Spanish voters punish PSOE government

On November 20, the governing Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), led by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of voters angered by the harsh austerity measures imposed upon them. The right-wing Popular Party (PP), led by former deputy prime minister Mariano Rajoy, has formed a government committed to even deeper austerity measures.

The PSOE’s defeat follows the electoral defeat of the Portuguese Socialist Party in June and the collapse of George Papandreou’s PASOK government in Greece. In each case, social democratic parties have proven as slavishly loyal to their EU masters, in implementing harsh austerity, as their right-wing counterparts.


Indignados (the “indignant ones”) mass rallies and occupations.

Public servant Jose Vazquez expressed the sentiment of many voters, telling Reuters, “We can choose the sauce they will cook us in, but we’re still going to be cooked”.

The PSOE achieved its worst electoral result since 1977, when the first elections were held following the death of dictator Francisco Franco. Receiving only 6.9 million votes, a loss of more than 4.3 million votes (38%) from its 2008 result, the PSOE will have only 111 members in the new parliament, down from 169 in the outgoing one.

The PP received 10.8 million votes, a relatively modest increase of 550,000 votes (5%) since the 2008 general elections, giving it 186 seats in the new parliament. This overall majority will allow the PP to govern without the need to reach deals with other parties.

Economic and social crisis

The election took place amidst Spain’s deepest social and economic crisis since the demise of the Franco regime. Today, 5 million Spaniards (21.5% of the workforce) are unemployed, the highest unemployment rate in the OECD. Youth unemployment stands at nearly 50%. More than 300,000 families have had their homes repossessed since 2008, while there are today 3.4 million empty properties that cannot be sold in the market. Twenty percent of families live in poverty.

The Catholic relief organisation Caritas received 6.5 million requests for help last year (a 4% increase). Two million applications were for the essential basics of food, housing and health care. Thirty percent were first-time applicators, and the remaining 70% are in a situation that “worsens due to lack of solutions”.

The PSOE government was elected in 2004 on a wave of popular discontent with the former PP government of Luis Aznar. Zapatero came to office on a platform of opposition to the Spanish state’s deployment of troops to Iraq. At the time, Spain’s economy was booming: between 2000 and 2005, half of all new jobs in Europe were created in Spain.

But since 2008, Spain has suffered a dramatic economic collapse. With the deflation of an enormous housing bubble, gross domestic product shrunk by almost 4% in 2009. Between 2008 and 2010 unemployment doubled. The construction and real estate industries, which had accounted for a fifth of the country’s economic growth in 2007, shed 2 million jobs. 

Whereas the EU and the IMF stepped in with bailout packages for Greece, Ireland and Portugal, Europe’s capitalist bankers and political leaders were fearful that a bailout of Spain’s economy — the fifth largest in Europe — would have disastrous consequences for the entire European banking sector. Consequently, the EU demanded one of the most severe austerity programs on the continent, worth €15 billion.

Zapatero’s response to the crisis was blithely to follow the EU’s dictates, implementing an austerity package that cut child benefits, slashed salaries by up to 15%, raised the retirement age from 65 to 67, cut pensions, introduced “reforms” that worsen labour and pay conditions and lifted the ban on employing workers indefinitely on temporary contracts. No expense was spared in propping up the financial sector, bailing out multiple regional banks at a cost of tens of billions of euros.

Spain’s rising social inequality is a direct result of the PSOE austerity measures, which nevertheless failed to instil confidence in European financial markets. In the lead-up to the November 20 poll, the yield on 10-year Spanish bonds reached a record 7%.

Zapatero deserts sinking ship

Zapatero stepped down as prime minister and called early elections in a desperate attempt to restore the PSOE’s fortunes. PSOE candidate Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, the former interior minister, attempted to win favour with those who had joined mass street protests earlier this year, as part of the movement of the indignados (the “indignant ones”). With the campaign slogan “Fight For What You Want”, Rubalcaba promised to defend public services and make the rich pay more tax.

But PSOE voters weren’t buying it; they deserted the party in droves. Many voters simply stayed home (participation declined by 1.5 million voters on 2008), while some PSOE voters shifted to the left. Izquierda Unida (the United Left, IU) and the Basque left-nationalist bloc Amaiur, which had been blocked from standing candidates in 2008, were the main beneficiaries of this left turn.

Left turn

The IU achieved a significant increase in votes, from 780,000 to 1,680,000, increasing its parliamentary representation from 2 to 11 deputies. The impact of the May 15 indignados movement favoured the IU, which included a number of prominent activists among its candidates. This movement, likened to Egypt’s Tahrir Square, brought hundreds of thousands into street protests on May 15, June 19 and October 15 and occupations of Madrid’s Plaza del Sol and numerous other city squares throughout the country.

During the election campaign, Communist Party general secretary and IU candidate Luis Centella called for “democratic planning of the economy”. But the IU’s program does not advocate the replacement of a capitalist government with a government of working people and the expropriation of the banks and capitalist big business — a necessary precondition for establishing a planned economy that can meet the needs of the majority.

The attempt to launch a left-green party, inspired by the example of Europe Ecologie, foundered despite having access to money and media exposure. It polled barely 0.8% nationally, electing just one member of parliament, for Valencia.

The most significant gain for a left party came in Euskadi (the Basque country) and Navarra. Amaiur, a coalition of the radical left and Basque nationalists, achieved 333,000 votes and 7 members of parliament. Amaiur out-polled the PSOE, which went from 11 members of parliament to five, making Amaiur the strongest party in the Basque country and Navarra in members of parliament, although it was narrowly out-polled by the Basque Nationalist Party.

Amaiur, advocating an “anti-neoliberal” program, captured the hopes of the Basque electorate for a political solution to the Basque struggle after ETA announced its abandonment of decades of armed struggle. It has called on the PNV and the moderate Navarra-nationalist Geroa Bai to join it in a single Basque parliamentary group in Madrid.

The vote for other left-nationalists forces, such as the Republican Left of Catalonia and the Galician Nationalist Bloc, stagnated. Both have been junior partners in regional governments run by PSOE affiliates, helping to implement the PSOE’s austerity agenda.

An “anti-capitalist” coalition ran independently from the IU, supported by Izquierda Anticapitalista, the organisation of the Fourth International in the Spanish state, En Lucha (the Spanish section of the International Socialist Tendency), Lucha Internacionalista and Los Verdes (the Madrid Greens). With the slogan “disobedience”, the campaign featured symbolic bank, stock market and ministerial office occupations.

The anti-capitalists advocated a reversal of the PSOE’s austerity measures, a ban on lay-offs by profitable companies and a 35-hour working week. The campaign also demanded “the recognition of the right of self-determination, including independence, to the peoples of the Spanish state; the abolition of the foreign debt and the ecological debt; and the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Libya and active boycott and the ending of agreements and relations with Israel”.

Izquierda Anticapitalista justified its decision to initiate a separate campaign from IU in International Viewpoint: “Izquierda Anticapitalista held a discussion with Izquierda Unida and other groups about the possibility of a broad unified candidacy.” Only after being rebuffed did IA come “to the conclusion that there was no real willingness by the leadership of IU to turn to the left in words or deeds”.

However, the anti-capitalist campaign manifesto fell short of arguing for a socialist alternative, instead calling for “a radical, republican, participatory and deliberative democracy”. The campaign was unable to contest most of the 51 constituencies of the Spanish state, failing to overcome the restrictions imposed by the electoral law, which requires the collection of more than 35,000 signatures. The coalition achieved just 25,000 votes nationally.

PP faced with impossible task

The newly elected PP government of Mariano Rajoy will now face an impossible task. The European Union has demanded €30 billion worth of additional cuts, more than double what the PSOE government has already implemented. German Chancellor Angela Merkel promptly phoned Rajoy to hasten his agenda. “This is a difficult time for Spain and Europe, and you have received a clear mandate from your people to adopt and implement without delay the necessary reforms”, she said.

Editorials of major capitalist newspapers echoed Merkel’s call. The Wall Street Journal wrote, “Mariano Rajoy has won a big majority, but now he has to use it”. The Financial Times editorial followed suit, calling on Rajoy to move “quickly to implement painful spending cuts and other austerity measures”.

Attempting to prepare public opinion for what is coming, Rajoy told voters on November 20: “It is no secret to anyone that we are going to rule in the most delicate circumstances Spain has faced in 30 years. There are no miraculous cures to solve Spain’s economic troubles.”

But Rajoy’s plea for more time to implement harsh austerity measures was not what European markets wanted to hear. The yield on Spanish bonds has remained high, and the stock market remains in a slump. Spanish bosses’ confederation president Arturo Fernandez has demanded “brutal changes” in labour law (abolition of collective bargaining and the right for bosses to hire and fire at will), and warned that the “measly reforms which have been introduced so far” are not enough and that “deep thorough changes” are needed.

But the measures Rajoy is being called upon to implement — cutting public spending on health and education, introducing fees for health services and increased tuition fees and indirect taxes — will only deepen the recession. As workers attempt to defend hard-won conditions, Rajoy’s government will be tasked with further attacking employment rights.

Such attacks will provoke, sooner rather than later, an explosion of the class struggle, as the crisis is Greece has demonstrated. The stage is set for a showdown between Spain’s ruling class, represented by the Rajoy government, and the workers and youth who are refusing to accept being made to pay for a crisis not of their making.