The Crisis of the Spanish Socialists: Another Sign of the Decline of the European Left

This article was published by Progress

Can the Socialists pull through in Spain?

3 August 2011

The early elections called in Spain for November will further reduce the profile of the left in Europe as a serious governing force. Unlike Jim Callaghan or Gordon Brown who clung limpetlike to office until the last possible days of their terms, the Socialist leadership in Spain have seized the initiative.

They are going for a November election five months ahead of the normal election date of March next year.

The Spanish socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, is standing down. Instead the Socialists will be led into the election by 60-year-old Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, a veteran from the Felipe Gonzalez era. Will some of the old Gonzalez magic rub on Rubalcaba? Zapatero is presenting himself as the pilot who has weathered the economic storm since 2008 and saved Spain from the humiliation of Greece.

Now he steps down and allows Spaniards to make a choice on who heads the government over the next period. Rubalcaba faces one of the lowest profile, greyist rightwingers in European politics. Mariano Rajoy, like Rubacalba, has a beard and is also a long-serving leader of the conservative Partido Popular. He lost the 2004 and 2008 elections but plods on at the head of a party whose dominant figure remains José Maria Aznar – George W Bush’s second best friend in Europe (whisper not who was GWB’s amigo Numero Uno).

The PP is divided and lacks clear policies. Many of the economic problems that helped cripple Spain’s economy like an uncontrolled housing boom, provincial governments allowed to borrow money as if it would never have to be repaid, or city and regional savings banks which were used as private cash chests for social projects to boost the profile of left and right politicians, stem from the Aznar years.

Zapatero won power in 2004 in a surge of anger against the Iraq war and the disgraceful way the PP government tried to blame the March 2004 Madrid bombing where 191 were murdered and 1858 wounded by Islamist terror on ETA, the extreme rightwing Basque separatist movement.

The incoming government focused on social policy – especially women’s rights and reducing the power of the ultra-conservative church. The economy fuelled by three million immigrants between 1996 and 2006 – mainly from Latin America and east and south-east Europe – seemed to be booming. But, as in the US, Britain, Ireland, Greece and other countries where the spirit of Alan Greenspan ruled no-one paid attention to unsustainable levels of government, banking and personal debt building up.

When the reckoning came it was savage. one million houses or flats were built or partly built but unsold. Unemployment, especially in the construction sector, soared. Students graduated with degrees but no jobs (Does Sr Osborne have Spanish blood, by chance?) The main Spanish banks are toughly inspected and controlled by Spain’s central bank. Unlike the Treasury’s, Bank of England’s and FSA’s lax financial supervision which led to the run on Northern Rock and the Labour government having to spend billions to keep British banks from closing the Spanish banks came out of the 2008 financial crisis seemingly in good shape. But with billions of euros of unsold property on their books, even their balance sheets now look dodgy and the constant hedge fund speculation against Spain remains a worry.

Spanish workers and public servants paid a price with job losses, a direct cut of all state employees’ pay and other reductions in public expenditure. The revolt of los indignados ( The Indignant Ones) who occupied the centre of Madrid this summer like the Paris students of 1968 was the final rupture of confidence between young people and the socialist government. Antielitism is now big politics across the Euro-Atlantic community. Whoever is in power suffers. Street protests, however, cannot replace convincing policies for government.

The Socialists will go, yet there is no appetite for a PP government. Read El Pais or El Mundo and almost every week there are reports of a grisly scandal of deep corruption between PP mayors and regional bosses and local business. Socialists are also tempted as planning permission for windmills seems to require oiling local political machines. But the PP politicians have been helping themselves to public money on a scale not seen elsewhere in Europe.

Yet so unpopular are the Socialists that although the early election call and the change of leader has boosted the left a little in the polls there is no one in Spain who foresees anything other than a change of government in November. Rubalcaba promises to increase taxes on the rich, big companies and the banks. But discovering leftism at the end of a long period of left government has not in the past or anywhere else paved the way to staying in power.

The PP is unlikely to win an outright majority. To please its regional allies it will have to temper its ultra-centralism and contempt of devolved government in Spain. There is an ugly rightism at work with threats to repeal laws on gay marriages, make healthcare more expensive and abortion more difficult. Diplomats fear that a PP government may play the Gibraltar card provoking the pointless squabbles with London that were a feature of the Aznar government.

Spain has had a long 30-year run of stable governments after the death of Franco. The pragmatic, reformist, pro-US and pro-globalisation social democracy represented by the long Felipe Gonzalez years set the tone. EU funding helped greatly initially but Spain is now an EU net contributor. Spain finally turned its back on both its Franco past but also the previous three centuries of decline and isolation once the gold and silver of Latin America ran out. What emerged after 1980 was a mature, confident, democratic Spain with a growing economy as well as providing great footballers, great movies, great architecture and a home for 900,000 Brits who, unlike immigrants into the UK, were not required to learn Spanish or adapt to their new home.

Is it Adios to that happy Spain? Like other European countries and the US, Spain is now in a transition era. The Spanish socialists suffer from the same deficit as the rest of the European left. Plenty of rhetorical criticism of the existing order but a crushing voter deficit as the left parties of Europe are downgraded by electorates who want a new story. Yet the right in Spain has a looming policy and personality deficit. The November election will produce a new government. But not a new Spain.