Spain’s left must unite to steer country on road to recovery

Giles Tremlett for the Guardian

In his restaurant overlooking the Med at Mataró, a few miles north of Barcelona, Ricard Jornet declares himself an insumiso, a rebel who refuses to obey government demands to pay a so-called “tax on sunshine” for an award-winning solar power installation that allows his business to function almost exclusively off sunlight.

The anti-ecological tax on self-produced electricity was pushed through by the conservative People’s party (PP) government of Mariano Rajoy a few weeks before elections in December. “I think they did it deliberately to protect the electricity companies, knowing that it would hold up the installation of solar power in Spain for another few years,” says Jornet, who is just one of many rebelling against the new law. “We are not going to pay.”

In sunny Spain, a country which will spend most of this year in the hands of a caretaker government, it is unlikely that anyone will try to make him.

Jornet had hoped that, since all other parties oppose the law and the PP won just 29% of the December vote, a new government would rapidly overturn it. At those elections, Spaniards smashed the status quo by backing two insurgent parties, theanti-austerity Podemos and the liberal Ciudadanos, to create an unusually fractured parliament.

They wanted something new to replace the antagonistic, all-or-nothing attitude of a two-party system dominated by the PP and the Socialists (PSOE) that also generated a ceaseless flow of corruption scandals. Instead they got gridlock, with politicians both old and new incapable of forming a government.

On Monday, the deadline for reaching a power-sharing deal passed, and another round of elections must now be held in June, forcing people like Jornet to wait a further three or more months for solutions to their problems. Yet a second, expensive round of campaigning may change very little, with polls predicting similar results to December’s vote.

The blame game has already started. The situation was, in fairness, complex. Forming a government required agreements between parties that were far apart on one or both of the twin axes of Spanish politics, which run from left to right and – with Catalonia and other regions in mind – from centralist to separatist. One thing, however, is clear. The left had an opportunity to govern, and did not take it. The price to pay may be another four years of Rajoy and German-imposed austerity. So much for Podemos’s promised “assault on heaven”.

The left’s mistakes have been numerous. Chief among them has been the rivalry between the parties. Podemos wants to replace both the communist-led United Left (IU) and the PSOE as the left’s leading force. The fight to achieve – or resist – that has proved more important than the one to oust Rajoy.

In the December elections, despite forming pacts with other leftwing formations in regions such as Catalonia and Galicia, Podemos did not ally with the IU. This split the far-left vote and, under Spain’s provincial-based electoral system, meant that IU’s million voters were awarded just two out of 350 deputies. Had the two parties stood together, they would have won up to 14 extra seats and forming a government of the left would have been far easier.

That such an electoral coalition was always possible looks set to be proved this week, as the two parties prepare to form one for June. With Podemos showing signs of flagging in the polls this may come too late, even if they jointly overtake the Socialists.

Any leftwing government was always bound to be led by Pedro Sánchez of the PSOE. He had taken his party to one of its worst results ever, but still had the most deputies on the left.

Assembling such a leftwing coalition always looked difficult, but not impossible. A linkup with Podemos required the added backing of the IU but also, via abstentions or active support, that of Catalan and Basque separatists and nationalists. Some of those are rightwing.

Socialist infighting, however, meant that Sánchez’s attempts were doomed from the start. Party bigwigs, led by the Andalusian president, Susana Díaz, banned him from seeking the support of separatists. Attempts to cobble together a government with Podemos and Ciudadanos, which might at least have tackled corruption, brought pointblank refusals from the other two.

The negotiations of the past four months now seem like pure charade, a game played with the sole intention of achieving pole position in the next electoral grand prix. Spain’s voters asked for a coalition, but were ignored.

The impact on the next round of voting is unclear. Many will stay at home. The famously “elastic” vote of the new parties may see them grow or shrink. Either way, the broader spread of votes between left and right looks set to remain similar. If Ciudadanos continues to pick up momentum, a coalition with Rajoy’s PP looks likely. But if Podemos can defy the pollsters, as the party led by pony-tailed Pablo Iglesias has done in the past, a coalition of the left remains possible. A “grand coalition” led by the PP and backed by the Socialists is the other possibility.

While the politicians play games, Spain’s economic problems remain serious. The country is poorer than it was nine years ago, and one in five workers are without a job. Growth is respectable at 3.4% a year, but it is slowing and Rajoy’s claim to provide a safe pair of hands was proved false when he missed the deficit target last year, leaving it at 5%.

Voters are right to insist on a fractured parliament. Negotiated, cross-party deals are exactly what Spain needs to tackle corruption and find long-term strategies to bolster growth. The new “tax on sunshine” reflects both the legislative excesses of an absolute majority and the absurdity of an electricity system made overly expensive by the backwards-and-forwards tinkering of previous governments of all colours. Rajoy claims it prevents poorer consumers who cannot afford solar panels from footing the bill for that.

Exactly what Spain does with its abundant sunshine, as it struggles to help combat climate change, is just one matter that needs long-term planning. Everything from the country’s under-performing education system – where schools must adapt to new curriculum laws with every change of government – to a looming pensions crisis also require agreements across existing political boundaries.

So long as Spanish politicians prove incapable of forming governments or passing legislation, they cannot really claim to represent voters. In the meantime, Jornet and others will continue to rebel. As the saying goes, “no taxation without representation”.

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