Freddie Clayton, CWI Spain
In 2015, the Comunidad Valenciana celebrated the end of 16 years under the governance of the conservative People’s Party (PP). The PP lost the absolute majority it had enjoyed in the region since 1999. Instead, a coalition was formed by the social democratic Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and left-leaning, regionalist Compromís, with support from new left formation Podemos. Together, they promised to defend ‘Valencian identity’ and to pursue progressive and ‘eco-conscious’ politics.
But eight years later and the region has swung back to the right. During May’s local elections, the PP won 40 seats (21 more than in 2019), mainly at the cost of the liberal party, Ciudadanos, which lost 18 seats. Unidas Podemos, an alliance of leftist parties in the region, lost all eight of its seats.
The ruling ‘left-wing’ mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau (Barcelona en Comú), also lost out to a right-wing pro-independence candidate from Junts per Catalunya, Xavier Trias. Despite receiving more votes than any other candidate, a coalition of forces which even included the PP, managed to keep Trias out, by opting for PSOE to take the mayor’s office, removing Colau from power in the process. This was only achieved by ensuring support from the PP, whose councillors agreed to vote for a PSOE mayor to keep out Junts per Catalunya. Despite those that argue that the ‘left’ managed to maintain control of the Barcelona city council, this is still a defeat for them.
This was a familiar picture across many of Spain’s autonomous regions, which enjoy enormous power and budgetary discretion over education, health, housing, and policing.
A nine-point increase from 2019 across the board saw PP dominate regions previously won by PSOE, including Aragon and La Rioja, while also stealing important cities like Seville away from PSOE, and achieving an absolute majority in Madrid.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was forced to call a snap general election for 23 July after PSOE and their junior coalition partners were so badly defeated. But the way things played out in Valencia is the scenario they most want to avoid next month.
In Valencia, on 13 June, PP and the far-right Vox party sealed their first deal to govern in coalition, teaming up to run the region. Vox has built its campaign along clear lines: Spanish nationalism, the fight against Catalan identity, praise for the armed forces, signalling opposition to gender violence laws and the ‘historical memory’ law that condemns the repression of the Franco regime. It now runs the Valencian region’s offices for culture, agriculture, and justice.
This a scenario that may well play out on a national level in a month’s time in an general election that is shaping into a choice between a conservative government supported by a far-right party, or a centre-left government supported by the ostensibly far-left party, Podemos. As in Valencia, the PP is the favourite to win the day, with support from Vox.
The rise and fall of Podemos over the last decade underpins this shift. In 2014, Podemos was a new force in left-wing European politics. In 2016, the party almost snatched the leadership of the government from prime minister Pedro Sanchez of PSOE, but settled for joining a ruling coalition that has governed Spain since 2015.
But Podemos’ leading individuals, who promised to tackle austerity, appeared to disappear into the coalition and failed to deliver. While their popularity implied that there was a real demand for radical, serious, socialist change, the coalition government instead produced nothing but right-wing policies, slashing pensions and wages, hiking the military budget, and giving bailouts to major banks and corporations. For those who voted for Podemos this was a betrayal that left a vacuum in support. And the right has capitalised.
Vox – which appeared on the scene with radical right-wing policies at roughly the same time as Podemos – has targeted the same working-class neighbourhoods that Podemos did, but this time blaming immigrants and Catalan separatists instead of austerity for their problems.
Vox has focused on a broad range of culturally progressive causes that had been championed by the coalition, namely LGBTQ+ rights, Black Lives Matter, and climate change. With images used by Vox representing these issues being thrown into the bin, a slogan reads “decide what matters”.
On 18 June, just five days after the coalition had consolidated power in Valencia, many considered the first ‘unofficial’ act of the party to be the removal of the LGBTQ+ flag from the city’s town hall. Campaigns to reduce violence against women have also drawn scrutiny by Vox, who have labelled gender violence an ‘ideological concept’. The PP has watched Vox in action and has won over the centrist vote by accusing the current coalition of focusing their energies on progressive policies at the expense of Spain.
This weaponisation of an imagined ‘culture war’ to swerve attention away from class issues, such as austerity, unemployment, housing, and fair wages, has worked because Podemos, when given power, failed to help improve these things by tackling austerity.
What is dangerous is that this approach gives the right a free pass to continue austerity, because its support is not built on tackling it. Whether it is the EU, immigrants, or trans people, poverty is their fault, not the government, not austerity – says the right. It is all smoke and mirrors, somewhere to look while the money continues to fly into the pockets of the ruling class.
And so, it is the failure of a left-wing party to act, when given power, that has opened the door for potentially the most right-wing government in Spain since Franco. The country is facing a blue tide that Prime Minister Sanchez is trying to get ahead of. A snap election could capitalise on the distaste many PP voters have for Vox, and the regional elections have shone a light on the party’s keenness to jump into bed with it.
What is certain is that there is potentially strong left-wing opposition to the policies of the PSOE-Podemos coalition in Spain. But in the wake of Podemos’ betrayal, these votes have been stolen by a right-wing party that offers so-called ‘change’. When a right-wing government inevitably fails to bring real change to the lives of the working class, a genuine socialist movement must capitalise. There is a chasm in Spanish politics crying out for it. Podemos has damaged that course, but its electoral rise showed the appetite for left, anti-austerity policies is present. This time, the gap must be filled by a party that will not disappear and disappoint when in power.