Roughly one year ago – on 13 February 2020, Pablo Iglesias – the newly elected vice-president of the Spanish government and leader of the left-wing alliance Unidas Podemos (UP) announced a campaign against the “shameful poverty” in his country. It was the first time that he spoke out for social rights in parliament as a minister. He referred to the visit at the end of January that year by Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. The Australian lawyer had criticized Spain for continuing to neglect the poor “despite economic recovery” after the previous crisis. He was particularly appalled by the slums around Madrid and Barcelona and the huts which house many harvest workers.
“When a UN Rapporteur calls out the fourth largest economic power in the EU for extreme poverty, we must all be ashamed and be moved to work immediately” declared Iglesias. On this day, the hope of many Spanish left-wing voters fleshed out his programme, which he announced as the beginning of a “decade of democratic constitutionalism. The “absolute priority” must be to fix a “guaranteed minimum income” as a universal right. At this point, it Iglesias and his Russian doll left alliance Unidas Podemos could not force that the Corona pandemic would suddenly make these government plans more difficult.
On 8 January 2020, the economist Pedro Sánchez Pérez-Castejón from the social democratic PSOE was officially sworn in as prime minister. His party had just won the 2019 general election with a very small majority. The decisive fragmentation of Spanish politics into many parties was evident. It was the fourth election in just four years, and the second which had been appointed because the parties could not reach an agreement on a government. With the final governing agreement between ,Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, PSOE and Unidas Podemos, Communists could join the government for the first time since the end of the Franco dictatorship.
In its one year of government, this relatively progressive coalition could achieve some of the agreed goals of both parties. This despite the state of emergency caused by Corona, and despite the crisis of the monarchy. The latter surprisingly escalated when the abdicated king Juan Carlos pre-empted possible investigations against him by abdicating. In turn, the crisis of the territorial integrity of Spain was one which the government neither could nor wanted to acknowledge. When the new government came into office, many Spaniards hoped for an improvement of their conditions. Then the pandemic nightmare started. Based on their own intentions, the challenges with which the Sánchez is confronted with are still enormous.
Pandemic increases inequality
Extreme situations occasionally tempt sarcasm. Iker Jiménez moderates a Spanish tv programme called »Cuatro Milenio« (Four Millennia) in which he pursues the stories behind apparent secrets, unsolved mysteries of history, UFOs and other hocus pocus. In a pastiche of this mystery irrationalism, the comedian José Mota suggested rare phenomena from the permanent work contracts, that should exist in Spain, but no-one has witnessed. Precarious work and exploitation are a decisive subject which the incumbent government had not yet addressed. The work reforms, which were introduced by the social democrats and the right wing popular part PP, have fully made the job market in Spain “more flexible”. Short-term contracts, seasonal work and insufficient protection against dismissal have become the norm.
Economic expert Pablo Elorduy from the left wing paper ‘El Salto’ is sceptical about the government’s desire to rescind these laws: “yes, they have promised to abolish the work reforms, but this brings a contradiction I that the alleged economic recovery – which never existed for the lower classes – is based on these new regulations”, he said in an interview with ‘Junge Welt’. People who only work a few days a month disappear from the unemployment statistics. The State can finance itself on the credit markets much more cheaply with such enhanced figures.
As the government started its work one year ago, every fifth citizen in Spain was threatened by poverty. According to ‘Oxfam Intermón’, the pandemic and economic damage resulting from the containment measures, particularly in tourism, drove around 800,000 people into poverty. These people had less than €16 per day to live. The government did introduce the promised poor peoples’ benefits for people without income under the name »Ingreso mínimo vital«. But this modest help requires a very high level of bureaucratic effort and reaches just a fraction of those who need handouts. Elorduy criticizes the government for letting hundreds of thousands of people exist for months without financial help. “You can’t assume that people commit fraud because of €460. Whoever thinks and argues like this doesn’t trust the public.” Until now there are no equivalent sanctions to the German Hartz-IV régime, but the real target group has still not been fully served. Compared to other European countries, during the pandemic the Spanish state has so far been very cautious on spending to support its citizens and small businesses.
Elorduy reminds us of the weaknesses of Unidas Podemos inside the coalition: “The ministry for social justice, which is led by Pablo Iglesias, has no budget of its own and no economic powers.” This means that it can merely “request measures in the Council of Ministers and over the media. Jaime Martínez Porro, research assistant at the Free University in Berlin and joint speaker of the foreign department of Izquierda Unida (IU) reminds jW that “the government consists of two very different souls”. This was shown recently when minister for employment Yolanda Díaz (UP/PCE) tried to increase the minimum wage for the second year running. But this fell on the deaf ears of the third vice president of the government Nadia Calviño. Calviño belongs to the right wing of the PSOE, which party made her appointment as minister for economic issues and digital transformation a condition of the creation of a coalition.
For the first time in an economic crisis, the instrument of short time compensation was widely used to safeguard jobs. Diaz is trying to sell this subsidy for bosses as a left-wing measure. Overall, what the coalition of PSOE and UP have carried through for the redistribution of social wealth has been rather meagre. The private wealth of a few people in Spain has also grown during the pandemic. And the Spanish government has not yet wanted to fight large capital. We can see this, for example, when the PSOE minister of defence initially spoke out against delivering weapon to Saudi Arabia. But then the political consequences became evident and she back peddled. “She could have shown her position, even when the consequences were clear to her”, suggests Elorduy.
The positive measures of the government against misery include a suspension of compulsory evictions for the period of the state of emergency. But this, as well as real estate prices, will remain one of the central problems for the Spanish people, as long as there is no rent cap or other control mechanism against the rapidly growing property speculation in the inner cities. At least in Catalonia a law has been in effect since 22 September which regulates rents. UP leader Pablo Iglesias is urging Sánchez to implement a similar law for the whole of Spain. After all, this was a central point in the Coalition Treaty: “It’s about loyalty to the treaty that we signed, that we will lower rents, and the constitution compels us to this”, he declared at an election meeting in Catalonia last week-end. Iglesias is referring here to Article 47 of the Spanish constitution which contains the right to housing.
At least in certain social spheres, Unidas Podemos can be credited with pushing through noticeable improvements. So, a new law of historical commemoration has been passed which puts an end to impunity for glorifying Francoism. Apologizing for Fascism will be liable to prosecution for the first time, and foundations and associations in the tradition of Franco will be banned. State funding will be used, to open the countless mass graves in which the opponents of the Fascist régime were buried and the victims will be identified. The country needed nearly half a century for this step.
In addition, the Spanish government has legalized active euthanasia, for which the right wing liberal Ciudadanos party also voted, If it finds a majority in the Senate, the law will come into force in March, and Spain will be one of five countries world wide which allows euthanasia. A new regulation is being planned which will make a lasting change to the life of LGBTI people. According to this law, people are allowed to change their gender on request from the age of 16, without having to provide a doctor’s certificate. It will also be easier for LGBTI couples to become parents. Currently contested is the planned ban of prostitution, which UP considers to be a feminist measure on the grounds that prostitution is based on the sexual exploitation of women.
There is also a problem that under a government with the participation of the left wing UP, an artist received a prison sentence for expressing an opinion. Rapper Pablo Hásel, along with other artists in Spain, was sentenced according to a law that the coalition agreement wanted to abolish.: the so-called muzzle law, the »Ley de seguridad ciudadana«. After a large wave of solidarity for Hasél at the beginning of this week, the government announced on Tuesday that it wanted to change the law as soon as possible, so that expressions of opinion can no longer lead to a prison sentence.
But the coming months must show whether this government is prepared to seriously confront substantial interests of Capital. In particular, this concerns the migrants who work on farms and in domestic care. More controls have already been announced for agriculture, with which forms of illegal employment on plantations can be exposed. There is a catastrophic situation for the imprisoned migrants on the Canaries. Spain will probably continue its cooperation with Morocco with “border protection” within the EU agency Frontex. An other solution should be at least worth considering.
The former king Juan Carlos went into exile last Summer – of all places, to the Islamic dictatorship in the United Arab Emirates. The government must now pay more attention to the question of the form of government. The royal family is beset by corruption scandals and an increasing number of Spaniards (alongside Unidas Podemos) see the necessity of a referendum on the question – ‘monarchy or a republic?’ In general, this desire is more strongly held in Catalonia and the Basque Countries, although the public Institute for Statistics (CIS) have not recorded these figures for years. But last October, a collection of media, including El Salto, asked 3,000 people how they would vote if there were to be a referendum. The result: 40 per cent of those asked were for a republic and 39 per cent for the monarchy. But the PSOE does not want to consider such a plebiscite.
The Future is still unwritten
Government participation seems to have so far lightly damaged Unidas Podemos. But, such polls should be treated with care. Martínez Porro warns us: “when the election is far away, the polls always brought the left parties miserable results.” It was like this before the last elections. Then the polls predicted only ten per cent for UP, but in the end they leapt to twelve per cent. Nevertheless: compared to the results of the previous years, the alliance has been weakened. Around 2015, Podemos, which then stood for election without a partner, led the polls. The corresponding electoral victory was related to the protest cycle which began after 2008 as a reaction to the financial and economic crisis. For the young people who lost from the crisis, Podemos embodied hope. Then, “the future was still unwritten” and Podemos presented itself as a militant alternative. A statement people still remember from the Iglesias of this time is “Heaven was created by consensus, we must storm it.”
Today, Spain’s left has two problems to fight. On the one hand, many Spanish people seem to be simply tired of politics after four election campaigns in four years. On the other, the political divisions have left damages. In September 2019, Iglesias’s former right hand, Iñigo Errejón, went his own way and formed the party Mas País. The split led to a miserable result for Unidas Podemos at the local elections in Galicia and in the Basque country, from which the regional left wing nationalist parties profited. The formation of the party Anticapitalistas in Andalucia could further weaken the UP in the South of Spain.
This week-end, elections will take place in Catalonia. Iglesias told the public television station TVE that at the moment there is “no democratic normality” in Spain, as political conflicts like Catalonia clearly “are no longer pursued on a political but on a judicial level”. UP must also deal with the confusing political diversity in Spain if it is to find an understanding with the regional left forces.
Furthermore, a number of right wing media have waged a dirty media campaign in recent months against the government and in particular against Podemos. They claimed that the party is more or less corrupt. Although until now there has been no corresponding verdict against Podemos or against Iglesias, it has been suggested that the party has financed itself illegally.
The mass migration of young Spaniards abroad during the crisis as well as the emergence of an openly fascist opposition through the PP split Vox have changed the political situation since the formation of Podemos. “For a party in Spain that wants to represent the interests of the working class, it will be difficult if they do not understand the generational change”, says Elorduy. “The classic working class, which used to vote PSOE, and the trade unions, which carry out very important work, belong to a social group without much wealth.” This milieu is critical of regulations like the implementation of the right to housing because they themselves are (small) owners of second or even third homes. Not least because of this, the PSOE positions itself more conservatively. Currently, there seems to be little chance of new protest cycle from the left.
NOTE: Unidas Podemos consists mainly of the amalgamation of the protest party Podemos and the left wing alliance Izquierda Unida, which has been active for decades and itself is composed of several left wing parties of which the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) is the strongest force.