Sunday, August 31, 2014

Democratic Regeneration

Suddenly, Spain's government has decided that its priority for the coming months is what it describes as 'democratic regeneration'. These are words that few have ever associated with the Partido Popular and Mariano Rajoy but there's no need to worry; Spain's right wing hasn't suddenly caught the democracy 'bug'. The weight of that long political tradition is still sufficient to ensure that the PP regards anything smacking of greater democracy as something to be avoided at all costs.

Instead we are getting a response to the dismal results that Spain's two main political parties obtained in May's elections for the European Parliament. 2015 is a big election year in Spain, if everything is scheduled as expected the country will have municipal and regional elections followed a few months later by a general election. The shock of the European elections was twofold, firstly because support for the two main parties combined fell just short of 50% of the vote, and secondly because of the surprise emergence of Podemos as a potential threat to that two party hegemony.

The PP does not panic in a very public way, but results which had the party not even reaching 30% of the vote in their strongholds of Madrid and Valencia have had a profound effect internally. Were this pattern to be repeated in the municipal and regional elections then the PP faces the prospect of losing power in places where they have governed for decades. Imagine the bonfire of incriminating documents that might mean, assuming of course that any incriminating paperwork that exists hasn't already already been destroyed in the wake of all the corruption scandals of the last few years.

The PP has an abysmal problem in reaching agreements with other parties, and the prospect of either governing in minority or passing to the opposition is too terrible to contemplate. Something must be done, and that something appears to consist of manipulating electoral law to ensure they can still govern with fewer votes. Pioneer in the gerrymandering exercise has been Maria Dolores de Cospedal, who combines her job as secretary general of the PP with that of president in Castilla La Mancha. Using the excuse of austerity, Cospedal has pushed through a law drastically reducing the number of members of the regional parliament. The new law has the happy effect of both making it harder to dislodge the PP from power and of effectively excluding any smaller parties from representation unless they can overtake one of the big two.

Inspired by such an impeccably democratic example, Mariano Rajoy has announced that he intends to change electoral law for the municipal elections so that the party which receives the most votes gets to govern regardless of whether they have an absolute majority or not. Although they talk of a minimum threshold necessary for a party to claim control of a city without winning the election, we will have to wait and see what the PP tries to get away with. Currently they talk of 40% of the vote, but that could easily be lower if the poll data they manage isn't looking good. Today's El Mundo poll has them on 30% nationally, a third of those who voted for Rajoy in 2011 have gone and many may not be returning. Rajoy seems determined to push through a major change in electoral law regardless of whether any other party supports it or not, and the talk of 'democratic regeneration' is merely the cynical touch the PP seems to feel is needed to decorate all of their measures. If that's still not cynical enough for you they also claim the change will help to avoid corruption.

The illusion of change in order to ensure that everything remains safely in the same hands seems to have become the trademark of Rajoy's administration and the management of the country's crisis. As the two-party system shows signs of weakness they change to law to try and prop it up. If someone like Pablo Iglesias becomes popular partly as a result of television appearances, then the PP has a solution; try to make sure he doesn't appear on television. It's the concept of the managed democracy they hoped for after Franco's death, sure people can vote but not just for anybody. Come on. This is not just the attitude of the PP, the whole establishment of the transition years gets intensely nervous at anything that might upset the cozy cronyism they have nurtured carefully for so many years.

There is a delicious irony in seeing all those who shouted in 2011 that what the indignados had to do was form a political party and present themselves for election changing their tune. Now that a section of the movement appears to have done just that and with a certain amount of success, not just the music changes as laws get quickly changed to preserve the status quo at any cost. This is not just about Podemos, new broader based civic platforms are quickly forming to present alternative candidacies in big cities like Barcelona, Sevilla and Madrid. The common denominator is a rejection of the old way of doing politics, and of those who administer the crisis in their own interests.

The emergence of Podemos, placed just behind the PSOE in El Mundo's poll, has had the effect of provoking some kind of crisis in almost all of Spain's political parties. This was most evident with the PSOE, who finally realised they had to renovate their image after over 2 years of steady decline rather than improvement in opposition. The unconvincing way they have done this, with all sorts of manoeuvres to try and fix the election of a new leader, doesn't bode well for a significant change of direction. The PP, who vilified Rubalcaba as being the epitomy of evil, suddenly realised how much they will miss him as they become the only party of the 'old guard'. They were much more comfortable with the ritual 'y tú más' sessions that the increasingly rare parliamentary debates in Spain consist of.

Perhaps the party which has taken the biggest hit from Podemos has been Izquierda Unida, who found themselves pushed behind the new party in several regions. IU had benefited from disenchantment with the major parties, but not as much as they should have. Podemos come in a with a different language and fresher style, and the leadership of IU has been left wondering what happened. The dead hand of the Spanish Communist Party has damaged IU's prospects for years as many of those who could be attracted to the platform left to do other things. Those behind Podemos amongst them. 

Even Unión Progreso y Democracia, who presented themselves as a safe way to break the two party hold, have a crisis of their own as they are no longer in pole position to be the alternative. Still very much the personal project of Rosa Diez, the party machine reacts badly to dissent and those who favour a fusion or agreement with Ciudadanos are subjected to insults by the loyalists. Diez apparently believed she could eclipse the Catalan upstarts, but her right wing media allies seem to be in favour of the merger and have fanned the flames. Again, the emergence of Podemos leaves UPyD looking every bit as much a part of Spain's political establishment as the two big parties, a case that is supported by the reaction of its leaders to the new party.

The opinion polls differ greatly on just what is happening, and are also subject to ever greater manipulation as part of the, occasionally hysterical, counter attack. The attempt by El País a few weeks ago to spin a revival in the PSOE's fortunes following the election of Pedro Sánchez as leader was widely criticised because of the way in which they found a 10% increase in support for the major parties that no other poll seems to detect. The pollsters in general have yet to offer any explanation for how they got the voting pattern so badly wrong in the European elections, and given that there have been no elections since you have to wonder how they are adjusting their polls to fit the new scenario?

The European elections in Spain are special in that they are the most representative, despite the low participation. This is because it is a national vote and therefore doesn't suffer the sort of deformation present in general elections here, that which allows Rajoy to have an absolute majority in parliament with well under 50% of the vote. Precisely the sort of system he now wants to introduce in municipal elections too. Incidentally, if you think that the Spanish electoral system has been brutally unfair in past general elections, just wait and see what happens in the next election if the two major parties have a lower vote but are still clear of any rivals. That could really provoke some democratic regeneration.


Unknown said...

While I'm not a member of IU, I am registered with its Catalan confederate, ICV-EUiA. The vibe I'm getting from the party is that there has been a general failure to capitalize on the very visible failings in the capitalist system over the last few years. I would tend to agree with that. Unfortunately, I think there is a need for more dynamic, energetic leadership. I saw Alexis Tsipras speak in Barcelona a year or two back and was impressed. Joan Herrera was, frankly, not much in comparison (and I say this as someone who has a lot of respect for Herrera). One of the youth leaders (possibly Anna Rovira) spoke and she was good.

But yes, the second crisis that has affected Spain, and Europe, is the crisis of the left. How is it possible that established left-wing parties - with extensive networks of influence, press contacts, etc, have failed so spectacularly to speak to people during the destruction of societies?

My feeling is that it might be better to support Podemos or the CUP or some other group. That's a disappointing feeling to have.

Unknown said...

On the other hand, this is cheering!

Graeme said...

Maybe it's too soon to make a judgement on what Podemos really amounts to - it could be another Syriza, it could implode in a spectacular way or maybe just end up as another 'third' party bumping along with 5-10% of the vote. But whatever happens there are lessons from the experience for those who've never got close to the poll ratings that Podemos are getting now. I think the old guard of IU belong to a school of thought that seems to be resistant to repeated experience - the idea that economic crisis automatically draws people to your side. I think another problem, which is not just IU's, is an inability to recognise failure which makes any sort of strategic turn virtually impossible until its really too late.

IU, and maybe ICV too, has a younger generation that recognises the problem of not connecting with the mood of those who have turned against the two party 'regime'. The problem is whether they can convince those who are happier having 5% support as long as it means nothing changes. I think the alliances being formed for the municipal elections promise to make local elections in Spain a 1000 more interesting than I have ever found them. Assuming that their votes count.

Graeme said...

A 1000 times more interesting, I meant to write

Anonymous said...


Interesting times. I was inclined to support UPyD and/or ciudadanos. I have always baulked at the description made of them by some as right-wing, but Ms Diaz herself is starting to irritate me more and more than she usually did/does.

Don't know. It is almost impossible to make any predictions. I obviously would be aghast if Podemos would ever get to govern the country. Some of their ideas are decidely nuts. But I welcome them stirring the pot.

Personally, the best thing that could happen to spain would be the demise of both the PP and the PSOE, particularly the PP. Their time is up.

The ideal: UPyD/ciudadanos takes over from the PP, and an alliance of Podemos/IU/Compromis/Equo and a rump PSOE lead the left. In the mean time I hope Mr. Iglesias comes to his senses and moderates some of his programme policy ideas.


Lenox said...

It will be useful for Spain to have Podemos influence our political structures. Reduce corruption and put a few banksters away. All good stuff and we await Podemos' arrival on the Main Stage with appropriate enthusiasm. Following that brief moment of sunshine, we shall then have to get rid of Podemos (obviously).

Graeme said...


The most fervent supporters of UPyD in the media are those who regard Rajoy as being a bit too centrist - and Rosa Diez has cut her political cloth to fit. That's why all problems that affect Spain are explained by the existence of the autonomías and anyone who disagrees is ETA. They have nothing else to offer except a Spanish nationalist centralist campaign that could plunge the country into chaos. How many troops will General Diez send to sort out those pesky regions?

Graeme said...

The question might be whether the Spanish right would allow Podemos to take power? They would claim that a legitimate election was a 'golpe' and that anything to bring it down is justified. It hardly needs to be mentioned that there are precedents.

Anonymous said...


As far as I know even Diaz has defended decentralization and the system of autonomias as the right one for spain.

More right wing than Rajoy? come on! The church? UPyD has it in their manifesto that they want a secular(ized) spain. Abortion? no way. To be more conservative than Rajoy you would have to be born around 1870. Just look at pictures of early 20th century european politicians. Maura or Canalejas in Spain, Jaures or Poincare in France. Rajoy looks utterly out of place in our times. The guy is a living fossil.

I agree that some of Ms Diaz's outbursts are too stridently anti-catalan or basque and I would welcome some moderation.
But how could anyone in their right mindd be against parts of their programme?

- Judicial independence.
- More independence for
- Get rid of the diputaciones
- A true transparency law.
- Open lists and changes in the
electoral law to favour smaller

They get any of those done and it would be worthwhile for them to rule the country.


Graeme said...

I'm not saying she shares the enthusiasms of the national catholic brigade, but she did go all out for the vote of those looking for a hard line on Catalonia and ETA, even dipping into 11-M conspiranoia at one point to help keep El Mundo with her. It worked too, UPyD have done well in those barrios of Madrid where the ultras concentrate. Far better than they do in most other places. Of course now these voters have (ultra) VOX to give them their dose of wacky nonsense.

There is the problem, there may be some good things in their programme but its been clear for a long time that much of this is just 'relleno'. They dedicate little time to the effects of the economic crisis and have little to offer- for UPyD the biggest problems facing Spain are always to do with Basques and Catalans. Ciudadanos are no different. Lot's of flag waving as a substitute for a vision of the future.

ejh said...

Of course for those of us who actually live in out-of-the-way provinces, diputaciones provinciales may be considered a rather good thing rather than some shapeless evil. We may like having things adminstered more locally.

Graeme said...

The 'shapeless evil' in your case presumably goes by the name of Zaragoza? The problem of the diputaciones, as the case of Carlos Fabra so ably demonstrates, is that they become unelected centres of power with large budgets and zero accountability, as opposed to the 3-4% accountability we might expect from a regional assembly. Those who run diputaciones often run the local party that ensures their continued re-election to preside the diputación. And so on until eventually they get (almost) sent to prison or retire.

ejh said...

That might be so. However, in our case the administration in Zaragoza has been running up a fair old number of imprisonable offences on their own...

John said...

Graeme, come back.. You're not going to leave it a whole year without posting, are you? I do click back here every now and then to see if you have resurfaced.

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