Marga Ferre of Izquierda Unida (United Left) Spanish party joins Cross-Border Talks to explain the reasons for the left’s bad performance in May regional elections and assess the perspectives for the snap elections planned for 23 July. In the regional vote, PSOE and Podemos failed in most of the regions where they had been an important political force, even though the center-left government of Pedro Sanchez is generally well perceived, and has genuinely introduced laws supporting the workers, the tenants and women. Marga gives her opinion on the roots of this failure and points out that the difference between left and right vote is not colossal. What could a new left-wing political project change on the scene? Or should we brace for a government of Partido Popular and VOX?
The complete transcription is available below video and audio links.
Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to another cross-border talk. This time it will be a Polish-Czech-Spanish talk in which we will discuss the outcome of the regional elections in Spain that took place on 28th May this year. We are recording a week after the elections and our guest is Marga Ferre, member of the board of the United Left – Izquierda Unida in Spain, and also the co-president of transform!europe network. Marga, welcome to the program.
Marga Ferre: Thank you very much.
It is not a secret to anybody in Europe that the elections were not good for the left, speaking softly. In fact, it was a very unpleasant surprise for left-wing sympathizers all around Europe to see the left defeated. The left kept the power only in three regions in which the Socialist Party had the majority before these elections. More radical parties like Podemos in some regions lost all the representatives they had in the local councils. How do you explain that, Marga? The center left and the left are now in power in Spain and their record, seen from outside, seems pretty good. There were changes introduced that enhanced the scope of the workers rights. There was free rail transport introduced for a year and more. There were positive changes in the area of housing rights. One could think that this is exactly what the left in power should do. Then why the voters did not appreciate it?
An election is always complicated and there is not only one reason, but indeed – we need to explain this contradiction. Spain has now the government, which is a coalition government of Unidas Podemos (which in turn is a coalition between United Left and Podemos) and the Socialist Party, and which in the last three years did relatively well. It brought good policies to the population both during the Covid, with the labor laws, on the question of housing, egalitarian policies, LGBTQ or feminist policies.
I would name two key reasons. The first is that right-wing has all the media, like in all countries in Europe, it’s not something new. Their attack on Unidas Podemos in particular, not the socialists, has been absolutely terrible and brutal. We debate so much about the fake news or the aggressivity of the right – they have been absolutely enormous in the last two years, particularly, but in the last year especially. This is one reason, but still it does not explain everything.
The right-wing managed very well to introduce contradictions in the country – contradictions that really have nothing to do with the material living conditions of the population. In the case of Spain, I am speaking particularly of the question of the independence of Catalonia and the relationship with the independentists in the Basque country. The present coalition government, the left-wing coalition government needs the parliamentarian support of the Independists of Catalonia and particularly the Independentist left in the Basque country. That was taken by the right and the far-right as one of the main issues in the campaign: they claimed that the Socialist Party was the same like the terrorists. In the past, there was a terrorist group in the Basque country called ETA. It disappeared ten years ago and does not exist in the current reality, but the level of aggression put as a central question the issue of unity of the country – which was essential for the right. But even this is not the main explanation, because the right-wing is always playing this card and this argument.
The main problem for me is that the right wing didn’t get much more votes compared with the results of previous votes. They got much more institutional power, but in terms of votes, their result is just a but better. Actually, the Socialist Part lost 1% of their votes! It’s not so much, but the situation was so tense, the equilibrium between the left bloc and the right bloc so tight, that a minimum variation really changed things. The point important for me, and I think important for your audience, is why United Left, or Unidas Podemos lost so much. Because yes, we lost almost 25% of the votes who, by the way, did not go anywhere. They did not choose some other party. We can see now that there is no translation of voters between the left and the right in Spain. Very few voters swing between the Socialist Party and the Conservatives. Very few voters changed their allegiances.
The answer to a question about Podemos’ failure is a painful answer, but we need to talk about it. In Unidas Podemos, which is a coalition, as I said before, there were internal riots between different leaders, publicly expressed during the last one year and a half. Different leaders or ministers of Podemos talked to each other in a not very nice way. This way, also a new political project called Sumar was discussed. There were mutual attacks in the open, in the media, or worse – through the media. The different political parties didn’t talk straight to each other, but they talked to each other through the media, giving the impression that the left in Europe cannot talk to each other, but instead they insult each other and cannot work together. A really very bad impression! This is a lesson to learn. Criticism of the left from the left appearing in the media is a disaster, electorally speaking, anywhere and anytime. It’s a historical rule.
All this happened in public and gave birth to the idea that leaders of Podemos and Yolanda Diaz don’t even talk to each other and the debate was really very hot. Meanwhile the attack on Podemos, particularly from the right and the far right, was really terrifying. Let me give you an example. When Pablo Iglesias was the vice-prime minister of the country, his partner was the minister of equality. Their house was surrounded by the far right all the time, with banners in front of the house. They were also menacing the children. It was really very hard for them. The minister of equality, a Podemos member, was constantly attacked. Of course, social media and Podemos asked for solidarity, and the reaction also was very, very mean. It included accusing us for not supporting each other or these kinds of things.
Construction of unity is a very difficult question for the left, and it is also what we need as Podemos. We absolutely fail in creating a common language between all the members inside Podemos, finding common tasks. I think, I am absolutely sure, that this is one of the reasons for the bad results.
Podemos were down 25% and that makes it impossible even for the Socialists to to create governments at regional level. I must say that Podemos have always had a very bad result in local and regional elections. This is not a political party in a traditional way. That is also the case of the Izquierda Unida. We used to have 1800 councillors in cities and now we have 1500. The loss is not so huge, but we lost absolutely in the big cities. We need to talk about that. Perhaps we lost, because the big cities were much more affected by the national narrative and the national debates rather than the small cities. I think that we need to go deeper in that. But nevertheless, it is surprising. We lost in all the country, in the big cities, we lost Barcelona, which was the flag of the left with a mayor Ada Colau who did wonderful things there. We have lost in the major part of the capitals of the provinces.
There is a lot to think about. But let me summarize everything that I have said in two lines. One is the aggression of the right and the far right and all the mass media going into personal questions, particularly on Podemos, giving the sensation that the left is not capable of anything or that the left is only creating an instability. This is not true, but this is the sensation they offer. Secondly, and more importantly, we lost because there was no unity inside the left and it was publicly expressed. This is a formula for an electoral disaster or a very bad result. We had the same problem in Germany. The electorate of the left always asks for unity or always asks to to be useful. They don’t like this kind of public disputing of internal matters. We need to think a lot about it and we must do it soon, we don’t have much time.
Let’s turn our attention now to the right. These regional elections in Spain showed again, unfortunately, a slight rise of the far right party Vox – an unpleasant surprise especially for us from Central-Eastern Europe, because we have experiences with this type of parties. So we would like to know actually what happened, why Spanish politics has this turn that makes a right-wing populist party rise? According to surveys, in the 23 July election they could gain up to 15% as maximum so far, but still, they are winning while the left is losing…
In fact, Vox is much more similar to Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia far right movement. It is not so close to the model of Poland or Hungary’s ruling parties. It is rather a kind of old-fashioned fascist party. Let me remind that we had a fascist dictatorship for 40 years in Spain, until the dictator died in 1975. There is a historical succession line like in the case of the Mussolini movement in Italy.
One of the most horrible things about the appearance of VOX in Spanish politics is not only that their political positions are scary, but also that they make the conservative party, which used to be only right-wing, go into the far right positions, too. The whole public debate is surrounding VOX agenda and that makes the conservatives get closer to the far right, at least in the speeches and the discourse. This has been happening over the last two years in Spain, which is a very bad thing. VOX took the votes of the conservatives. When you see who votes for VOX, you see, literally, the former voter of the conservative party. In a certain sense, it’s the same historical bloc of the conservative right that always has been there, but now divided into two parties. There are no new votes switching from the center-left towards the bloc of the right.
The problem is that they are dictating the narrative. And in a federal country with different languages, which Spain is, the left has always had a certain problem on the question of the unity. In fact, it is a problem of the whole state – Spain has had a problem with how to put different nations in one country for 100, 200 years. It is not a new issue. However, VOX puts this question on the agenda in a very aggressive way. They claim that there’s a necessity of having one unity, one nation, which, by the ways, sounds very close to the slogan of Franco dictatorship: one nation, one religion, one country, one language (because during Franco times public use of all other languages were forbidden in Spain). That is the reason why the Catalanss are so anti-centralist, just like people of the Basque country. Their languages were forbidden, and forbidding a language, a culture, denialism of history – this is a big blow. The other thing is the anti-feminist discourse. Possibly not so much aggressive as in Poland, but not much different in content. They claim that the current government is only serving the minorities. It’s the message they are sending, absolutely untrue. These are the issues that VOX puts on the agenda, making the whole society talk about them.
In the case of Spain, immigration is not such a big issue. It is a big issue, but not an extremely important issue. In Spain, there are a lot of Latin American migrants, but they speak Spanish and they are Catholics, so many people don’t even consider them as foreigners. The ‘real foreigners’ are African people or the Muslim people, not the Latin American. For VOX, migration is not the central question. They prefer to focus on ‘unity of the nation’, the national identity, how to be Spanish. Their second big topic is, as I mentioned, antifeminism. They never talk about labor laws and economics. Never.
In the case of Spain, at the moment there are no left voters who would swing for the far right. I’m not saying that it cannot happen in the future, but at this very moment, we are rather seeing a conservative wave in Spain in spite of having a progressive government, which is a more or less a national tragedy.
After the defeat in the elections, the president of the country called for a national election. It was supposed to take place in December, So now it’s going to happen in July in a very short period of time [23 July – CbT team]. The Socialist Party, who is the ruling party in Spain, calls for new elections in this period because in the regional elections, the Conservative Party needs the far right to create local governments. That gives the impression to the whole country that they are the same and the fascism is coming back. In order to stop them, they call for national elections with this narrative, which is intelligent, which is not bad, because clearly the Conservatives do need Vox for forming governments in the regions. In addition, VOX is not an ecclectic party in France, not something like in Italy. They are clearly fascist, no doubts left. Calling the elections for July is a call to mobilize the voters in order to stop fascism coming back to the government again in the country.
Let’s have a look also on the international issues. The last few years are quite dramatic in Europe. First, the migration crisis in 2015, before it, the global financial crisis, which was especially hard for the southern European countries. Then the migration crisis. And now we have a war in Ukraine. This has a huge impact on all continents, even if these impacts are differently distributed and have different effects. My question is: how does the international politics – both Ukrainian issue and migration issue – influence the domestic politics in Spain?
Not in a very open way. We are not an Eastern-European country, we are in the South. Ukraine is far away. There are mentions of the NATO or questions about peace in the public debate, but this is not the center of the debate. What is indeed at the center is a conviction that a new international order is being formed and that the United States with NATO want to divide the world in a new Cold War. Podemos is clearly against the war in a pacifist position and, basically, against NATO.
Putting Spain under the umbrella of the United States and being on the side of the winners is also a part of the VOX narrative. Being strongly nationalist, they are absolutely pro-NATO, like in Poland. For me, there is a contradiction here, but they don’t resolve this contradiction. It’s like they assumed the idea that Spain is such a weak country in terms of industry and technology, that they want it to be put under the umbrella of the United States. But the question of war and NATO, and ‘being on the right side of history’, was not the key problem of this campaign.
The question of migration was interesting basically for the voters of VOX. Nevertheless, I must say that their position, albeit anti-migrant, is not as aggressive as in Italy, where conspiracy theories concerning migrants became the centre of the debate. I meant the theories like the great replacement discourse about the migrants who are going to destroy European civilization. Such thoughts are not openly expressed in the media at the moment. But even without them we had a campaign with absurd attacks, with fake news, a very right-wing strategy. One of the news sounded like: the prime minister’s wife is actually a man. There were also attacks on personal grounds. With this, it was really impossible to hold a rational debate defending the achievements of this governmen.
What could happen in the national elections? There are still two political blocks awhich re more or less the same. There is no a big shift between groups of voters. But at the moment, we don’t know who is going to win in July. We really don’t know if we can keep the national government as a progressive government or would there be a block of the right and the far right taking power.
From what you say, I assume that the campaign will be very fierce, very dramatic, and in fact, there will be a very small difference between the winner and the defeated. Here I might ask you, what could help the left to be the winner? You mentioned one strategy: to mobilize against the rise of fascism, which is not an not an overinterpretation in case of Spain. What else can be done?
In this few moments we have, another new left project has been launched. It is called Sumar which means ‘Plus’, ‘Add-on’, under the leadership of the Minister of Labour, Yolanda Diaz.
She’s one of the most beloved ministers in the country because of the wonderful labor laws approved by her. She has a very good image in the whole population, not only for the left. So she launched this project, Sumar, an umbrella where all the small regional left parties plus United Left and Podemos go together to the elections. With Sumar, I hope we can keep the left as a broad conception, we can keep some power in the Parliament and we can keep the possibility of stopping the far right. If we don’t go together all together under this umbrella of the Minister of Labour to the elections on the left, the far right will be in the government because of the electoral law. The electoral law in Spain, like in other countries, makes it a plus when you go together. Only in this case here is a possibility of keeping the coalition government and stopping the far right.
The far right and the right need an absolute majority to form a government, because they cannot make alliance with anybody in the parliament. Eeven if they get more votes or more seats in the parliament, if they don’t have a full majority, clearly nobody in the parliament enters a coalition with them. Currently, the government is supported by 6 or 7 different political parties, most of them from Catalonia and the Basque country. And even the right wing parties from Catalonia never support VOX. Working with them is one of the options we have. Nevertheless, if the conservatives and VOX come together, they still might secure a majority. The left, with Sumar, will basically try not to allow this. Sumar is an umbrella project of individuals and political parties with the support of the trade unions, with the labour minister on the head. because it’s the Labor minister. The inability of the right to have alliances in the Parliament gives us a chance to stop fascism in the government, but the danger is real.
The second thing for the left is the question of understanding – and closing down – this competition inside the left. It’s absolutely ridiculous. I mean, it’s not ridiculous in electoral terms, it’s a very bad thing. But for me, ideologically speaking, it is also ridiculous. It’s a very male way of doing things, to fight over who is the leader all the time. We’re in a competition all the time instead of collaboration. I honestly hope that this is a lesson learned from this election. And we can also talk with other friends in Europe not to make the same mistake, which was clearly the reason why we lost the 25% of the votes. Let’s see if this 25% of the vote comes back again under the umbrella of Sumar, led by the minister of labour. That is the strategy we have at the moment.
I think we were able to cover all the most important topics related to the situation in Spain and upcoming elections. So this was our episode related to Spanish politics. Our guest was Marga Ferre, co-president of transform!europe network. We thank you for your time, Marga.
Thank you. Really. Thank you very much.