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The Spanish left is in crisis

Women, workers and city-dwellers are turning their backs on the governing coalition.

William McGee

Topics Politics World

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A left-wing coalition helmed by prime minister Pedro Sánchez, leader of the centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), has been governing Spain since 2018. But its future, and that of the Spanish left more broadly, now looks distinctly uncertain.

In local elections held at the end of May, voters deserted Spain’s left-wing and centre-left parties in their droves. The centre-right Partido Popular was the clear winner on the night, while the radical-right Vox party doubled its share of the vote. As a result, prime minister Sánchez has gambled by calling a snap General Election for the 23 July. This, he hopes, will re-galvanise his premiership.

‘We have lost a battle, but not the war’, tweeted Ione Belarra, government minister and leader of Unidas Podemos (United We Can), a left-wing electoral alliance. She’s right – the left has certainly lost a battle. Of Spain’s nine most-popular left-wing parties or alliances, seven – including the PSOE and Unidas Podemos – performed significantly worse than in the previous local elections in 2019. Strikingly, the left appears to have lost the support of urban areas. Parties of the right won majorities in Spain’s eight largest municipalities, including Madrid and Valencia.

So what’s gone wrong? Government minister Raquel Sánchez Jiménez seems to think that the left’s electoral support has simply been dispersed among too many parties. Others, including Britain’s Guardian newspaper, have echoed Sànchez Jiménez’s words. They seem to think that the Spanish left only has to unite for it to beat the right at the next ballot. This thinking lies behind the formation of Sumar (Add Up), a new leftist electoral platform, ahead of July’s election.

How successful it will be is up for debate. For a start, the total vote for right-wing parties last month exceeded that for left-wing parties. There is no evidence that a unified left would necessarily have the numbers to defeat the right.

Just how united this alliance will be also remains to be seen. Podemos – the largest party in the Unidas Podemos alliance – waited until the last possible moment to lend its backing to Sumar in early June. Its reluctance was understandable. Despite the fanfare, Sumar looks like old wine in a new bottle. It’s led by Yolanda Díaz, second-deputy prime minister and a member of the Communist Party of Spain. Sumar appears to be Díaz’s rather cynical bid for the top job.

What has been missing from leftist politicians’ response to the local elections is any reflection on why the left has shed so many votes.

Historian, sociologist and essayist Emmanuel Rodríguez cites a combination of factors. First, the centre-left PSOE lacks imagination and can only recycle the same ideas that ‘few still believe in’. And second, the radical left’s ‘rhetoric of commitment and radicalism’ is consistently betrayed by the behaviour and views of its senior figures.

This criticism could certainly apply to Ada Colau, the Unidas Podemos-affiliated politician who lost the mayoralty of Barcelona last month. As critic Joan Burdeus notes: ‘The arc begins with Colau the activist participating in the major demonstrations of the early 2000s against globalisation and ends with Colau the mayor hosting the Barcelona Superblock International Meeting, a celebration of globalist progressivism held last March.’

Colau’s radical pretensions were further exposed last year, when she enlarged her carbon footprint with an unnecessary trip to South America to ‘strengthen historical alliances’. What particularly stuck in the craw is that just two years prior Colau had officially declared a ‘climate emergency’. This included introducing low-emissions zones in Barcelona, which have made life more difficult for ordinary citizens to drive around the city.

But Colau has not been the only, let alone the biggest, of Unidas Podemos’s problems. Indeed, it has been scoring significant political own-goals since becoming a partner in the ruling coalition five years ago.

Take its big legislative showstoppers, the ‘only yes means yes’ law and the transgender law. The ‘only yes means yes’ law, which came into effect last October, did two seemingly contradictory things. By placing consent at the heart of the law, it criminalised a wider range of sex acts. But, at the same time, by changing the definition of sexual assault, it has also inadvertently led to sexual offenders getting reduced sentences or being released early.

And then there’s the transgender law. Passed in February, it allows anyone over 16 to change their registered gender. Understandably, this has provoked anger from many feminists, who have said the law is ‘erasing women’ and undermining single-sex spaces and services.

Unidas Podemos’s double whammy of unpopular, flawed legislation perhaps explains why it shed more of its vote share than the PSOE at the local elections.

The transgender law and the ‘only yes means yes’ law have certainly been a gift to the political right, allowing the Partido Popular and others to pose as champions of women. Indeed, centre-right leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo has recently claimed that ‘female voters no longer see the Partido Popular as a problem’.

The left has not just been haemorrhaging female voters. It has also been losing low-income voters to the radical right. Indeed, Vox performed particularly well in both rich and poor neighbourhoods in the recent elections. According to political-science professor Albert Balada: ‘The high-income vote may correspond to a more ideological, conservative vote that believes Vox is defending Spanish values, while the main concern of the low-income population is survival: defending what is theirs because they see their jobs at risk.’

As Joan Burdeus points out, the Spanish left spent much of the 2000s identifying ‘the disruptions caused by global capitalism as the main political problem and aimed to tackle them head-on’. But now, he concludes, the left has ceded much of this ground to ‘the alternative right’.

The rot on the Spanish left is clear for all to see. It will take far more than a cynical rebrand to reverse its fortunes.

William McGee is a writer.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World

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