The disunited left

Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) is a day for pageantry. Colorful costumes, processions, elaborate tronos (“thrones” shouldered by a dozen or more marchers and bearing the Virgin or other saintly figures) in a tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages, when (we assume) people actually believed in that stuff. This year, it comes as Spain is still trying to assimilate the results of last Sunday's election, which brought mixed effects for another tradition in Spain, at least as old, of rebellion against the combined powers of Church and State. The Socialists (Partido socialista obrero español, PSOE) won enough seats to govern comfortably, but Izquierda Unida (IU, "United Left"), heirs of Spain's Communists, all but disappeared from congress.

At its peak, in 1996, IU won 2,639,774 votes, 10.54% of the total, and 21 seats in congress, making it a major bloc. Last Sunday it got only 963,040 votes, a mere 3.8% of the total, and only 2 congressional seats -- a disaster for the group. Without a minimum of 5 deputies (which they had 2004-2008), IU no longer constitutes a parliamentary "group" with the right to question the president of the government in parliamentary debates.

A large part of IU's difficulty is the electoral system, analyzed here two weeks ago, which makes it almost impossible for a third party that is national, not regional, to win any seats in small provinces (even if they get substantial votes). A second part is the increasing polarization in Spain, the division into two giant parties: PP on the right, PSOE on the left. Because IU sympathizers (especially in the smaller provinces) know that IU candidates can't win, they either stay home or vote PSOE to keep the rightists out. And the third cause is IU's own turbulent, erratic and less-than-united history.

The Partido comunista de España (PCE) was a powerful clandestine force against Franco and came out strong after the dictator's death in 1975. The party was legalized and in 1977 won 1,709,890 votes, over 9% and in 1979 1,938,487 votes, 10.77% of the total. But the sweeping success of the renewed PSOE under Felipe González in 1982 won away more than half its electorate, which dropped to 846,515 votes that year, just 4.02% of the total. To fight back, in 1986 the PCE gathered half a dozen smaller left parties to form IU in 1986, opposed to the PSOE government's decision to join NATO.

The new formation's success contributed to its downfall. The IU's big share of the left vote in 1996 contributed to the defeat of the socialists and the victory of the PP under José María Aznar. IU voters who had thought they were pressuring the Socialists to move further left, found instead that they had allowed the election of a government that increased the power of the Catholic Church, privatized essential industries (including electric power and telephone) to allow private enrichment, cut social programs, and pursued a foreign policy that turned its back on Latin America would eventually follow the U.S. into its war in Iraq.

The next election, 2000, about 1.4 million of those IU voters either stayed home or voted for the PSOE. The IU vote dropped from 10.5% (with 21 deputies) to 5.45% (8 deputies) and has continued to slide. The other parties that had been parts of the original coalition dropped out, leaving the PCE and independents, who blamed each other for the losses. This year the infighting even led to a split in the IU in Valencia, causing it to lose its sole deputy in that province.

Does it matter? I think it does, because the IU represents a substantial body of opinion in Spain, more than its roughly 4% of the vote -- which is itself substantial, nearly a million voters. And the combination of a skewed electoral system, bad strategic decisions a dozen years ago, and continued infighting leaves those voters unrepresented. Can they save and renew IU? Even the IU's biggest vote-getter and sole mayor of a major city, Rosa Aguilar of Córdoba, is doubtful. Can they form a new, truly "united" left party? Almost impossible under the present electoral system, and with a rightwing party so threateningly close to power. Or can they do what many leftists have tried to do in the U.S., work from within the major, less offensive party, in this case the PSOE? That seems like the most viable path for now.

Other events that merit analysis:

> Three more women were murdered by their partners or ex-partners this week, reminding us of the huge problem of violence and other abuse directed against women. See Nearly 2 million women suffer some sort of abuse in Spain (in Spanish)

> An extremely conservative, extremely Catholic young hotshot politician, former lieutenant governor of Palma (PP, of course), was caught by anti-corruption police (looking for money laundering) after spending neary 50,000€ on a city credit card in gay brothels. Reminds us of a certain recent governor of New York -- with two big differences. First, the New York governor was spending his own money, and second, in Spain the courts decided NOT to publicize this until AFTER the election so as not to affect the campaign.

> Spain's peculiar housing crisis. Stay tuned.