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Spain did not swing to the right, the left collapsed | Ignacio Escolar

Spanish voters felt betrayed by the left’s response to financial crisis. Its future is tied up with the evolution of the economy

On 20 November 2011, Spain’s Popular party (PP) won the general election with the most absolute majority ever won by the Spanish right in democratic times. The left collapsed. The Socialist party (PSOE) lost a third of its seats and 38% of its voters in its worst result since 1933. Of the 4 million voters to abandon the Socialists, only 600,000 did so for the United Left (IU) – a coalition led by the Communist party.

It is, without doubt, payback for the economic crisis; part of the same wave that has swept the majority of leftwing governments from power in Europe. Has the crisis caused Spanish society to shift to the right, or is it that the left has been stranded without discourse and without ideas? In truth, the answer is more complicated than these two oft-repeated cliches.

The election results reveal that the conservative absolute majority is not built on the unstoppable rise of the right. Mariano Rajoy, the new prime minister, won 10.8m votes in the November election, only 500,000 more than in 2008, when he lost to José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Opinion polls do not show an ideological shift to the right either. According to the Centre for Sociological Investigations, the majority of Spaniards describe themselves as centre-left, ahead of right or centre-right. Rajoy’s landslide at the polls was down to the abstention and break-up of the left, not the growth of his social base.

So what caused the electoral collapse of the Spanish left? It’s a problem of supply, not of demand: in government the left was incapable of living up to the ideas and discourse of its voters. During the years of the property bubble, the PSOE embraced liberal economic policies, especially in terms of taxation. “Lowering taxes is of the left,” Zapatero frivolously declared as he introduced numerous tax cuts that greatly benefited the upper classes. Then came the recession, and Zapatero was slow to react, lost in an absurd semantic debate about the word “crisis”.

The point of no return came on 12 May 2010, when the prime minister, cornered by the pressure of the markets on Spanish bonds, announced the biggest public spending cuts in Spain’s history. Instead of looking for a social democratic way forward, Zapatero utterly embraced liberal recipes to resolve the crisis. Instead of putting taxes for the richest back up, he cut workers’ pay. Instead of tapping the profits of the banking sector, he froze pensions.

Did Zapatero have an alternative? There was without doubt space for other policies, even in the context of the austerity imposed from Europe. But how to apply policies of the left in the midst of the crisis, in a globalised economy and in a European Union where most states are governed by conservative parties? Zapatero’s cuts were seen by a huge number of those who had elected him as an intolerable betrayal. Voters turned their back on the PSOE. If the only way out of the crisis was to support the right, then better the original than a copy.

The rigid institutional design of the EU, the European Central Bank and the euro – the only currency without its own treasury – has converted the countries of southern Europe into nations without economic sovereignty and indebted in a currency they don’t control, as was Argentina with the dollar. Britain can devalue the pound or print more money: generate inflation and so reduce the weight of its debt. In Spain, without the peso, it is people, salaries, the welfare state and workers’ rights that are devalued.

The real problem is common to all the European left: the fiscal joy of the bubble years and national governments’ lack of autonomy. The discourse is not wrong, but its application is impossible. There is no swing to the right, but the destruction of the left. It’s not political theory but its practice. It cannot be true that the same welfare state that paid for (the recovery of) broken, ruined postwar Europe is today an unsustainable utopia.

The future of the left in Spain will depend on two things: its ability to ally the interests of the middle and lower classes, a tough challenge in a country frightened – the most pessimistic in terms of when we might emerge from the crisis, according to the Eurobarometer – and with 22% unemployment; and the evolution of the economy.

Rajoy has come to power as Spain enters a second recession, worse still than the first. No optimism is possible, at least for a couple of years. Despite the fear of the majority of the public, there will also be street protests – the 15M Indignados movement is there – and they will gather momentum if the penance of the cuts doesn’t lead to paradise at the end of the crisis.

If the economy recovers, PP can look forward to a long period of hegemony that will only be broken if it makes serious mistakes. If the crisis continues, it’s not impossible to imagine that Rajoy might serve only one term in office. But if the PSOE and the other parties of the left aren’t able to win back the public’s trust, the next Spanish prime minister could turn out to be a technocrat such as Monti or a populist such as Berlusconi. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds