‘Old’ and ‘New’ Left in the Kingdom of Spain, 2008–2015

Antoni Domenech, Gustavo Buster, Daniel

The crisis of 2008 and the 15 May Movement

In May 2004, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE) regained power after two years of massive protests against the Iraq War, neoliberal policies, and the anti-ecological policies of the conservative government of José María Aznar, which saw itself as a strategic ally of the Bush Administration in the ‘war on terror’.1

The government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was in office from 2004 to 2007 with no opposition except for the mobilized social and political right. In a balancing act of lesser-evil policies and fear of a new swing to the right, it progressively co-opted the social left while its ‘social-liberalism with a human face’ extended the rights of homosexuals, immigrants, and the disabled, as well as women’s reproductive rights.

The upwards economic trend, which began in 1982 and was only interrupted by a temporary slump from 1991 to 1993, came to an end when the financial crisis that began in the United States in the summer of 2007 took on global dimensions and, accordingly, brought about Spain’s most serious recession since 1977 (two years after the end of the Franco regime). At first, the Zapatero government tried to wave aside the evidence: it was not a recession but a “temporary economic downturn”.2 In less than a year, the crisis crippled the construction sector, which had employed seven million workers and represented 7% of the GDP. Thanks to credit defaults, it then laid waste to the balance of savings banks and private banks. The fiscal surplus, pride and joy of the Zapatero government’s budget, was frittered away in one set of plans after another, which, although specific, were rather less coherent. Unemployment shot up to 26% and the population living in poverty reached 24%.

In May 2011, unable to come up with an appropriate response to the economic crisis, Zapatero made an about-turn in his economic policy in a bid to avoid a bailout of the Spanish economy and to maintain the performance of the public debt in stock markets.3 In September 2011 and with support from the conservative People’s Party (Partido Popular, PP), the government carried out a fast-track reform of Article 135 of the Constitution in order to legalize a new policy giving priority to the interests of creditors.4

On 29 September 2010, the trade unions Workers’ Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CCOO) and the General Union of Workers (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT), the biggest working-class organizations with some 1.5 million members, called a general strike. Although this was successful, the United Left (Izquierda Unida, IU), and left-wing nationalists were too weak to offer any real political alternative. The CCOO and UGT were loath to encourage any political re-launch of a unitary anti-neoliberal left although they did support the coordination of a social front of resistance. The PSOE suffered the biggest defeat in its history in the May 2011 municipal elections when it lost 21.8% of its voters. The IU voters rose from 5.5% to 6.3%.

This political vacuum was the perfect breeding ground for the irruption of the 15-M anti-austerity movement when, in spring 2011, los indignados (the outraged) occupied the squares of Spain’s main cities, turning them into spaces for debate and discussion about the lack of representativeness in the political system, the causes of the economic crisis, alternative solutions, gender oppression, and reforming the job market which had condemned 50% of the country’s youth to unemployment and a precarious existence, among other issues. The camp in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, now known as the Acampada Sol, became a spirited alternative threatening the ritualized electoral process. “They don’t represent us!” and “Real democracy now!” were two of the most popular slogans.

The Zapatero government did not dare bring in the police to break up the demonstrations that were now occurring all over the country. At the end of May, the camps decided to take their debates to open assemblies in working-class neighbourhoods in order to spread their message and broaden their support. However, on June 15, when the Barcelona indignados held a demonstration outside the parliament of Catalonia to protest the approval of new cuts in social spending, the Catalan police responded violently. On June 19, thousands of people filled the city’s streets and squares in solidarity with the indignados who had been detained, and denounced the attempts to criminalize the 15-M movement. Opinion polls began to show not only the citizens’ massive support for the indignados but also more than 75% rejection of the PSOE and PP leaders, Zapatero and Mariano Rajoy.

In the general elections of 20 November 2011, the PSOE lost 38% of its supporters and obtained only 28.7% of the vote, an even worse trouncing than the debacle of the municipal elections in May. The IU obtained 6.9% of the votes while several left-nationalist organizations achieved more than 3.5%. Nevertheless, the PP won 44.6% of the vote and an absolute majority of seats, which, together with its advance in the municipal and regional elections, gave the conservative right its biggest share of institutional power since 1978.

Social resistance to austerity

Three months after being sworn in, the conservative PP government headed by Rajoy presided over the collapse of the financial sector. The government requested an EU bailout of savings banks which, thanks to the resulting Memorandum, paved the way for introducing the toughest adjustment and neoliberal austerity programme Spain’s financial and industrial elite could possibly hope for.

The fast-growing public deficit, which doubled to 9%, was now added to an exponential increase in public debt following the application of the bailout Memorandum. In three years, it soared from 37% to 97% of GDP. The Rajoy government, of its own accord, imposed the whole Memorandum packet, denying that it had been obliged to do so by the EU. It said it was acting in the best interest of Spain. To give an idea of what this barefaced neoliberalism meant in real terms, public spending dropped from 42% to 37% of GDP, with the aim of reaching a low of 35%, while the Eurozone average was 47%.

The social effects were quick to appear. More than half of the almost six million unemployed workers were stripped of all benefits. The number of evictions for mortgage arrears shot up to more than 250,000. More than one in four adults, and one in three children were hit by worsening poverty, and the public dining rooms of charitable organizations were full to overflowing.

The trade unions organized a day of protest against the new labour reform5 on 19 February 2012 and there were huge demonstrations in Valencia protesting the cuts in public education. The opinion polls suggested that the number of people who believed that the Rajoy government knew what it was doing dropped from 58% to 47% in just one month.6

The first months of 2012 witnessed an expansion of the Mareas (Tides) – social movements in defence of public health and education – in Spain’s biggest cities. Although the unions played some part in their mobilization, the Mareas soon turned into very large assembly-based movements. In a few weeks, social protest had spread to include public servants in Catalonia, university students clamouring against the rise in fees, and nationalist unions calling general strikes in their regions with quite a lot of followers in Galicia and the Basque Country. Meanwhile, the CCOO and UGT called a nationwide general strike on 29 March 2012. This was followed by a general strike throughout the educational system on May 22 and, the next day, by an indefinite coalminers’ strike in Asturias and León, concluding on July 11 with a massive miners’ march on Madrid.7

When the adjustment plan stipulated in the Memorandum8 was passed in the Parliament (with only the PP votes), another day of union action was scheduled for July 19. This took the form of huge demonstrations in most Spanish cities. August saw ‘social appropriations’ in supermarkets of Andalusia and Extremadura, led by the Andalusian Workers’ Union and the Basic Income Platform with support from the IU. In Osuna, a public building was occupied and subsequently evacuated by the Civil Guard, an action that was to be repeated in May 2013.

On 15 September 2012, the ‘Social Summit’– set up by the CCOO and UGT to coordinate 217 social organizations – called another one-day strike. This ended with a huge demonstration of more than 250,000 people in the Plaza de Colón in Madrid. Ten days later, the ‘25 September Coordinator’, which had sprung from the 15-M movement, organized another large demonstration with the slogan, “Surround the parliament!” In spite of police repression, dozens of arrests, and injuries, this protest was repeated on two more occasions. The main event in October was the Marea-organized mobilization in Madrid for public health and education. Then, on November 14, as part of a day of protest planned by the European Trade Union Confederation, the CCOO and UGT called another general strike.

The social tension and sovereign debt crisis peaked in the summer of 2012 when the difficulties of financing the sovereign debt in the markets and high interest rates gave rise to all kinds of rumours about an inevitable second bailout. Some of these stories came hand in hand with proposals for a PP-PSOE ‘national salvation government’, an idea that was supported by most of the media and by Alfredo Rubalcaba, the General Secretary of the PSOE.

For all its importance, the impressive wave of mobilization and protests was not sufficient to prevent the Rajoy government from implementing its austerity policy. The Mareas were active, students were striking, and Andalusian day labourers demonstrating, but the activities coordinated by the unions with support from the IU and the left nationalist organizations were starting to wind down. The CCOO and UGT leaders revamped their strategy, now seeking to restore ‘social dialogue’ with the government and management.

In 2013 and 2014, the most important social protests were led by the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, PAH) and Marches for Dignity (Marchas de la Dignidad), both grassroots organizations representing the most vulnerable sectors and people hardest hit by the crisis. The greatly admired PAH spokeswoman, Ada Colau, enjoyed widespread support in public opinion when she denounced the fact that more than 350 evictions were happening every day. By January 2014, the Marches for Dignity from Andalusia and Extremadura, including camps of unemployed people, had become a national movement expressing solidarity with the residents of the Burgos neighbourhood of Gamonal, an epicentre of protest. Another march, on foot and uniting a range of protest movements, culminated on 22 March 2014 in Madrid with almost a million people occupying the centre of the city. There were also smaller-scale mobilizations on June 21 in many cities and a large scale protest in the Canary Islands against the Rajoy government’s green light for oil exploration off its coasts.

The crisis of the regime of 1978

The effects of the economic crisis and failure of austerity measures to provide a way out seriously undermined the political system which arose from the 1978 Constitution. Opinion polls at the beginning of 2014, after the PSOE went down 14 points and the PP lost 12 in the election forecast, put the total for both parties at less than 50%,9 an estimate that was confirmed with the European elections in May 2014. The most important political consequence was that, in the next elections, both parties lost the power to carry out a joint reform of the 1978 Constitution and a PP-PSOE ‘national unity’ government would now be a minority group polarizing political life into for-and-against the regime of 1978.

The collapse of the autonomous communities’ inter-regional finance system, occasioning major cuts in welfare services, revived nationalist aspirations in Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia. Although they had majority support, attempts to reform the statutes of the autonomous communities (the constitutional framework of self-government) in the Basque Country in 2005 and Catalonia in 2006, were blocked in the Spanish parliament or the Constitutional Court. The frustration of national aspirations when the 1978 Constitution failed to recognize the right to self-determination was now aggravated with the inter-regional financial crisis and the thwarting of this new effort to reform self-government. The upshot was confrontation between the Basque and Catalan right and the Spanish right of the PP and the social-democratic PSOE.

The crisis of legitimacy was further aggravated by numerous cases of corruption linked with party financing – most notably in the PP, PSOE and, in Catalonia, the right-wing Convergence and Union (Convergència i Unió, CiU) – management of the savings banks, and public tenders and contracts. When these cases of corruption were taken to court, thousands of public office holders, including presidents of the autonomous communities, were tried and condemned. The royal family was also embroiled in the scandal after the indictment of one of the princesses and her husband, while other cases tainted sectors of the institutional left parties. Crony capitalism in the 1978 constitutional regime had produced a system that was corrupt through and through.

The understanding that the political regime established in 1978 had exhausted its capacity to bring about social consensus and that the social and political pacts which had shored up the post-Franco transition period had unilaterally tipped to favour the industrial and financial oligarchies was now widespread among both the left and right.

As early as the 1970s, the debate about the future political regime had focused on the alternatives of ‘reform or rupture’ vis-à-vis the Franco dictatorship. A similar debate on the crisis of the regime of 1978 took place after 2012. Faced with the proposal for limited reforms, supervised from the top down by the PP and PSOE, the social and political left strove to amass sufficient social and institutional power to open up a new ‘constituent process’, while the Catalan nationalist parties, both the left and right, clamoured to exercise the right to decide about self-determination.

This strategic debate and its different tactical forms took shape throughout 2014 and the first half of 2015. First, it laid bare the abysmal gulf between strategic objectives and the reality on the ground. Second, with the imposition of a third Memorandum on the SYRIZA government in Greece, the neoliberal limits imposed by the EU and power relations at the European level were very much in the spotlight. Third, with a changing political map – redrawn by the 2014 European elections and the Spanish municipal and regional elections of 2015 – two ‘emerging’ parties have consolidated: Podemos (We Can) on the left and Ciudadanos (Citizens) on the right.

The crisis of Izquierda Unida and the irruption of Podemos

In its 9th Assembly in 2008, the IU named Cayo Lara as coordinator-general following a stormy debate among its internal factions. The Communist Party of Spain (Partido Comunista de España, PCE) majority blamed the deposed leadership headed by Gaspar Llamazares and, in particular, its tactic of joining the CCOO to pressure the first Zapatero government, for the IU’s electoral decline from 4.96% in 2004 to 3.77% in 2008. The IU’s organizational crisis was plain to see. It had lost more than a third of its members, a total of some 50,000, of whom 35% were also the PCE militants.10

One year later, the new IU leadership approved a strategy for ‘re-launching the left’. The IU needed to recover total political autonomy in order to combat the neoliberal policies of both PP and PSOE and to push for the founding of a ‘new social and political bloc’. This was a process of gathering strength based on grassroots resistance movements and joining with the extra-parliamentary left, sectors of the left-nationalist groups and disaffected members of the PSOE.

The first ‘Re-launch Assembly’, held in June 2010, was attended by several organizations of the extra-parliamentary left, the UGT and CCOO, and some social movements. The outcome was a broadening of electoral alliances in the autonomous regions to include left-green, eco-socialist, regionalist, and nationalist organizations. However, in the Basque country, the Ezker Batua (United Green Left) majority, which belonged to the Llamazares faction, was expelled and the Basque IU federation was reconstituted with a PCE majority.

Yet, the re-launch did not preclude support from five IU members of parliament for the successful PSOE candidate for Asturias in early regional elections held in March 2012. Moreover, Andalusia had a PSOE-IU coalition government, in which the IU – accounting for 11.3% of the votes – had two ministers and a deputy prime minister. This participation in the Andalusian government, which was supported by the Andalusian Communist Party, was harshly criticized by some IU minority factions.11

The most significant event in this whole process occurred with the 2012 Galician regional elections. Headed by its historic leader, Xosé Manuel Beiras, the left of the Galician Nationalist Bloc (Bloque Nacionalista Galego, BNG) split from the coalition to form an organization called Renewed Nationalist Brotherhood/Sisterhood (Anova-Irmandade Nacionalista) and proposed the constitution of an anti-neoliberal electoral bloc that would include the IU federation of Galicia and the greens from Equo and Eco-Socialist Space of Galicia (Espazo Ecosocialista Galego). Now named Galician Left Alternative (Alternativa Galega de Esquerda, AGE), the coalition was very successful in the elections, obtaining 14% of the votes. In the Catalan elections the same year, Green Initiative for Catalonia-United Alternative Left (Iniciativa per Catalunya-Verts and Esquerra Unida i Alternativa, ICV-EUiA), which was moving further and further away from the IU’s federal leadership, also improved its results.

Cayo Lara was re-elected as the IU coordinator general at its 10th Assembly at the end of 2012. However, the re-launch went off the rails in the run-up to the European elections in May 2014. Despite guarantees offered to other left-wing social and political organizations that their candidates would be elected in the party primaries or that this would be negotiated, the PCE imposed its party militant Willy Meyer Pleite as the continuing head of its European Members of Parliament list. Despite the good results (10% of vote) and the election of six European MPs, the ‘old’ methods used for negotiating candidacies and the eventual resignation of Meyer (after it emerged that he had been funnelling his parliamentary pension contributions into a Luxembourg investment fund), the IU now faced another crisis, which led to the resignation of the head of the re-launch project, Enrique de Santiago.

The imposed IU list excluded the founding group of Podemos. Pablo Iglesias and Juan Carlos Monedero, who had previously been advisers to the IU, together with Iñigo Errejón and Miguel Urbán of the Anticapitalist Left (Izquierda Anticapitalista) – a post-Trotskyist faction which had left the IU in 2008 – decided to present their own list for the European elections. Contrary to all expectations, they were extraordinarily successful, achieving 8% of the vote and five seats in the European parliament. Like the IU, Podemos joined the European United Left group, which then named Pablo Iglesias as its candidate for President of the European Parliament.

The inability of the Cayo Lara leadership to bring off the IU re-launch had serious repercussions in its two main federations in Andalusia and Madrid. In Andalusia, the IU renewed its governing pact with the new PSOE leader Susana Díaz in September 2013. Serious cases of corruption involving the PSOE in the Andalusian government and heated clashes over social housing policy and evictions polarized the IU in Andalusia to the point of rupture. Yet, the IU leadership in Andalusia not only continued in its governing coalition with the PSOE but it also approved the budget for 2015, although it did announce that it was holding an internal meeting to discuss the continuance of its alliance with the PSOE. But Susana Díaz and her party were one step ahead. They called snap elections in March 2015. The IU lost 38% of its votes and half its Andalusian MPs. Podemos, which presented for the first time, with support from minority factions in the IU and United Workers’ Candidacy (Candidatura Unitaria de Trabajadores, CUT) led by the legendary mayor of Marinaleda, Sánchez Gordillo, got twice as many votes as the IU and three times as many seats in the parliament. In the end, the PSOE formed a government with parliamentary support from the new centre-right party Ciudadanos.

In Madrid, the party primaries for the autonomous elections and the City Hall led to the election of Tania Sánchez and Mauricio Valiente, both of them representatives of minority groups. The debate on the policy of alliances with Podemos ended up in bitter confrontation between the elected candidates and the IU leadership in Madrid and eventually led to the official dissolution of the IU federation and the constitution of a new version with only one thousand of the former five thousand members.

The IU crisis after the 2015 municipal and regional elections was such that, despite its increased number of city councillors, Cayo Lara took a back seat leaving the spotlight to the young MP, Alberto Garzón, the IU candidate for prime minister in the 2015 general elections. The main aim was to join with Podemos and other left and ecologist regional organizations in a single candidacy.

Podemos: organizational consolidation and strategic definition

Thanks to the joint efforts of two organizational structures, the television programme La Tuerka and Izquierda Anticapitalista, Podemos emerged from the failure of the IU. The new organization was backed by the manifesto “Mover ficha: convertir la indignación en cambio politico” (Make a Move: Turn Outrage into Political Change), which was signed by a growing number of more than 100 intellectuals and activists.12 The aim was to present a Podemos list, headed by Pablo Iglesias, for the 2014 European elections. The programme included the most pressing claims of the Mareas: repeal of the new Article 135 of the Constitution; upholding public education and health against PP’s privatising measures; a moratorium on eviction, public housing, and retroactive application of non-recourse debt; opposition to reforms of the abortion law; abolition of the ‘Aliens Law’; exit from NATO; and support for the right of the Catalan people to decide on self-determination. As Pablo Iglesias has written,

[T]he crisis itself has helped to forge new political forces, most notably SYRIZA in Greece ... as well as Podemos in Spain, opening up the possibility of real political change and the recuperation of social rights. Clearly in present conditions this has nothing to do with revolution, or a transition to socialism, in the historic sense of those terms. But it does become feasible to aim at sovereign processes that would limit the power of finance, spur the transformation of production, ensure a wider redistribution of wealth and push for a more democratic configuration of European institutions.13

At the organizational level, Podemos was registered as a political party on 11 March 2014. In less than twenty-four hours it had garnered the online support of 50,000 people for legal recognition of its candidacy. Podemos ‘circles’ (grassroots bases) were organized starting from the regional structure of Izquierda Anticapitalista while, simultaneously, a quota-free list for participation in the primaries was posted online, bringing in more than 200,000 members and 600,000 followers on Facebook.

The success of Podemos in the European elections gave it a very high voter rating in opinion polls. By June it was ahead of the PSOE, in second place after the PP. In October, it surged ahead of the PP to occupy first place. The Centre for Sociological Research (CIS) poll in November found direct voting intentions giving 17.6% to Podemos, 14.3% to the PSOE, and 11.7% to the PP. In this euphoric atmosphere, in which Pablo Iglesias’ television appearances achieved record ratings far above those for Prime Minister Rajoy, Podemos held its first Citizens’ Assembly from September 15 to November 15.

The first programmatic and organizational disagreements took the form of two tendencies with separate lists. ‘Claro Que Podemos’ (Of Course We Can) was headed by Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejón, and ‘Sumando Podemos’ (Adding up Podemos) by Pablo Echenique and Teresa Rodríguez, supported by Izquierda Anticapitalista. 57.3% of the almost 252,000 registered members took part in the online process in which ‘Claro Que Podemos’ proposals got 80% of the votes. Pablo Iglesias was elected as Secretary-General with 88.7%.

The Citizens’ Assembly adopted a number of decisions with regard to electoral strategy. In particular, it decided, first, not to stand for the municipal elections in May 2015 but to support and participate in the ‘popular unity’ list of candidates and, second, to present as Podemos for the elections in the autonomous regions. It also banned from its lists candidates who had been members of other state-level political organizations (a measure aimed at Izquierda Anticapitalista, which had to change its legal status to that of an association, thereafter called Anticapitalistas). Furthermore, it called for a mass demonstration in Madrid on 31 January 2015, the ‘March for Change’, in order to draw attention to its vast number of supporters. And, indeed, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in the Puerta del Sol, wellspring of the 15-M movement.

Yet, by the beginning of 2015, Podemos was grappling with problems of political orientation when it came to specifying its strategy, not to mention a no-holds-barred onslaught from the mass media, whipped up further by some left-wing sectors, which accused it of “Venezuela-style populism”14 and cast aspersions on the personal honesty of its leaders. The polls showed that its electoral prospects slipped from 22.5% in November 2014 to 16.3% in June 2015.

Although most of the Podemos leaders came from the IU or Izquierda Anticapitalista, their political identity is to be found in the 15-M movement or, in other words, an aspiration for change which cut across old left-right divisions and would open up a new constituent process to remedy the crisis of the 1978 regime. This new political space would offer democracy instead of corruption, and took on the challenge of shaping a new mass-based political subject to confront la casta (the caste, or the oligarchy and their political representatives, beneficiaries of the 1978 regime), as Pablo Iglesias explained in his New Left Review article.15

Popular Unity’ and the Municipal and Autonomous Regions Elections

Beyond this calculated programmatic ambiguity, the big debate between IU, Podemos, and left nationalist groups since March 2015 has been how to turn ‘popular unity’ into a real ‘window of opportunity’ for the 2015 elections. In the positive sense, ‘popular unity’ was defined as a process of presenting candidates with a programme for change by means of participatory processes, in particular, in party primaries. On the down side, this ran counter to the traditional left coalitions, whose lists were agreed upon by the party apparatuses.

Once Podemos had decided not to stand for the municipal elections in May 2015, several local slates emerged, most notably Barcelona en Comú, headed by Ada Colau, the well-known anti-evictions activist, with strong support from the ‘old’ left of the ICV-EUiA, as well as Podemos, the Federation of Neighbourhood Associations, and other long-established civic organizations. In other cities, the ‘popular unity’ formulas were different and, in many cases, ended up presenting several candidates. In Madrid and other major cities like Seville, Malaga, and Murcia, it was impossible to come to any agreement. Finally, the IU-Madrid split between the sector that participated in the primaries of the Ahora Madrid slate and the majority sector which presented its own IU candidate, whose showing was nothing short of disastrous.

For all these difficulties, the ‘popular unity’ slates – called Mareas in Galicia – were very successful and came to govern in the city halls of Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Zaragoza, Cadiz, Santiago and A Coruña, among others. In addition, they were determinant in ousting the PP and supporting the PSOE with their votes in other cities. Of all the provincial capitals, the PP was left with only Malaga.

The elections in the autonomous regions were preceded in March by those held in Andalusia, in which Podemos made its first electoral appearance. It came third in the elections with 14.8% of the votes and did not support the PSOE candidate who was elected to the Regional Government with support from the centre-right Ciudadanos.

Two months later, with elections in thirteen out of the seventeen autonomous communities, Podemos gained third place in eight of them. In three others, it was fourth and, in Valencia, fifth. Its votes were decisive in making it possible for the PSOE to depose the PP in the autonomous governments of Valencia, the Balearic Islands, Aragon, Extremadura, and Castile-La Mancha, but not sufficient to do the same in Madrid. Podemos’s hopes of becoming consolidated as the main left-wing political group capable of presenting the PSOE with the dilemma of having to choose between the PP and Podemos in the general elections of December 2015, were all but dashed. With the exception of Aragon (20.5%), Asturias (19%), and Madrid (18.5%), the quota of votes in the other autonomous regions was between 14% and 8%, confirming what recent opinion polls had shown when they forecast for Podemos about 16%. The figure for the IU was 4%.

The nationalist left

Any analysis of the left in the Kingdom of Spain must take into account the evolution and role of the nationalist and regionalist left, whose influence is determinant in Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Navarra, as well as being important in Galicia, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands and, to a lesser extent, in Aragon and the Canary Islands.

The Catalan elections, set for 27 September 2015, are inevitably exceptional to the extent that the beginning of any constituent or pro-independence process will depend on the result. The pro-independence left is represented by the historic party of social-democratic leanings, Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, ERC), and Popular Unity Candidatures (Candidatures de Unitat Popular, CUP) representing the alternative pro-independence left. The other essential component of the Catalan left is the ICV-EUiA. This consists of two organizations which came out of the crisis of the Eurocommunist Spanish Communist Party in the 1980s and it upholds the right to self-determination. Finally, the Socialist Party of Catalonia (Partit Socialista de Catalunya, PSC), which is linked with the PSOE, is a social-democratic party that opposes the right to decide on self-determination and supports a federalist reform of the Spanish Constitution.

The left-wing social movements in Catalonia, together with those in Madrid and the Basque Country, which are the most important in Spain, have developed in relation to a growing mass-based pro-independence movement. This is led in Catalonia by the right-wing Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, CDC), which also heads the Catalan government with strong competition from the ERC. The CDC and ERC have now presented a joint electoral list together with pro-independence social organizations under the heading Together for Yes (Junts Pel Sí), the aim of which is to initiate a unilateral process for independence under a CDC-ERC coalition government headed by the CDC leader Artur Mas, who is now president of the Generalitat, the government of the autonomous community of Catalonia.

An alternative left-wing grouping, Catalunya Sí Que Es Pot (Catalonia Yes We Can) has arisen around ICV-EUiA, Podemos, and Barcelona en Comú with the aim of putting together a programme of social change upholding the right to self-determination and safeguarding the autonomy of the left in opposition to the austerity policies of the CDC government, which were supported in the last budget by the ERC. The CUP will also present its own pro-independence candidacy after declining to present with the CDC or to join Catalunya Sí Que Es Pot.

According to the polls and with a stormy month ahead (including the traditional demonstration on September 11, Catalonia’s national day, which has mobilized more than a million people in the last three years), the Junts Pel Sí slate is set to get 32-35% of the votes, while Catalunya Sí Que Es Pot is expected to obtain 18-20%, and CUP 5-8%. In sum, if the polls are correct, the three slates would win a considerable parliamentary majority in favour of the right to self-determination.

In the Basque Country, after the failure of separate attempts by the Aznar and Zapatero governments to negotiate with the armed nationalist and separatist organization ETA, pressure from the police and also the nationalist left obliged the ETA leadership to rethink its strategy and eventually, in October 2011, to make a unilateral declaration of the end of its armed struggle. The nationalist left was then able to reorganize legally and, with different names and in several coalitions (Sortu, EH, Bildu, Amaiur), to present for both Basque and general elections and thus, in terms of votes, to take second position in the Basque Country’s political constellation, where it has given priority to joining forces in favour of a peace process and a gradual solution to the situation of Basque political prisoners.

In Navarra, EH Bildu (Basque Country Unite) also occupies second position in terms of votes (14.25%), followed by Podemos with 13.6%, a long way ahead of the IU with 3.7%. Together with the centre-left nationalist Geroa Bai (Yes to the Future), EH Bildu now forms part of the government of Navarra where it heads the Ministry of Justice and Security. This is an unprecedented change for a political organization which has only been legal for less than three years.

In Galicia, the constitution of Anova-Irmandade Nacionalista in 2012 opened the way for a major renovation of the nationalist left, which has culminated in the coalition Galician Left Alternative (Alternativa Galega de Esquerda, AGE) organized around Anova and the IU-Galicia (14% of the votes and nine members of parliament). The Mareas (municipal ‘popular unity’ candidatures, mostly extensions of AGE), have won in Santiago, A Coruña and Ferrol, three of the six main cities in Galicia. The Galician Nationalist Bloc (Bloque Nacionalista Galego, BNG), which is led by the historic communist organization Galician People’s Union (Unio do Povo Galego), was unable to recover from its strategic and organizational crisis, as a result of which its results fell to less than 7%.

In Valencia, Compromís (Commitment), number three in the Valencian elections (18%), has been decisive in toppling the right and making a PSOE (20%) government possible, while also winning the mayoralty. Compromís is a coalition founded in 2010 by Llamazares supporters who had left IU-Valencia, Verds-Equo ecologists, and the Valencian Nationalist Bloc (Bloc Nacionalista Valencià). In the autonomous community of Valencia, Podemos won 11.2% of the votes while the IU obtained 4.26%. A Compromís-Podemos-IU coalition would have a majority over the PSOE.

Can the left win the 2015 general elections?

In the first week of August 2015, the CIS published its final opinion poll before the general elections in December. In terms of voting intention CIS estimates that the PP would take first place with 28.2%, while the PSOE would come second (24.9%), Podemos third (15.7%), followed by Ciudadanos (11.1%) and the IU (3.7%).16 In the same survey, with the question about which would be the preferred government coalition, the clear winner was PSOE-Podemos (21.1%), leaving PP-Cuidadanos (10.3%) and PSOE-Ciudadanos (10.9%) with less than half of this figure. A PP-PSOE ‘national unity’ government only obtained 5% of the preferences.

These political scenarios will be greatly affected by the Catalan elections and the nationalist-independence challenge they entail, not to mention the campaign for the general election in December. However, they also raise a series of tactical problems for the left as a whole.

The rise of Podemos, even with support from the IU and left nationalist groups, will not be sufficient to defeat the PSOE and establish a new hegemony in the left. Neither will the sum of today’s ‘old’ and ‘new’ left organizations be enough to outdo the historic achievement of the ‘old’ left groupings (the PSOE and PCE) in the 1980s when they won about 48% of the votes. In particular, the shift of the IU and PSOE votes to Podemos seems to have reached a certain limit. After its decline in 2011, the tendency of PSOE votes seems to have stabilized, while the IU would appear to have reached a lower limit of 3.5%. Besides this transfer of votes, the most noteworthy effect is a reduction of abstention levels to those of 2004.

The ‘window of opportunity’ opened up by the economic and political crises of the past five years, which was conceived in 2013-14 by the ‘new’ left as heralding the need for a ‘movements’ war’ – which was summed up Pablo Iglesias’ words, ‘The sky is not taken by consensus but by assault’ – will not be shut. But, it will require a ‘war of positions’, strategy, and a build-up of forces around the new political movements for change. This is an old dilemma of the left, now inherited by members of the present generation in their intention to overhaul the political space in which they operate. It means constructing a political organization based on internal democracy, working on a strategic vision of a republican programme for change, resistance to ‘Brussels Consensus’ neoliberalism, and a tactic of amassing political forces and building alliances for a new social majority.

Podemos faces the double challenge of joining forces with the IU, which is now pushing its own ‘popular unity’ process called Ahora en Común (Now in Common), and with the various left nationalist groups. Podemos has given priority to building its own apparatus which it has put forward to the latter as a new point of reference in the Kingdom of Spain because of its support for self-determination. It has managed to form a strategic alliance with the ICV and EUiA, which were formerly the IU reference in Catalonia. Meanwhile, in Galicia, the Basque Country, and Valencia the left nationalist groups are demanding a wider, more open framework of alliances among equals.

In the case of the IU and Ahora en Común, the Podemos leadership has sought to avoid any internal clashes which have not already been resolved at the electoral level. It views the IU as a political project which is past its use-by date. But the IU represents not only an important grouping of activists and teams that are capable of achieving a re-launch; it also continues to be a reference for the more politically active segments of the CCOO and UGT.

Finally, there is the relationship of Podemos with the party apparatus and voters of the PSOE, which is still the centre-left party with most influence among the wage-earning population. The aforementioned strategic dilemma faced by the IU will once again rear its head. The foundering of political coherence in the SYRIZA government in its negotiations with the EU underscores the inherent difficulties of a process of anti-neoliberal change in Europe which, moreover, would only be successful on the European scale. Any change in the constellation of forces at the Spanish level, but also that of the EU, would require a new kind of political orientation among the majority sectors of social-democrat voters, and this would then necessitate specific tactics that would permit joint mobilization and debates. The most palpable proof of this is the preference shown in the CIS opinion poll for a PSOE-Podemos coalition, which clearly indicates a significant shift to the left of the political spectrum.

In any case, pending the results of the Catalan elections on 27 September and the general elections in December this year, what would seem to be evident is that, with a background of the 2008 economic crisis, the political cycle which began in the 1970s expired between 2011 and 2014, and a new cycle is now underway, although many of its elements are yet to be defined. This is the space in which the ‘old’ and ‘new’ left will play their parts in the Kingdom of Spain.


1. Most of the data in this article may be found in the editorials published every two or three months by its three authors in the online review Sin Permiso [in Spanish], www.sinpermiso.info

2. Zapatero made this claim during his broadcast electoral debate with the conservative candidate Mariano Rajoy on 25 February 2008 (http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/videos/elecciones-20-n/primer-debate-zapatero-rajoy-2008-integro/1240401/). After the summer of 2007, there had been considerable political debate about the exact word to describe the new economic situation. For Zapatero’s metamorphosing description of the crisis see http://www.diarioya.es/content/estas-son-las-frases-más-celebres-y-mentirosas-de-zapatero-como-presidente

3. See the justification for and different explanations of this volte-face in J.L. Rodríguez Zapatero, El dilemma: 600 días de vertigo (Planeta, 2013) and the memoirs of his Minister for the Economy from 2004 to 2009, P. Solbes, Recuerdos (Planeta, 2013).

4. For a general description of the constitutional reform, see ‘Reforma Constitucional española de 2011’, at https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reforma_constitucional_española_de_2011. For an academic study, see Maria Josefa Ridaura, ‘La reforma del artículo 135 de la Constitución española: ¿pueden los mercados quebrar el consenso constitucional?’ Teoria y Realidad Constitucional, 29 (UNED 2012), 237-60, http://www.uv.es/seminaridret/sesiones2014/recortes/materials01.pdf.

5. For a summary of the 2012 Labour Reform, see ‘La Reforma Laboral al detalle’, La Vanguardia (10 February 2012). For a government report, see Informe de evaluación del impacto de la reforma laboral, Ministerio de Empleo y Seguridad social (2012). For the trade union position, see 52 reformas desde la aprobación del estatuto de los trabajadores en 1980, Fundación 1º de Mayo, Comisiones Obreras (2012).

6. All references to polls are based on the quarterly surveys carried out by an official entity under the auspices of the Ministry of the Presidency, Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (Centre for Sociological Research, CIS). In this case, the reference is from March 2012, www.cis.es/cis/export/sites/default/Archivos/Marginales/2920_2939/2935/Es2935.pdf

7. See Benjamín Gutierrez, ‘Huelga minera 2012’, Tercera Información (20 June 2012). ‘Mineria del Carbón: proteger el empleo y cambiar de modelo’, PC de Asturias; and ‘La Marcha Negra culmina en Madrid arropada por una multitud’, El País (11 July 2012).

8. For the text of the Memorandum, see http://www.mineco.gob.es/stfls/mineco/prensa/ficheros/noticias/2012/120720_MOU_espanyol_2_rubrica_MECC_VVV.pdf.

9. ‘Avance de resultados: Tabulación por Recuerdo Voto y Escala de Ideología Política’, CIS (January 2014).

10. Useful sources in English include: "The Spanish Left Alliance: Izquierda Unida between Regionalization and Authoritarian Politics", in C. Hildebrandt and B. Daiber (eds.), The Left in Europe. Political Parties and Party Alliances between Norway and Turkey (Berlin: Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, 2009); and D. Heilig “The Spanish United Left”, in B. Daiber, C. Hildebrandt and A. Striethorst (eds.), From Revolution to Coalition: Radical Left Parties in Europe (Berlin: Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, 2012).

11. See A.R. Vega, ‘Militantes de IU lanzan un órdago a su dirección y rechazan pactar con el PSOE tras las elecciones en Andalucía’, ABC de Sevilla (6 April 2012).

12. For the list of signatories, see http://www.eldiario.es/politica/personas-reclaman-candidatura-popular-generales_0_408759174.html#manifiesto

13. P. Iglesias, ‘Understanding Podemos’, New Left Review, 93 (2015). Also, see his book, Disputar la democracia: política para tiempos de crisis (Madrid: Akal, 2014).

14. See ‘Floriano acusa a podemos de ‘populismo bolivariano de telepredicador’’, Infolibre, 25 (August 2015).

15. Iglesias, “Understanding Podemos” (note 13).

16. CIS, ‘Avance de resultados: Tabulación por Recuerdo Voto y Escala de Ideología Política’ (July 2015).