With the two party system under threat in Spain following last week’s elections, the right is sounding increasingly ridiculous as it accuses the left of trying to destroy constitutional democracy.
“Corruption is absolutely endemic and generalised. Use of public funds for private interests is systematic. …..In recent years scandal has followed upon scandal. Many never come to court, or if they do they are set aside.”
Spain? No. The above is a translation of the opening words of a report on Portugal, published in a Spanish newspaper just six months ago, but could apply almost word for word to what is seen to be the problem of corruption in the Spanish political system today.
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Last week’s regional and municipal elections results appear to have set in motion a process for Spain to avoid a similar epitaph. The turnout nationally was 64.9%, just over 1% more than the figures for the 2011. The governing party at both state and regional level, the Partido Popular (PP) and the major opposition party, the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) lost millions of votes: 2.5 million lost by the PP and nearly 1 million by the PSOE: the two party system not demolished but clearly shaken. For the first time in the history of the modern democracy in Spain the two traditional parties, drenched in accusations of corruption, between them received only 51% of the total vote, and absolute PP majorities were blown out of the water in nearly all regional governments. In the major cities new parties took a crucial percentage of the vote. Given a greater choice than ever before, the electorate opted to spread their votes; the new focus, predicted by the polls, on who pacts with whom and dubbed “el Juego de Pactos” (to Pact or not to Pact), is now in full swing.
It is not the first time the Spanish have kicked against a Government for its illegal use of power and public funds. In 1996, after 14 years of uninterrupted control of the Government, the PSOE went down in elections dominated by accusations of corruption, illegal and secret manoeuvres against the opposition in the midst of an economic crisis. The only viable alternative available was the right-wing PP who won both the 1996 and 2000 elections, staying in government for 8 years. The PSOE were back in 2004 for another 8 years, until late 2011 establishing a pattern of bi-partisan government for Spain
Five years ago something stirred. It is now generally accepted that the genesis of change was the “indignados” movement of 2010 which reached its apogee in a demonstration on May15 2011 (15M) in the streets and squares of Spain just a week before the 2011 regional and municipal elections. Now a series of events that have become world famous, the demonstrators settled down to camp and to demand a real democracy with greater participation including the right to housing and jobs. Growing lettuces, opening children’s nurseries, debating in assemblies and small groups, eschewing violence, attracting all ages, they persisted for some weeks until in the largest cities, where the concentration of demonstrators was greatest, they were brutally broken up by the police. The “indignados” movement was the ideological base of the local left-wing anticorruption party in Valencia, Compromís, who went on to win 6 regional seats in 2011. Too late to have much effect in the general elections 6 months later, which was unsurprisingly won with an absolute majority by the PP, the electorate blaming the PSOE for the crisis, 15M spawned an interest in continuing discussion of the need for change, and ultimately a new national political party “Podemos” (We Can). In May 2014, 3 years later Podemos presented itself to the electorate in the 2014 European elections, and to the astonishment of all, took 5 seats, won 1.2 million votes, bouncing over the walls into the political arena from a near standing start.
In the recent elections Podemos has described itself, amongst other things, as the lever that brought other parties to the table, both local and national. Compromís in Valencia was already established and soon to be backed by Podemos but waiting in the wings was Ciudadanos, (Citizens) a local party on the right running since 2006 against the pro-independence parties in Cataluña. Unknown in the rest of Spain it followed Podemos into the national arena winning nearly 7% of the vote in the recent elections: Podemos took approximately 13% of the vote, emerging as the third force. The polls had earlier predicted much higher shares for the two new parties even suggesting that the electorate might vote Podemos into first place.
Results in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia were perhaps the most eagerly awaited by the left. Madrid because there seemed to be a possibility that the quarter of a century of control of the city and the region by the PP could be broken; Barcelona because in the municipal elections a local party backed by Podemos, had a real chance of taking the city in the face of the ruling independence party CIU; Valencia, because the region had become practically a by-word for political corruption over the past 10 years, and with the new parties making corruption a top issue, could see the PP control collapse.
In its electoral campaign the PP called for a vote for those who knew how to govern, “los gobernantes”, ignoring the fact that more than 360 of “los gobernantes” are awaiting their turn in court to answer questions on possible implication in cases of corruption and fraud, 50% of whom are from the PP and 30% from the PSOE, the two major parties who have provided government since the end of the dictatorship.
The new parties have campaigned strongly on the need to rid politics of corruption: both faltered on the way but nevertheless have managed to produce a seismic change, giving the electorate the opportunity to vote for at least two viable alternatives to the PP and the PSOE Ciudadanos, seemingly confused from time to time as to whether it was on the right or the left, claimed that anyone born before 1978 was not really fit to govern in the new circumstances but is now prepared to pact with anyone. Podemos moved away from its initial extreme left position to a more liberal socialist view of the redistribution of wealth and power, losing in the process Juan Carlos Monedero, its number three in the leadership. Having said initially it would not make pacts, it is now talking to the PSOE
None of the candidates directed any solid part of their campaigning to the situation of women in Spain today, ignoring the reality of unequal pay, lack of access to executive power and most importantly, the horrendous levels of violence against women in Spanish society. The Government backed Institutes for Women have, under the conservatives, lost funding, workers and the political will to address the problem. Women’s issues are not a sexy subject nor seen as a vote catcher by aspiring MPs from either the traditional or the new political affiliations.
Against all the odds, three remarkable women are on the edge of taking powerful positions in two major Spanish cities and one region. Ada Colau is likely to become the first woman mayor of Barcelona, depending on final pacts. Colau made her name as leader of PAH, the battle against house-evictions by the banks, who were seeking to regain their losses having handed out rubbish mortgages in the bumper years of construction to anyone who asked. Manuela Carmena, who will have to strike a deal but may become the Podemos backed mayor of Madrid, is an emeritus judge of the Spanish Supreme Court and a life-long advocate of human rights. And above all, Monica Oltra, the leader of the local left wing anti-corruption party Compromís in Valencia, who won six seats in the 2011 regional elections right in the face of the alleged most corrupt regional government in Spain, now has 19 seats and looks set to become the first woman President of the Region of Valencia.. She is prepared to make pacts and has said she believes politics is about what you can do, not about what you want to do.
Campaigning on the left is difficult in Spain as the media is dominated by the right. The two state owned television channels, with directors chosen by whichever party is in power, are now currently under severe criticism for non-objective reporting, especially of the left. Public regional channels are notoriously controlled by regional governments. In Valencia the public channel was privatised, becoming a mouthpiece for the PP local Government and finally closed last year. One private TV channel exists that puts the case for the left, “La Sexta” set up under the PSOE Government in late 2005. It is claimed the Spanish don’t read the papers, which are mostly on the right, the public largely looking to the television and now the Internet, for their news and political analysis. It is “La Sexta” and the Spanish digital press which flourishes on the Web, along with the social networks, that have succeeded to some extent in redressing the balance.
The regional elections of 2011 presaged the sweeping victory of the PP in the general elections the same year. Four years later, with very different regional results, the right is clamouring for all parties to unite to keep the radical left out of power, variously describing them as soviets, communists, Nazis, protectors of terrorists, affiliated to Le Pen, and in general out to destroy all democratic and constitutional institutions. Their response has been described by some reporters of the political scene as “delirious” and “surreal”, although if what happened in 2011 is anything to go by, they may be right to panic. They do seem to have difficulty in understanding what has happened: that the major parties will have to pact with others if they wish to govern. The electorate on the other hand appears ready to take its chances rather than give its blessing to on-going systematic political corruption.
Stop Press: 5 days after the elections comes the arrest, for a series of alleged corrupt practices, of the special representative of the State Government to the Autonomous Regional Government of Valencia, Serafin Castellano. He had held many different responsible jobs for the PP in the Government of Valencia for over 24 years. He has been stripped of all powers, announced by the Vice-president of the Government of Spain immediately following his arrest.
And the walls came tumbling down?