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Issue 41, September 1999

Spain's United Left in crisis

THE MOST striking feature of Spain's June local and European elections was the collapse in the vote of Izquierda Unida (IU - United Left) and the party's subsequent crisis. Similar results in next spring's general election could raise serious questions over its political survival.

The IU achieved its best results in 1994 with 13.46% of the vote. Today it has just four of the nine European parliament seats it won then and a meagre 5% of the vote in the local elections, losing 1.2 million votes. The IU now has 2,297 councillors as opposed to the 3,493 it had before. In those areas where regional elections took place the IU lost 39 of its 67 representatives. This performance is no better than the results the Spanish Communist Party (PCE) got in 1982. Yet the PCE launched the Izquierda Unida (a coalition of left currents and parties) some years later as a way to resolve the problems it then faced.

What lies behind this crisis is the lack of a real political alternative. The IU supports the 35-hour week without loss of pay. It is against government cuts and social attacks against workers. It also stood against the Nato bombing of Serbia. But it does not question capitalism and so its programme is seen as utopian: after all, didn't PSOE (Spain's main social democratic party) support a similar programme when they first came to power in 1982, only to bring in counter-reform measures against the working class? Wouldn't the Izquierda Unida suffer the same fate as Oskar Lafontaine in Germany?

The lack of a clear policy has created much confusion. For example, before the elections, Felipe Alcaraz, PCE leader in Andalusia, claimed that a rise in support for the IU would make a pact with PSOE easier and that this would represent a turn to the left, an 'ethical progressivism' along the lines of Lionel Jospin in France. This was after the IU had criticised PSOE for its neo-liberal policies, state terrorism against the Basque independence movement, and so on. In addition, although the IU based a great deal of its election campaign on opposing the Nato bombing of Serbia (Xavier Solana, the Nato general secretary is a PSOE member), part of the PCE adopted a pro-Serbian position, supporting Milosevic on some demos.

  The 35-hour week campaign, moreover, has been conducted from the top as a purely electoral campaign. One local example of this was seen when Spanish supporters of the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) proposed linking up the demand with a campaign to defend the working conditions of seasonal workers, launched by the CWI and the Communist Party of a small town in Cádiz. In response, the PCE and IU accused us of trying to divert people's attention from the real aim of the IU. Yet the 35-hour week without loss of pay was one of the demands of the seasonal workers themselves.

Amongst ordinary people in general, because the IU did not link the demand to the actual conditions faced by workers, the 35-hour campaign was not believed to be 'realistic'. Yet the success of a general strike on this issue in the Basque country proved that there was the potential to build this campaign. But now, after the elections, some PCE leaders claim that this struggle is something 'society' does not really care about.

Overall, it has been estimated that 25% of people who had always voted for the IU, backed PSOE this time round. PSOE closed the gap on the Partido Popular (PP - conservatives) by 4% in the European elections. But it was not positive support for PSOE, whose policies are the same as New Labour in Britain, but a vote against the PP. Many people do not believe the IU would be much different from PSOE if it gained power. In Madrid, where the IU previously won 16% of the vote, it now holds 8%. It has disappeared from Aragón and in Catalonia it has become a marginal group, with no representatives in Barcelona or in most of the municipalities. The result also represents a financial catastrophe as the IU will receive a cut of 750 million pesetas (£3m) in its state funding, to reflect its diminished political representation. (It used to get over one billion pesetas).

Disappointment with the IU has also affected the rank and file. The IU leaders had to stick election posters up themselves or pay people to do the work. They had to pay people to collect signatures for the 35-hour week campaign. Young activists complain that the leadership stifle their initiatives.

  Many of these mainly PCE youth abstained in the elections. Most of the Communist Youth see the IU as an obstacle to more radical policies and look forward to the PCE breaking away from it. A chasm is opening up between the rank and file and the leadership, who are increasingly seen as bureaucrats. In a meeting of branch delegates in Madrid, the PCE leader was booed for not allowing a debate on the election results.

The PCE leadership is also moving to the right. They are adopting a policy of submission to PSOE. Rosa Aguilar, a PCE leader politically close to the party's supremo, Julio Anguita, said it was a mistake to attack Nato secretary Xavier Solana during the election. Anguita has declared he will go into the next elections 'with an open hand towards PSOE'.

Confusion within the IU also extends to its strategy. Before the elections, the IU and PCE held a position of no coalition with PSOE in the town halls. This was based on the so-called 'theory of two shores' - also known as 'sorpasso' - where on the right shore stood PP and PSOE, and on the left shore there was the IU. Now the IU defends a coalition with PSOE no matter what its policy. This will prove just as catastrophic, as those who want to stop the PP will simply vote for PSOE.

The conclusion the leadership has reached is that society in general is 'conservative'. At the same time, they do nothing to distinguish themselves from the right wing when opportunities arise. For example, the first measure the newly-elected PSOE-led local authority in Seville took was to raise the mayor's and councillors' wages by two million pesetas a year. No political party opposed this measure, with the IU abstaining. Yet the measure was not implemented because of the scandal it provoked.

The mood among ordinary people is one of apathy and disgust: 'all politicians are the same'. At the same time, workers' struggles are opening up with renewed intensity. Shipyard workers in Cádiz fought pitched battles against the police, which were reminiscent of the struggles in 1995. Action by airport workers in the Canary Islands and prison civil servants, who were savagely attacked by the police, are other recent examples. In a country with the highest rate of unemployment and temporary jobs in Europe, a left, anti-capitalist alternative is desperately needed.

Virginia Rodríguez

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