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Podemos Can Change How Spain Is Governed

The new government coalition between the PSOE and Podemos is a historic opportunity for the Spanish left. After years of rising nationalist tensions, Podemos can turn the agenda back to the fight against austerity.

Unidas Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias (L) shakes hands with Spain's interim prime minister Pedro Sánchez (R) after giving a speech during the investiture debate at the Spanish Parliament on January 4, 2020 in Madrid, Spain. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty

Before last weekend, it had been decades since the Spanish parliament had seen such a powerful challenge to the rhetoric of “defending the homeland.” Countering the rising politics of nationalism, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias told a heated Congress that the real “betrayal” of Spain was “attacking workers’ rights, selling off public housing to vulture funds, and privatizing the welfare state and public services.”

For the far-right forces whom Iglesias was addressing, he and his allies were simply a band of “communists, populists” and regional nationalists run amok. In the view of Spanish-nationalist parties like Vox, the Podemos leader is figurehead of an “anti-Spanish” rabble, entertained by a power-hungry “sociopath” in the form of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

At the heart of this debate was the prospect of a historic coalition agreement between Sánchez’s center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) and Iglesias’s Unidas Podemos — on January 7 sworn in as Spain’s new government. Supported by Catalan and Basque regionalists, along with a mishmash of independents, after years of false starts the two parties are finally forming what they call a “progressive coalition” — for its critics, a “Frankenstein’s government.”

Such an arrangement is long overdue, after a decade of post-crash austerity and Spain’s most serious constitutional crisis since the 1970s transition to democracy. Since Podemos smashed open the two-party system almost five years ago, no such coalition with the PSOE has proven possible, even when the parliamentary arithmetic allowed it.

Yet all this changed with the November 2019 general election. As the left-wing parties dropped some 1.5 million votes (with the PSOE itself losing 800,000) Sánchez found himself unable to make a deal to his right, and was finally forced to commit to the “progressive” agenda he had hitherto only gestured toward.

After the previous general election in April 2019, the long summer of coalition talks between the PSOE and Podemos were polarized and often conducted in bad faith by Sánchez’s party. Yet November’s electoral setbacks for both the PSOE and Podemos — in a climate of rising nationalist tensions, fed by the Catalan issue — instead rapidly drew them into a coalition.

In a period of retreat for the European left, this government will arguably constitute the most left-wing administration across the entire continent. Yet, beyond its lack of international allies, this administration will also be forced to work within the challenging confines imposed by Spain’s constitutional crisis, EU budget rules, and the virulent opposition not only of the Right but also Spain’s major economic and media powers.

For years, these same forces have succeeded in blocking a PSOE-Podemos coalition. Today, we can be sure they will waste little time in looking to neutralize — if not do away entirely — with this government and its paper-thin majority.

Yet despite the clear challenges that lie ahead, there are also positive signs. This administration will also see Pablo Iglesias’s formation assume cabinet positions — the government posts it has long believed necessary if it is to hold the flip-flopping PSOE to its promises of social reform and democratic renewal.

Beyond Iglesias’s own appointment as Deputy Prime Minister, there will also be substantial portfolios for Podemos’s Yolanda Díaz as Labor Minister and Irene Montero as Minister for Equality. Izquierda Unida (United Left) leader Alberto Garzón will be its Consumer Minister — the country’s first Communist minister in over eighty years. This weekend it was also announced that renowned sociologist and social-movement theorist Manuel Castells will become the fledgling government’s Universities Minister, after being put forward for the role by Podemos’s Catalan affiliate, En Comú Podem.

Limits

The program for government signed last week inevitably reflects the changed balance of power on the Spanish left since Podemos’s breakthrough four years ago. Then, when a coalition first looked on the cards, Iglesias could insist on a negotiation between equals — with his party barely missing out on the sorpasso (overtaking) of the PSOE in the December 2015 election, when it came just 1.5 percent behind the historic center-left party. Those talks, however, fell apart under the combined pressure of PSOE right-wingers and key economic powers; the country’s media, along with corrupt elements within the police, simultaneously set out to criminalize Podemos through a series of fabricated scandals.

The intervening period — marked by internal party splits, a certain exhaustion amongst anti-austerity movements, and a reorientation of Spanish politics around a sharp nationalist divide — has been grueling for Iglesias’s formation. Podemos fought largely effective campaigns in 2019’s two back-to-back general elections, suffering significant losses but holding on to more support than expected. Its 38-seat result in November’s general election was still nearly double the radical left’s historic high (Izquierda Unida’s 21 seats back in 1996) — though far off the PSOE’s own 120 seats as well as Podemos’s own haul of 69 seats upon its first general election run back in December 2015.

On election night Iglesias was adamant that his party’s price for backing a PSOE government was a full coalition deal. Yet after the initial pre-agreement to form such a government, he also recognized that as the junior partner, his party would have to make painful concessions. This has meant renouncing key programmatic measures such as the nationalization of the bailed-out Bankia as a public investment bank, the founding of a new public energy company, and Podemos’s proposed tax on banking profits (designed to recoup the €60 billion lost in the 2011 bailout).

Probably most significant, however, is its acceptance of EU spending rules. The coalition agreement commits the government to “compliance with fiscal discipline mechanisms so as to guarantee the sustainability of public accounts.” In a section entitled “Tax Justice and Balanced Budgets,” the text promises new social programs and progressive tax reform while also insisting on “fiscal responsibility” and “the reduction of the deficit and public debt in a way compatible with economic growth and job creation.” The balance between these conflicting objectives will surely define the government’s future.

Social Advances

With the publication of the program, some on the anti-capitalist left have pointed to the distance Podemos have travelled from its initial commitment, upon its foundation in 2014, to audit and refuse payment of the illegitimate portions of Spain’s national debt. Yet Europe more broadly now finds itself in a very different moment. From Corbynism to Syriza and La France Insoumise, the wave of left-populist forces challenging the political establishment is now in obvious retreat.

Podemos’s electoral fortunes fit into this wider pattern. Yet what also stands out from this coalition deal is a promise of numerous social and democratic gains. After a decade of attacks on labor and civil rights, and of the stripping of the welfare state, the agreement, despite its limits, offers a raft of vital measures aimed at addressing the country’s social and territorial crises.

In terms of workers’ rights, the coalition has committed to repealing the conservative Partido Popular’s 2012 neoliberal labor reforms which weakened collective bargaining rights and made it easier for companies to dismiss workers, including on the basis of taking sick leave. However, the coalition will not reverse PSOE’s own 2010 labor reforms. The government will also raise the minimum wage by up to 33 percent over the course of this parliament and implement a new charter of labor rights to tackle precariousness.

Key demands articulated by Spain’s housing and feminist movements also make it into the program. Particular standouts are a commitment to introduce rent controls — which PSOE had opposed during negotiations — and new program to guarantee free, universal public childcare for preschoolers aged zero to three. Parental leave equality will be legislated for — with paid leave extended to a non-transferable sixteen weeks for both mothers and fathers.

In terms of strengthening public services, university fees will be reduced to pre-crisis levels. Investment in the public health system will rise from 5.9 percent of GDP to 7 percent, while the outsourcing of services will be scaled back and slowed. There are also important measures towards increased progressive taxation with a promised 2 percent income tax hike for those earning over €130,000 annually, rising to 4 percent on income over €300,000, as well as the introduction of a Tobin Tax on financial transactions, a “Google tax” on major tech companies who declare taxes elsewhere and a 4 percent capital gains tax increase on returns over €140,000.

Other important reforms include repealing Spain’s regressive gag law, the introduction of legalized euthanasia, a ban on public exaltation of Francoism, and a deepening of Spain’s historical memory law to include, among other things, an audit of assets and property seized by the fascists at the end of the Civil War.

Constitutional Dilemma

Another front on which the coalition deal represents significant advances for the broad left, amid an unfavorable political climate, is the slippery question of Spain’s constitution.

Energized by the Left’s retreats across the continent, the European right is increasingly seeking to reshape public discourse around culture-war talking points that exploit the failings of traditional media while maximizing the reach for reactionary cultural battles across newer web-based media channels. The Left has struggled to cut through these assaults, as was most recently made clear in Britain’s Brexit-dominated general election. This was also plain to see in the televised debates during Spain’s election campaign last November.

Here, the issue that has best allowed the Right to advance a culture war and demonize the “enemies of Spain” is the constitutional crisis provoked by the independence drive in Catalonia. The Right has mounted a series of PR stunts lifted from the playbook of both Donald Trump and European far-right figures such as Marine le Pen and Matteo Salvini. The potency of such messaging, alongside the simultaneous fallout of the trial of pro-independence Catalan leaders, translated into considerable gains for Santiago Abascal’s Vox — Europe’s latest far-right insurgent force.

The new PSOE-Podemos government however rests on an agreement with a quite different force — the Catalan Republican Left Party (ERC), necessary to its parliamentary majority and to pass legislation. The relationship between PSOE and ERC has improved leaps and bounds since November’s election. With ERC’s leader Oriol Junqueras having spent over a year in prison, and beginning a thirteen-year sentence for sedition, the hard-line unionist rhetoric used by Sánchez’s PSOE during the campaign seemed to open up a gap that was too large to simply walk back afterward. But if relations have not exactly mended, in just a few weeks two parties have at least put aside the tensions that marked this fall.

This has demanded a considerable degree of political maturity from ERC — engaging with PSOE, even though its leaders are being held as political prisoners. This also stands in stark contrast to the obstructionism of the other pro-independence forces — the center-right Junts Per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) and the radical left CUP — who both voted, alongside the Spanish nationalist parties, to block Sánchez’s premiership.

ERC did, however, extract notable concessions in exchange for its agreement to abstain in the investiture votes. Aside from the Spanish state attorney’s recommendation to the Supreme Court that Junqueras be entitled to immunity as a European MP, concessions also included the setting up of a negotiating table between Madrid and Barcelona that goes beyond the bilateral commission agreed in Catalonia’s now-undermined 2006 Autonomy Statute, a deal to put proposals agreed at that negotiating table to a public vote in Catalonia, and also, reportedly, the possibility of a new autonomy statute for the region.

However, in the interests of deescalating the tensions around Catalonia, it has been necessary to fudge the most contentious constitutional points. As journalist Lola García put it, “the agreement [between PSOE and ERC] … appears almost as a parade of double meanings.” Having driven a hard bargain during the negotiations, ERC can now point to the concessions won as going beyond the promises of the gutted 2006 statute — with the prospect of more to come. The PSOE, meanwhile, comes away from the talks having secured recognition that any steps towards greater self-determination must take place within the framework of Spain’s current constitutional settlement. In particular, ERC’s promise to observe “institutional loyalty” can be sold to PSOE chiefs as a validation of that settlement and an implicit renunciation of the unilateral route towards independence.

The hope is that this should create vital breathing space for meaningful dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona — which only months ago looked impossible.

The necessary constructive ambiguity at the heart of this agreement, however, also points to its inherent fragility. The agreement is, at best, held together by a sense of political necessity among three parties each finding themselves under threat. Theoretically, it is liable to blow up at any moment and its ability to withstand further controversies and attacks from the Spanish right may largely determine how durable this government really is.

Elite Pressure

In historical terms, the program for government could be characterized as moderately social-democratic — primarily aiming to restore lost social protections and strengthen the welfare state after a decade of post-crash austerity. Yet whatever its moderation, Spanish elites’ opposition will be total and unrelenting — and will require sustained political will from the coalition partners. As Iglesias put it in a letter to Podemos members:

The parties on the Right and the media arm of the economic powers are going to hit us very hard with every step we take, however small. We will be governing in minority within an Executive shared with the PSOE, in which we will be confronted by many limits and contradictions, and in which we will have to yield on many things. And, again, there will be those who invest many millions of Euros and devote many hours of television to trying to demoralize, frustrate and convince us that we cannot succeed.

The resources available to Spain’s oligarchy have already been on display in recent weeks, as it sought to weaponize the judiciary to derail the negotiations. In December, public prosecutors charged Podemos’s regional head in Madrid, Isa Serra, on public disorder offences stemming from her participation in an anti-eviction protest nearly six years ago. Then, as negotiations between PSOE and ERC were reaching their conclusion, the Central Elections Board, which has a conservative majority, made a swift ruling to bar conservative Catalan premier Quim Torra as well as Junqueras from holding elected office. The crime which justified Torra’s removal was his refusal to take down yellow ribbons in support of Catalan prisoners from public buildings.

The PSOE-Podemos coalition can itself expect much more such “lawfare” as elites and right-wing parties seek to tie them up in constant legal challenges and the ensuing media controversies. In such a pressure-cooker situation, Sánchez’s centrist instincts are likely to kick in sooner rather than later. His leadership of the PSOE has been defined by constant tactical pivots; his refusal to form a coalition with Podemos last summer largely owed to his reticence over having to govern in opposition to economic elites and the right wing of his own party.

Now, with the country’s employers’ association (CEOE) coming out hard against the coalition’s proposed economic reforms — calling them “closer to populism than economic orthodoxy” — the temptation for the PSOE will be to water down its commitments if not jettison the most controversial of them entirely. Over the last year, Iglesias has argued that only Podemos’s presence in cabinet could ensure a PSOE-led government would actually force through such policies. For him, the threat of co-option — with the party potentially losing its distinct radical identity in its role as Sánchez’s junior coalition partner — was a risk worth taking. As Podemos co-founder Juan Carlos Monedero told Jacobin in October:

A transformative political force cannot simply be geared to protest but has to hold out the promise that you can change things electorally. We founded Podemos with a clear will to govern and as a means to construct alternatives — not simply to be an oppositional force.

This is not to deny there are risks here. The institutional logic of governing could end up smothering our transformative spirit. In this respect it is essential that pursuing office is combined with reinforcing our extra-parliamentary structures.

Over the past five years, Iglesias has shown himself not only to be a brilliant communicator but also an astute political operator. He has come out ahead even after repeatedly being written off. In Labor Minister Yolanda Díaz the Spanish working class has a proven ally — one only last year charged for resisting security forces when she and two other Podemos MPs intervened to defend striking workers against police-baton charges.

Yet, to make Podemos’s presence at cabinet count, the party’s leaders will need to find ways to put pressure on the PSOE — in particular taking advantage of moments of heightened social mobilization to ensure Sánchez holds course.

None of this will be easy. But faced with rising Spanish nationalism, the alternative to this experiment uniting the center-left and the radical-left is a government of the hard and extreme right. In this context, failure is not an option.