On the last Sunday in May, Spanish town councils and roughly half the autonomous regions will elect all members. These elections will serve as a dress-rehearsal for the General Election due before the end of the year. They will inevitably be decided on an unfathomable mixture of local and national issues. The PSOE-Podemos coalition government has weathered Covid and the Ukrainian invasion but is again manifesting the near-pathological suspicion which has characterised the partnership.
Local laws preclude opinion polls immediately before an election, so the last publicly available polls have already been printed. They made pleasant reading for PSOE at 22.5%, reasonable reading for the main opposition PP at almost 19%, and likewise, though to a lesser extent, for its main potential ally 'extreme' right-wing VOX at 5.7%. But for Podemos, under its many different names in different Spanish regions, the projected tally of 3.3% is grim. A prospect which makes analysis of the spectacular rise and perhaps equally spectacular disappearance of this resolutely anti-capitalist, feminist party worthwhile.
In the wake of the global financial crisis which broke in 2008 came the famous book by Stephen Hassel, Indignez-vous.
Then came the Nuit debout movement in France, Occupy Wall Street in the US and the Indignados movement in Spain in 2011. The latter spawned the Podemos Party in 2014. (So complex is the Podemos structure that current national opinion polls list its vote under four different names.) Observers have noted from the outset that, no matter how varied, democratic, absolutely non-hierarchical, resolutely feminist this new party might proclaim itself to be, the influence of four male leaders – Juan Carlos Monedero, Pablo Echenique, Inigo Errejon and Pablo Iglesias – was pervasive. Monedero soon withdrew from active public involvement in the leadership, but the other three consolidated their positions as primi inter pares
in the party; Iglesias invariably functioning as primus inter primos
In 2019, when Spain had two General Elections in a year, Errejon split from Podemos to found his own party, centred initially on Madrid but later taking on a national mantle, under the title Mas Pais, thereby presaging the many internal rivalries and squabbles which have dogged Podemos to this day.
Even after Podemos entered the government following the second election of 2019, constant jockeying for protagonism in the governing two-party coalition was often trumped by barely contained power struggles within Podemos-IU. As time passed, opinion polls suggested that voters were losing patience with Podemos. Matters came to a head in spring of 2021. With the possibility of a Podemos annihilation in a snap election for the Community of Madrid, Iglesias astonished the chattering classes by stepping down from his post as Deputy PM to guarantee a continued Podemos presence in that parliament.
On election night, Iglesias caused further consternation announcing that, notwithstanding his success in saving the Podemos bacon locally, he was withdrawing from active political involvement. He took it upon himself to further announce that Yolanda Diaz was his preferred candidate to lead Podemos in to the 2023 General Election. This despite the fact that Diaz was not and still is not a member of Podemos but rather of the communist party remnant nestled within the big tent around Podemos.
Around this time, with Covid-19 and the extremely severe Spanish associated lockdown still dominating the national consciousness, Diaz, daughter of a Galician communist union leader who despite a seat at the cabinet table had previously made little impact on the national stage, took to her new role like a duck to water. Whilst those closest to Iglesias in Podemos pressed ahead with one of the party's most cherished new laws – a tougher rape law – Diaz was busy glad-handing her way through the country on the Iberian equivalent of the rubber chicken circuit. She made her strongest alliances with the less central elements of the Podemos extended family, not least Barcelona's celebrity mayor Ada Colau, who likewise is not a Podemos member.
To cap this bravura performance, she let it be known early this year that she was planning to set up her own rival catch all left-wing party for the next General Election, under the title Sumar. This name conveys the idea of joining forces, and she has, till the very last minute, been exceedingly coy about whether she would campaign for Podemos in the current round of elections. Something she did eventually do.
But what does Sumar stand for? In what way does its programme differ from that of either PSOE or Podemos or the former communist IU which officially remains Diaz's party? Whilst Diaz's many changes of tasteful, conservatively flamboyant outfits can be seen and analysed from afar, the contents of her political pitch are much less easy to divine. Given that Sumar's ambitions are national, not municipal or regional, support for her nascent party has not been gauged in the latest local election polls; though one national poll taken very recently credited Sumar with more than double the support of Podemos. Diaz herself was in third place among national politicians, scoring almost as much as main PP opposition leader Albert Nunez Feijoo.
The upcoming elections? Within the broad sweep of national preferences, the devil remains in the detail.
National issues have dominated the hustings, with PM Sanchez deciding in the dog days of his mandate that housing is a key issue for electors. He announced that the bank Sareb set up in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis to remove toxic negative assets from commercial banks would make available 60,000 houses on its books in order to assuage the existing crisis. When analysts publicised the fact that, of these pre-existing units, 20,000 were classified as uninhabitable and a further 20,000 were as yet unfinished, Sanchez shot back that a further 20,000 units would be made available on redundant Ministry of Defence land. Great idea, said the Minister of Defence, I'll set up a departmental committee immediately to decide where and how we are going to build them.
Not that the arguments of PP are that impressive either. Their main theme in the first week of campaigning was to attack PSOE for its informal reliance for a working majority in parliament on the votes of the EH-Bildu Party, roughly the Basque equivalent of Sinn Fein. They highlighted remorselessly the fact that the local election lists for EH-B contain no less than seven candidates convicted of ETA murders and some 37 others with convictions for lesser terrorist offences. The campaign drew metaphorical blood when EH-B effectively withdrew the seven main candidates in question.
However, this eruption of historic terrorist issues on the national scene highlights two central truths about Spanish politics. First, that whereas in the UK, the 'troubles' in Northern Ireland have effectively been placed in cold storage, at least in terms of national politics, in Spain the opposite is the case. The PP, along with the majority right-wing media in Madrid, are always keen to maintain the issue at the forefront of political debate. Second, the full history even of relatively recent Spanish blood-spilling is seldom evenly handled in the media.
Very few commentators have highlighted in recent weeks that the PP which made such hay out of the violent death of soldiers, police, politicians and civilians at the hands of ETA had as its main founder a Francoist politician, Manuel Fraga Iribarne. He sat quietly in the cabinet meeting almost exactly 50 years ago that confirmed the death sentence of Julian Grimau (a communist activist tried by Court Martial the previous day; executed the following day). He also, as Minister of the Interior, failed to investigate the police killing, some three years later, of five workers at a demonstration in the Basque Capital Vitoria.
In the Community of Madrid, Yolanda Diaz's alter ego – the similarly named Isabel Diaz-Ayuso – looks set to be returned as regional president, perhaps even with an overall majority. She continues to routinely rile the Spanish PM Sanchez in much the same way, though from opposite ends of the political spectrum, as did Ken Livingstone did to Margaret Thatcher. Few doubt that Diaz-Ayuso has her eyes firmly set on the top party job which she will almost certainly pitch for should the PP fail to form the government after the next General Election.
In Madrid city, the incumbent PP mayor is likely to face a much stiffer challenge, with PSOE relegated to a poor third place and the original Podemos off-shoot Mas Pais providing the real challenge.
The city of Barcelona has been governed for 12 years now by internationally-feted mayor Ada Colau. She has a real fight on her hands this time as PSOE/PSC manouevres to unseat her and restore, given its increasing irrelevance in the context of Madrid, some credibility to PSOE in this round of local elections. The fact that Colau's party, Catalunya en Comu, has always been in a clear minority is seldom reported abroad.
All polls highlight how tight this race is and the final decision on who becomes mayor will inevitably depend on post election horse-trading between the parties, with PSOE/PSC seen as front runner.
Spanish election law specifies that, should no deals be done within 20 days between parties to form a working majority in the town hall, then the post of mayor is automatically taken by the leader of the minority party with most popular votes. A law which makes blatant post electoral pork-barrel politicking routine across the country.
Jim Scott is a retired Glasgow-born teacher who spent most of his career in England. He first visited Spain in 1973 and has been resident in a 'Catalan heartland' since 2005