Which way is Left? (2) - The Spanish exception

José Vidal-Beneyto is a Spanish sociologist (b. 1929 in Valencia) long resident in France, author of a dozen or more books on mass communications and politics, and a frequent columnist in Spain's most prestigious daily El País (of which he is a co-founder). Recently (10 and 17 November) he contributed two articles lamenting the "Izquierda en desbandada" -- "The Left in a rout," routed from the battlefield by the merciless Right of global capital, consumerism and the defeatism of "There Is No Alternative." Nowhere (in his view, which is mainly of Western Europe) does the Left have a credible, coherent program able to mobilize citizenry against the terrible destruction wrought by global capitalism against the environment, human health, and personal freedoms. Britain's New Labor is reduced to vague electoral liberalism, Germany's SPD is hopelessly divided and adrift, and France's Parti socialiste is in low-intensity civil war after the debâcle of the last elections.

Because he is writing in El País one would assume he is also thinking of Spain, though the authors he cites are mostly French. However the contrast between France and Spain is more dramatic than he is willing to acknowledge. In Spain, the Left has hardly been routed by the enemy but is the national government, and its program of action is still credible enough to rally large numbers, maybe even a majority, of voters.

As in France, the Spanish Left is comprised of multiple groupings with their own histories, traditions and programs, making Left politics a matter of continuous negotiation and frequent compromise to secure a majority in Parliament or to win an election. In Spain, certainly, and in France too, I suppose, far more people identify themselves as "left" than "right," but they don't always vote the same way or even vote at all. Nevertheless the Partido Socialista Obrero Español has been able to win elections more often than any other party in post-Franco democracy: Felipe González in four successive elections (1982, 1986, 1989 and 1993) and, after a 2-term hiatus under the Right, the current government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, elected 14 March 2004. This gives the PSOE enormous authority in those negotiations with other left-leaning formations.

Opinion polls give the PSOE a continuing though narrowing lead over its main rival, the Partido Popular, for the coming (2008) elections: 39.7% to 37.4%. Whether this is enough will depend mainly on the PSOE's ability to win the votes of left-leaners who don't agree with everything they've done or even much like them. Those who think the PSOE is moving too slowly and timidly on social issues may want to vote for Izquierda Unida, whose deputies (members of parliament) would at least give conditioned support to a new Socialist government. However in IU the once-powerful Communist Party is fighting for control against non-communist radicals; the factionalism has become so ugly that IU's usual voters may just stay home. Left nationalists in Catalonia usually vote for Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia -- "republican" here means anti-monarchical), which is currently allied with the Socialists in both the Catalonian and national governments; but party scandals and erratic pronouncements by ERC's leaders may reduce their voter turnout, too, meaning a drop in the total left vote.

The PSOE still has two great strengths, one proactive and the other reactive. The first is the series of social measures enacted under the present government, including the legalization of homosexual marriages, the provision of sizable subsidies to assist seriously ill or disabled persons or their supporters, gender equality in elective office, pay, paternity-maternity leave etc., and other generally popular measures. The reactive strength is the strength of repulsion of the hard-right hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the ridiculous spectacle of exaggerations, outright lies, and antidemocratic political maneuvers, some of them extremely clumsy, of the so-called Popular Party. The PP's unreconstructed reactionariness may just be enough to drive those other leftists to the polls, to hold their noses and vote PSOE to keep the likes of Ángel Acebes, Eduardo Zaplana and the unspeakable Mayor Oreja out of their lives. More on that formation, the PP, in future notes. It deserves the same kind of dissection that Karl Mannheim brought to German conservatism in his 1925 study.