. The arrests continue, targeting activists under false accusations and without evidence.

It now looks likely that Mariano Rajoy and the right-wing will form a minority government. They control the senate and will be free to pass more reactionary laws. While the Socialist Party says it will not support Rajoy’s swearing into office, it may well abstain rather than oppose it. The Socialists support EU austerity policies and are likely to vote in support of the further cuts and attacks on the working class Rajoy has promised to introduce to reduce the deficit to what is acceptable to Brussels.

It is more necessary than ever to reinforce the struggle from below and social organisation on the streets, as well as building up pressure on the new municipal representatives from a range of new left-wing coalitions to take radical steps and stand up to austerity and repression.