Now Unidas Podemos Must Show It Can Deliver

by Eoghan Gilmartin and Tommy Greene

26 January 2020


With Spain’s new left-wing coalition taking office earlier this month, deputy prime minister Pablo Iglesias declared its ambition “to convert the country into a European and global reference point for social justice, combatting climate change and for feminist policies.”

Though lacking the more transformative measures of the Corbyn project, the programme for government signed between prime minister Pedro Sánchez’s centre-left Socialist Party (PSOE) and Iglesias’ radical Unidas Podemos marks out the coalition as an exception within a Europe lurching increasingly rightwards. Its programme commits the coalition to strengthening union and workers’ rights, increasing the minimum wage and income tax on high earners, introducing rent controls and free universal childcare, as well as boasting investment in the public health system.

In this context, it may be tempting to look to Spain’s burgeoning ‘popular front’ – a reference to the 1936 electoral pact between various leftist parties for the purpose of contesting that year’s election – as an example for the broader left to follow. Yet, as Labour MP Lisa Nandy’s recent comments on Catalonia demonstrate, mapping the Spanish model onto the British context is far from straightforward. 

Nandy was rightfully criticised for claiming the PSOE’s handling of the Catalan independence conflict was an example of social democracy beating “divisive nationalism”. If anything, Sánchez’s high-stakes electoral gambles in 2019 – calling repeat national polls that cynically sought to harness fears generated around the fraught national question – effectively mainstreamed and enabled the rise of Spain’s new far-right party Vox. 

Instead, the wider relevancy of Spain’s progressive coalition is better understood in terms of having emerged as a response to comparable strategic dilemmas to those facing the radical left in Britain.

Unidas Podemos – the electoral coalition between Podemos and an umbrella group with its roots in the Communist left – has been forced to grapple with a stalling of the wave of anti-austerity protest that had coursed through Spain in previous years and which helped the insurgent party secure 20% of the national vote in 2016. Like Corbynism, the project was born out of this moment and up until 2017-18 seemed like it was just one final push away from entering government. Not only this, Iglesias’ formation at that time almost matched PSOE electorally – threatening to completely reshape the progressive space in Spain. 

The rise of the far-right.

That moment, however, has since given way to one of fatigue and division. As has been the case to a certain degree with Brexit in the UK, the 2017 Catalan independence drive has led to a scenario defined by institutional deadlock and an ever-downwards-spiralling culture war that has been driven by the right. Beyond this, a co-ordinated campaign of disinformation – much of which revolved around corrupt police chief Jose Manuel Villarejo – also ate away at the initial sense of enthusiasm and freshness offered by Podemos.

Within such narrow margins, it has been extremely difficult for the party’s core agenda to gain purchase. It lost around 1.4m votes in April’s general election, falling to 14.3% of the vote. However, further losses in the repeat November poll – called after Sánchez walked away from summer coalition talks with Iglesias – were less than expected and its 35 seats remain substantially ahead of the radical left’s historic high (Izquierda Unida’s 21 seats back in 1996).

These conditions allowed Vox to make its dramatic breakthrough, ending 2019 as Spain’s third biggest party after having begun the year with no representation in the national congress. In the lead-up to November’s repeat poll, the party effectively exploited the mass protests and riots in Catalonia – sparked by the conviction of pro-independence leaders for sedition –  to reorient public debate around this supposed threat to the constitutional order and deploying its “enemies of Spain” rhetoric to demonise the independence movement.

 Amid these rising nationalist tensions and its own stalling vote, PSOE had little choice but to sit down and finally negotiate a government deal with Unidas Podemos over Christmas. 

Clearly, entering government as the junior partner holds substantive risks for the radical left – not least in finding its influence in key areas marginalised within a cabinet where most strategic portfolios (the Treasury, Finance, Interior, Defence and Foreign Affairs) are controlled by PSOE. Unidas Podemos, however, is betting this progressive alliance can provide the opportunity not only to reduce tensions around the Catalan conflict – so as to move the agenda beyond the current culture war dynamic – but also to demonstrate that the radical left can deliver as a governing force.  

With the government’s majority also dependent on the backing of the Catalan Left Republican Party (ERC) – whose leader Oriol Junqueras is serving a 13-year prison sentence for his part in organising 2017’s outlawed independence referendum – Sánchez has been forced into a U-turn on the conflict. 

Now accepting the need for a break with the legal witch-hunt of the Catalan leadership, which puts him on a collision course with the country’s conservative judiciary, the prime minister has made a series of concessions to ERC. These include a bilateral negotiating table between Madrid and Barcelona, as well a promised revision of the penal code with regards to crimes such as sedition, which could be retroactively applied to Catalan political prisoners to reduce their sentences. 

Challenges ahead.

Yet these initial steps towards defusing tensions are not by themselves enough to halt the extreme-right threat. As Unidas Podemos MP Txema Guijarro told Novara, “The people have to feel that this is their government very quickly – that it is fighting for them against those at the top of society and that they, in turn, are willing to come out and defend it.” 

In this respect the radical left’s strategy is to ‘prove it can deliver’ –  gaining renewed relevancy through showing that its presence in government can push the PSOE further than it would have otherwise gone on things like tax justice and strengthening workers’ rights. The key ministries it holds – Labour, Equality and Social Rights – place it in a lead position in a number of major battles to come. 

Yet comments from PSOE Finance Minister Nadia Calviño this week against the proposed rent controls contained in the programme for government show what a battle they face. This might not have been the task it was born for. But, under unrelenting pressure from Spain’s elites, Unidas Podemos must ensure the coalition holds to the social democratic line set out in its programme. 

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