My apologies for failing to deliver last week’s scheduled essay on Spain – other things came up that had to take priority. To compensate, today I offer not two essays, but one on two aspects of the intense contest for the elections scheduled for March 9. The right-wing Partido Popular is still behind in the polls, but rapidly gaining ground on the governing Socialists. And they (the PP) will stop at nothing to gain a few more percentage points, exploiting every stratagem and, of course, misrepresenting everything (quite a lot, in fact) that the Socialist government has accomplished in this legislature.
The first dramatic new twist has been the Catholic Church’s vigorous irruption into the campaign on the side of the PP, creating dilemmas for both sides. The second is the Partido Popular’s latest stratagem to steal votes from the Socialist Party base, its (so-far, verbal) assault on immigrants.
First, a quick historical summary to understand who the players are.
Spain, at the beginning of the 20th century one of Western Europe’s most backward countries, began its exuberant entry into the modern world in 1931. That was when the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), after half a century of struggle, and its allies, including the newer Communist Party and most liberal intellectuals, won elections and proclaimed the Second Republic – i.e., a democratic polity without a king. Democracy, land-reform, equal rights for women, and modern secular education were among the novelties, mobilizing workers, peasants and urban middle-class people who never before had had much to say about how they were governed. The Civil War (1936-39) and the triumph of Francisco Franco’s falangistas undid all of that, and Franco’s regime tried to set the country back into the structures of domination of the 19th and even earlier centuries. It was only after his death in 1975 that the process could begin again. After a confused and highly conflictive interim, a revived and invigorated PSOE led by Felipe González swept the first democratic national elections. González was re-elected President of the Government for four terms (1982-1996), usually by wide margins.
Meanwhile, the conservative opposition regrouped as the “Alianza Popular” which later transformed itself into the Partido Popular. It was not really “popular,” that is, of the common people, the working-class majority. Rather it included military officers trained in Franco-ist authoritarianism, organizations of civilian fascists and racists nostalgic for the old Franco regime, forward-thinking and even liberal entrepreneurs who considered socialism bad for business (especially their business), conservative Catholics who associated socialism with persecution of the Church, and all those opposed to one or another of the Socialist government’s many social reforms, whether in labor, gender, pedagogical or regional autonomy issues. From the beginning, the only things that held this disparate group together were opposition to the Socialists (but for the most varied and contradictory reasons) and the desire for power – that is, the Party is mainly a tactical alliance for winning elections, sort of like other parties we know.
The PP has always been hampered by its own in-fighting and by the bad reputation of some of its elements, but finally, in 1996, after a scandal involving secret police operations against the Basque ETA, it got its chance and won national election. Its leader, José María Aznar, even won re-election in 2000, serving until 2004. In that year, after massive protests against his involvement of Spain in Bush’s war in Iraq, followed by widespread disgust over government deceptions about the bloody bombing of the Atocha train station (see my article, Historic reversal: Bombs & ballots in Spain), the PP lost and the PSOE, now led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, returned to power.
I’m reminding us of this history so that we keep in mind that the PSOE is a very deeply-rooted Spanish party, with a history of trade union and even military combativeness and commanding the loyalties of a very large part of the Spanish population, in every province. The PP, which claims to represent the most ancient Spanish values, is barely 25 years old and is still mostly an alliance of political opportunists, outright fascists, entrenched and corrupt local political bosses, and that dwindling minority of Spaniards who take the Church’s word as Holy Gospel. For example, in Murcia, 14 of the 19 or so mayors on trial for corruption (requalifying unqualifiable land as "urbanizable" for juicy kickbacks from real estate developers) are members of the PP; the Socialists have a few bad apples, too, very few, considering the temptations available to mayors in Spain's frenzied development boom. For the PP mayors, kick-backs and perks seem to be the norm and the reason for running for office. But all that is old news. For the past few months, the PP has begun to act like a Vatican front organization.
The Spanish bishops' outright denunciation of one political party -- the Socialists, of course -- and impassioned declarations that if you vote for it, you are not a good Catholic, has created quite a stir and lots of funny cartoons. The PSOE reacted indignantly, but on second thought, may not really mind. It's the other guys, the PP, who look embarassed by this unsolicited endorsement. They want the hard-core Catholic vote, but they can't afford to look like a hard-core Catholic party, because that will scare away more people than it attracts.
Does Europe have a soul? And is Spain its special guardian, against the threats of foreign doctrines and foreign peoples?
The honchos of Spain’s PP seem to think so. Although in campaign speeches they fudge the theology (to win the national elections on March 9, they will need many votes of non- Catholics), they hint broadly that Europe’s soul is God-given and that Spain is where it lives in purest form. And the big threat is all those foreigners.
In summary, PP presidential candidate Mariano Rajoy has announced that if elected (Heaven forfend!), he will demand that prospective immigrants sign a "contract" that they will obey all Spanish laws, strive to learn the language, and adopt "Spanish customs." The first is institutionally superfluous -- everybody is Spain is already required to obey the law, though not everybody does, and those who don't are as likely to be Spaniards as foreigners. The second, learning the language, is also unnecessary; those immigrants come here to make a living, and they know that to do that they have to speak Spanish, or in Catalunya, Spanish and Catalan. And the last point, adopting "Spanish customs," has been a source of great hilarity and more cartoons (see above, by Peridis). Which Spanish customs? immigrant workers ask. Knocking off work early, spitting on the floor, midday siestas? (Actually, spitting here isn't all that common, but if it happens at all some of the immigrants find it especially repulsive).
Then last night Rajoy dropped another bomb, or let loose another peo (fart): he would take away the right of homosexual couples to adopt children. That right was granted by the legislature and is now Spanish law. This is the first time since Franco that a major politician has proposed eliminating already instituted rights.
If Spain does have a soul, it has one in the same sense that you and I have one: not something eternal and given by some deity with designs of his/its own, but a character, a way of thinking, a set of responses that help us deal with everything we have to deal with. A "self," as discussed in earlier notes here. And in Spain, both parties are parts of that self, and the PSOE is the better part. Boy, I hope they win. It's important not just for Spain, but all of Europe --especially as an example of enlightened immigration policy, gender equality, sexual orientation equality, workers' rights. I hope the rose in the fist wins against the cardinal's mitre and the whip.