Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Pablo Iglesias quits Spanish government ‘to stop’ the far Right in Madrid

Members of the left-wing party Unidas Podemos explain their leader’s extraordinary decision to stand in Madrid’s regional elections in May

Isa Ferrero
19 April 2021, 9.37am
Spanish second deputy PM, Pablo Iglesias, in plenary session at the Lower House in Madrid, Spain, March 2021
Chema Moya/Alamy. All rights reserved.

It is not often that a liberal party governs with the help of a neo-fascist party, but this is the case in Spain, where the conservative-liberal political party Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’, Cs) governs with the support of Vox in several autonomous Spanish regions.

But the polls show support for Cs is in free fall. This led to the party’s desperate attempt to stop relying on an increasingly radicalised Right and to look instead for a pact with the centre-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (‘Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party’, PSOE).

PSOE and Cs planned to file a motion of censure against the right-wing Partido Popular (‘Popular Party’, PP) in the south-eastern region of Murcia, following a new corruption scandal. PP, however, anticipated this move and, in order not to lose its hold on government, ‘convinced’ three deputies from Cs to vote against the motion. The result: another scandal of political malpractice and corruption was unleashed in Madrid.

The president of the Community of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso – a member of PP –promptly used this as an excuse to convene early regional elections, scheduled for 4 May. This was a smart move for two reasons.

First, because the polls predict a majority for the extreme-Right parties (PP and Vox) and the fall of the left-wing Unidas Podemos (‘United We Can’, UP), which is not expected to reach the 5% of the vote necessary to enter Parliament.

Second, because Spain’s left-wing parties have been experiencing a serious crisis for years, aggravated by internal power struggles. A symptom of this crisis is that the Left is split in two, with two warring political parties: Más Madrid (‘More Madrid’) and UP.

Recently, Díaz Ayuso has moved the PP even further to the Right, adopting a Trumpian rhetoric of confrontation with the Spanish government, and promoting populist slogans about the “freedom of Madrid people”. This has pushed the Spanish government, which relies on support from Spain’s regional governments, towards less restrictive measures in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. This, in turn, has led to more COVID-19 cases and more deaths. The country now faces the unpromising prospect in the weeks to come of seeing a new regional government in Madrid that falls somewhere between Trumpian Right (PP) and neo-fascist (Vox).

Faced with this scenario, Pablo Iglesias, leader of Unidas Podemos, has decided to quit his post in central government (he is officially second vice president) and stand in the Madrid elections with the aim of stopping the extreme Right.

Iglesias’s decision has bemused many and changed people’s assessments of UP, pushing the party up to fight for third position in the elections – which is enough to make the Right nervous. Nevertheless, some people think that his decision only underlines the lack of internal democracy in Unidas Podemos, a criticism levelled at the group for some years.

Right-wing influence in Madrid

According to Juan Carlos Monedero, one of the founders of Unidas Podemos, Iglesias’s response reflects the absolute “necessity” of “not arriving too late” when it comes to the threat of a far-Right coalition, which would give the far Right the “ability to change things from Madrid”.

Certainly, the Right has the most to gain. Monedero told me that the Right and the extreme Right have huge influence in Madrid: “They have universities and colleges, since the private predominates over the public. Also, they have solid support from the audiovisual media and from all the newspapers except El País.”

According to Monedero, this is a moment of real “danger” and part of the rise of a “21st-century fascism”, which shares some characteristics with the fascism of the 1930s. That is, aggressive nationalism, the incitement of violence, and looking for scapegoats in immigrants, sexual minorities and the Left.

This kind of fascism also responds cannily to the frustrations of the public. It is no coincidence that for years Madrid has been the place where neoliberalism has been most welcome, while it has had a harmful effect on the rest of Spain, decimating communities with unfair competition and fiscal dumping.

The rise of '21st-century fascism' shares some characteristics with the fascism of the 1930s

In all the heated discussions about Iglesias’s decision, what was not under dispute was that Spain’s right-wing media would deploy a very aggressive campaign against his candidacy, as the conservative newspaper El Español was quick to confirm.

Such a campaign can be confronted only if the Left is able to mobilise and neutralise the latest smear tactics and ‘red scare slogans’. The same smears have been directed (to a lesser degree) at Más Madrid and even the PSOE, so much so that we need to remind ourselves that both Unidas Podemos and Más Madrid are essentially social-democratic parties, and a very long way from the far-Left forces they are accused of being. The danger of the rise of reactionary and far-Right discourse is just beginning to be seen for what it is.

Letters from retired military officers

Roberto Uriarte, a Unidas Podemos MP and a professor of constitutional law at the University of the Basque Country, told me that in order to fully understand Spain, it is imperative to look beyond the mainstream media in Madrid. He added that “Spain is not a country like Portugal”, it is instead “a nation of nations”.

There are strong social explanations for the popularity the right has for years enjoyed in Madrid, but also historical explanations that have to do with the way in which a very imperfect transition to democracy, from the Francoist dictatorships to the parliamentary system, was carried out in Spain in the 1970s. Some of the old vices still predominate in our era.

Juan Antonio Delgado, former spokesman for the Spanish Civil Guard and a former MP for Unidas Podemos, confirmed that “much remains to be done in order to democratise certain structures.”

However, the danger is not confined to the notoriously right-wing Civil Guard, and could be much more extensive than many suspect. For example, at the end of 2020 a WhatsApp conversation between retired military officers was leaked to the press, which included references to “annihilating 26 million, including children” and “purging reds”.

At the same time, 271 retired soldiers wrote letters to the Spanish king Felipe VI rejecting a government of “communists, coup leaders and pro-ETA”. (ETA was a terrorist organisation in favour of Basque separatism, which disbanded in 2018.)

The Madrid elections are also very important for political centrists in Spain. The possible disappearance of Ciudadanos from the political scene could have several consequences. Will centrist voters choose a centre-left option, abstain or choose other options to the right?

It is obvious that Spain is no exception to the general rise of the extreme Right across the world. We may be less aware of the tremendous deterioration in democracy that has afflicted countries such as India, Brazil and the Philippines, but we can’t ignore the way the extreme Right has grown stronger and stronger in Europe and the West.

Ayuso’s campaign slogan declares that the public must choose between “communism or freedom”. She also said: “It’s when they call you a fascist that you know you’re doing fine.” To an outside observer, this might seem frightening but we must remember that in quite recent times, the Spanish Right has been responsible for an unprecedented attack on the freedoms of the Spanish people. There have been great economic cuts; political persecutions that have been proved false; and moves to take control of the judiciary in order to punish Catalan politicians and limit freedom of expression and peaceful protest.

If Madrid residents can organise and rescue Spanish democracy, this will inspire a much wider community who are more dependent on the mobilisation of the Left in general than on any one great leader – such as Pablo Iglesias – however courageous.

Meanwhile, the leftist alternatives of Más Madrid and Unidas Podemos and the moderate option of the PSOE will be looking for international support in this crucial election struggle for us all.

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