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Spain’s current political impasse

October 13, 2016

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Yesterday, 12 October 2016, I took part in a seminar titled “Resolving Spain’s political deadlock” held at my home institution, RMIT University, in Melbourne. I presented alongside Marta Poblet and Antonio Castillo, both from RMIT. We each spoke for about 15 minutes and there was a lively discussion with the attendees. Here’s a blurb announcing the event:

Spain’s political deadlock continues… In this seminar, Spanish and Australian experts from the Centre for Communication, Politics and Culture (CPC), the Digital Ethnography Research Centre (DERC) and the European Union (EU) Centre at RMIT University, will make an attempt at unlocking some of the issues behind the political crisis in Spain and its impact.

And here is a rough version of my handwritten presentation notes, pictured above (with many thanks to Elisenda Ardevol, Arnau Monterde, Ismael Peña-López, Laura Pérez Rastrilla and Annalisa Piñas for their views and suggested readings prior to the talk – any errors and omissions related to these responses are my own).


Seen from a Spanish civil society perspective, the current political impasse in Spain arguably the third in an ongoing series that started in 2004 with the Madrid bombings, followed in 2011 by the 15M (indignados) protests and now in 2015-2016 as a result of the irruption of two young political parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos, onto the parliamentary scene, putting an end to the till now seemingly eternal two-party arrangement by the Conservatives (PP) and Socialists (PSOE). All three have contributed to the end of the ‘PPSOE’ (to use a favourite 15M term) duopoly we have witnessed since the Dec 2015 general elections.

At stake is the end of what the Catalan journalist Guillem Martinez calls Spain’s ‘transition culture’ (Cultura de la Transición, or CT): the post-Franco regime based on a broad consensus among the main political parties (from right across the ideological spectrum) and trade unions around territorial integrity, regional autonomies, fighting ETA, joining the European Community and NATO — with a ‘market economy’ as the only possible economic system. In exchange for a place at the top table, the political left deactivated its mobilisation power, whilst the leftist cultural sector blunted its critical edge so as to secure state subsidies. The outcome was stability, a docile population and substandard cultural products. As a sociocultural anthropologist I cannot but be drawn to Martinez’s CT model.

I argued that there are 5 main forces for change in Spain, in no particular order:

  1. Podemos, now 3rd party, yet lost votes in second election when joined United Left = Unidos Podemos. Current dispute between Pablo Iglesias faction (pablistas) and his deputy Íñigo Errejón faction (errejonistas). Iglesias the upper hand at present, took a leftist turn, went down to grassroots (circles) and reasserted his charismatic leadership. Meanwhile Errejón reeling from aborted ‘coup’ and his moderate stance towards PSOE now discredited given that PSOE seem ready to abstain so that the Conservative (PP) leader can become once again PM (see Esther Palomera analysis, 10 Oct 2016, in Spanish).
  2. New local governments rooted in 15M (indignados) movement in Madrid, Barcelona and other major cities. Extraordinary democracy labs, social justice agenda, trying to curtail worst of neolib capitalism. Not a lot of people know about them outside Spain. Important not to reduce politics to national level.
  3. Occupational or industry-specific movements known as ‘tides’ (mareas), e.g. health, education, etc. born once again from the 15M protests and filling the gap left a long time ago by co-opted trade unions like UGT or CC.OO. – though some argue that they haven’t achieved much (text in English).
  4. Politicised nerds, polnerds for short, i.e. people who like to mix their politics with their tech, aka freedom technologists. Spain boasts an extraordinarily vibrant techno-political scene, with a large variety of initiatives in four main domains of political action: digital rights, social protest, data activism and institutional politics, e.g. former activists like Gala Pin or Pablo Soto who are now local councillors or political newbies (in English).
  5. Catalan secessionists, a grassroots mass movement (like Scotland) that kicked off in earnest in 2010. PP viscerally anti-Catalan, PSOE too dependent on Southern voters to contemplate concessions to Catalan national aspirations, Podemos is unionist but accepts notion of pluri-national state, open to federal model. Secessionists currently in power at the regional level, calling for referendum on self-determination, but always thwarted by Madrid.

… pitted against 4 status quo forces:

  1. PP (Spain’s Conservatives) led by Rajoy. Corruption scandal ridden, now finally reaching the courts, after backbreaking efforts by techno-political activists, or polnerds. By millions of Spaniards, and against all the evidence, seen as the only guarantors of stability of economic growth, and the only party able to keep the allegedly Marxist-Bolivarista threat of Podemos at bay.
  2. PSOE (Socialists):  excellent piece (in Spanish) by historian Juan Andrade, 3 Oct 2016: current leadership crisis, with abrupt departure of leader Pedro Sanchez, is 1978 regime crisis (see CT above) – PSOE weakened in regions, too dependent on Southern voters who against plurinational model of Spanish state favoured by Podemos – old regime now coming to an end based on PP-PSOE consensus on fundamental issues but faux ideological bickering – PSOE has imploded – in both 1979 and 2016, Felipe Gonzalez in the thick of it, key to both – crisis caused by rapid ascent of youthful force from the left then and now (Podemos) – conflict between those who don’t acknowledge Podemos and those unsure what to do – Sanchez tried nostalgic return to old, pre-15M regime, wishful thinking about going back in time – though relatively young, his change discourse not persuasive, too contrived.
  3. Tamed, co-opted, corrupt trade unions (see above).
  4. New centre-right, neolib party Ciudadanos, led by Albert Rivera, Catalan but staunchly anti-secessionist. Presenting themselves as the equally youthful, non-threatening answer to Podemos, in reality they are just the old 1978 regime in new garb.

Cartoon credit: Pedripol


3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2016 1:22 pm

    Approximative analysis with some “tics”, like the expression:”the old 1978 regime” to design the Constitutional democratic consensus of most of the Spaniards. It is not so old and it is not a regime. And by the way, the votes obtained by the secessionists in the last autonomic elections in Catalonia were less that the votes obtained by the non-secessionists. Just something you should mention.

    The Podemos ideas and inspirations, these, yes, these are really old, these have many times in the past conducted European societies to really disastrous regimes (regimes in the sense of regiments or “regimientos”).

    By the way, why don’t analyse any political program and you limit your notes to collect etiquettes, stereotypes. On which real proposals and concrete measures of Ciudadanos dare you to say that they are “just the old 1978 regime in new garb”? They have a refreshing program, but in line with the Spanish Constitution and this is correct including proposals to make adaptations for the new challenges (do you have another idea of Constitution for Spain, maybe the so successful one of Venezuela?) In fact they are attacked with the same factious arguments with which the extinct UPyD was attacked. These are the mantras used by people like Pablo Iglesias who wants to “politizar el dolor” (to be read as “manipulate pain). This is “just the old populism in new garb”. As Chico Marx said “these are my principles and if you don’t like them… well, I have others”. Is this something new? You know what may educated individuals in Spain are thinking on Podemos? Exactly the same as more or less Abraham Lincoln said: “you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time”.

    The core of our problems in Spain the people who shouts louder follows only factious sentiments and are unable of comparing arguments and reasoned proposals. Everybody hear what he/she wants to hear, only from is/her own side. We are contaminated by a deleterious atmosphere of backbiting.

  2. October 21, 2016 10:58 pm

    Many thanks ensondeluz, lots to respond to in your post. The perils of sharing quick notes. I’ll give it some thought when I find the time and get back to you.


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