Austerity policies revive the ghost of 'two Spains'

Wed, Oct 24, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS: The Spanish prime minister will use his party’s Galician victory as a lever to introduce still more cutbacks, writes PADDY WOODWORTH

SPAIN’S RULING Partido Popular (PP) and its leader, prime minister Mariano Rajoy, could be forgiven for just a little self-congratulation this week. They can celebrate a clear-cut victory in elections to the Galician autonomous parliament last Sunday, despite the unpopularity of their austerity policies in national opinion polls.

But they must know that they need to go easy on the champagne. Spain remains locked into a deepening triple crisis, threatening economic, social and national disintegration and conflict.

Just for the moment, though, even the stolid Rajoy might permit himself a brief swagger in the EU’s corridors of power. The man whom other European leaders treated dismissively in his early months in power last spring has held his nerve.

He has thrown a book of devastating cutbacks at a stunned and sometimes angry Spanish populace, before negotiating an EU bailout, and still won an election. And in Galicia, the re-elected PP government had been particularly assiduous in imposing local austerity measures.

Moreover, Rajoy was personally responsible for what many observers regard as the crass mismanagement of the disastrous Prestige oil spillage off Galicia’s coast a decade ago, when he was deputy prime minister. The trial of the ship’s captain and three other defendants in the case finally began just last week.

And yet the voters gave Rajoy’s party an increased absolute majority there. You might think the man had invented Teflon, and amnesia.

Meanwhile, his only major opposition, the Socialist Party (PSOE) continued its nationwide implosion at the Galician polls. It is now clear that it will not be a realistic alternative Spanish government for the foreseeable future. And, unlike Angela Merkel, Rajoy does not even need to please any coalition partner.

The euphoric mood at PP headquarters on Sunday night suggested that, if you wanted the number for Europe’s hardball champion, you just needed to call Rajoy.

No one should know better than the prime minister, however, that such euphoria is badly misplaced. He doesn’t even need to look as far as Sunday’s other autonomous election, where radical and moderate Basque nationalists took an aggregate majority, to know that there are truckloads of trouble coming down the Spanish tracks.

And even in Galicia, homeland of iconic Spanish rightists such as the former dictator, General Franco, and former Francoist minister (and PP founder) Manuel Fraga, a newly militant opposition to austerity is rising. A recently formed coalition, the Galician Alternative of the Left (AGE), took nine seats and third place there on Sunday.

Its public face is Xosé Manuel Beiras (76), a long-time Galician nationalist leader and passionate socialist orator.

The coalition, which includes remnants of the once-powerful Communist Party, was immediately dubbed the Syriza of the Spanish northwest, referencing the powerful hard left party that has sprung to prominence in Greece.

Beiras, a grizzled veteran with iconic combative features, told mass meetings that the misery caused by Rajoy’s cutbacks constituted a “state of emergency”. His unabashed anti-capitalist message found a big echo in the electorate, with AGE surging into second place in major urban centres such as A Coruña, Santiago and Ferrol.

Beiras’s rhetoric will not deter Rajoy in the least from using the PP’s Galician victory as a lever to introduce still more cutbacks. The economy is still full of black holes. The prime minister knows that Spain, or at least its banks, needs a full-scale EU-ECB-IMF bailout.

But, as a proud Spanish nationalist, Rajoy wants to get the euro cash flowing without having to submit to conditions that would explicitly undermine Madrid’s sovereignty. Rather perversely, he can achieve this only by fulfilling “voluntarily”, in advance, the harshest conditions the troika might consider imposing.

The seemingly irreversible decline of the PSOE – still blamed by most Spaniards for the property bubble that largely created this whole mess – appears to give him carte blanche to continue his austerity strategy. But this is where the Spanish crisis takes on a particularly troubling aspect.

It is not healthy for any democracy to have only one strong party and a somnambulant opposition. For the PP, with its deeply ambiguous relationship to Spain’s relatively recent authoritarian past, this situation offers dangerous temptations.

The austerity programme is generating burgeoning social-political discontent, with an educated youth sector ever more frustrated by massive cuts. And it is widely believed that Rajoy may cut pensions next. This could bring a volatile coalition of disaffected young and old on to the streets again, in very large numbers.

The “Spanish street” already found vibrant expression in the 15-M movement in May last year, when tens of thousands occupied city and town centres in a diffuse protest against the political system. That movement faded, but re-emerged as the much smaller and more volatile 25-S group last month, which tried to cordon off the Spanish parliament.

The police overreaction was dramatic, with baton charges and assaults against ordinary citizens within Atocha railway station. What was more disturbing was the PP leadership’s stolid defence of the indefensible, accompanied by kite-flying about banning demonstrations, and even banning photographs of police misconduct.

That kind of talk revives the ghost of the “two Spains”, of the right and left, that haunted the country for most of the 20th century.

Spain’s other phantom, “separatism”, also loomed large last weekend. Rajoy was lucky to have Galicia to distract from what was happening in the Basque Country. While Eta’s terrorism appears to be happily defunct, a year after it declared a permanent ceasefire, its pro-independence agenda was endorsed by an unprecedented number of Basque voters.

Bildu, a radical coalition that the PP attempts to link to Eta, took a record 25 per cent of the vote, while the more moderate Basque nationalists of the PNV took 35 per cent. This re-establishes a clear hegemony for those who see their identity as primarily Basque, with a corresponding decline for the PP and especially the PSOE in the region.

And no sooner was this election over than an equally contentious campaign began towards elections to the Catalan autonomous government on November 25th. The Catalan nationalist first minister, Arturo Mas, has called this vote a virtual plebiscite on his strategy of demanding some form of statehood for the Catalan nation. He looks very likely to win.

Spain’s triple crisis calls out for a leadership that speaks empathetically and compellingly across party, class and national identities. Unfortunately, that is not a style one associates with Rajoy.


Paddy Woodworth is the author of Dirty War, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL, and Spanish Democracy (Yale 2003)

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