The Left Option

Ernest Urtasun

Today, there's a real chance Unidos Podemos will become the most important force in Spanish politics. What do they stand for?

Interview by
Chris Maisano

Last December, voters in the Spanish state struck a decisive blow against the “Regime of ’78” — the two-party system controlled by the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) and the center-right Popular Party (PP) since the fall of Franco.

While the PP maintained its position as the first force in Spanish politics, the real story was the collapse of the once-mighty PSOE and the rise of Podemos, which won over 20 percent of the vote in its first national election and came within striking distance of the social democrats. With the new liberal formation Ciudadanos garnering close to 14 percent of the vote, the political system was split four ways and negotiations to form a new coalition government repeatedly failed.

Today, Spanish voters return to the polls to resolve the deadlock, and there is every indication that the result will be historic. Recent polls show that Unidos Podemos, a recently-formed alliance including Podemos, the United Left (IU), Equo (a party of left ecologists), and various regional parties, is posed to overtake the PSOE and become the leading force on the Spanish left.

While the composition of a new government remains difficult to predict, there is a distinct possibility that Unidos Podemos will lead a new government of the left with the support of the PSOE and various regionalist parties. Such an result would have been unthinkable as recently as 2014, when Podemos was formally established as the main political expression of the Movimiento 15-M against austerity, inequality, and corruption.

To help us understand the dynamics driving the election and its potential outcomes, Jacobin editor Chris Maisano interviewed Ernest Urtasun, a Member of European Parliament from the Initiative for Catalonia Greens (ICV), a Catalonia-based member of the Unidos Podemos alliance. Their discussion addresses a number of important issues besides the electoral race: the possibility of progressive reform through the eurozone, the question of Catalan self-determination, and the potential political implications of Brexit, among others.

Chris Maisano

Spain just held elections six months ago in December. What happened then, and why are the voters heading back to the polls today?

Ernest Urtasun

Spain was used to a very stable political system after the end of the dictatorship. Since the late 1970s, we had a two-party system. The major parties were the social democrats (PSOE), and the conservatives (PP) alternating in government, but there was never, for instance, a coalition government. What happened with the 2010 economic crisis is that the political system completely changed, and we have two new forces emerging — Podemos, the force with whom I work, and Ciudadanos, which is a kind of liberal party.

That was totally new, and in the last four months, the four parties were totally unable to find a compromise government. The main problem was that there were two possibilities for government. First, there was the so-called “Grand Coalition” between the social democrats, and the conservatives, but that suggestion in Spanish politics, and particularly for the social democrats, is very unpopular. Second, there was another possibility, which was an agreement between the social democrats and Podemos, the social democrats rejected that possibility because they preferred to have an agreement with the liberals.

In parliament we now had a completely new situation — a four-party political system — and agreement was not possible. That is why we go back to the polls today.

Chris Maisano

Why were the social democrats not willing to enter into coalition with the Popular Party?

Ernest Urtasun

There is a culture of having big coalitions like that in other countries, for instance, in Germany, the current government is composed of both main parties. But in Spain there has been a huge confrontation between the social democrats and conservatives in recent years. Particularly, the members of the PSOE and their voters absolutely reject that option.

It was difficult for the current leadership to take that decision even though there was a lot of pressure from the part of the social democrats that are more linked to the economic power in Spain and the big newspaper El País, and the former president, Felipe González, who are pushing for that option. The current leadership couldn’t swallow that, because for their members, and for their voters, that is absolutely rejected. If any leader of the PSOE would take that option, it will have a huge political cost for them.

We are not in a context where you can have that agreement like in Germany. The divide between left and right in Spain is still very deep.

Chris Maisano

That’s a legacy of the Civil War period and the Franco regime?

Ernest Urtasun

Well, I think probably in cultural terms, yes. The conservatives in Spain are a party that are directly created by members of the former regime. They are directly linked from an historical point-of-view to the regime. Of course, that divide is still important. In the near future, I wouldn’t say it’s absolutely impossible to imagine that the social democrats, and the conservatives would form a government, but for the PSOE, it will have a big political cost.

Chris Maisano

In today’s election, United Left — which, your party, the Initiative for Catalonia Greens (ICV) is part of — and Podemos decided to join forces. Can you explain how and why those two formations entered into coalition?

Ernest Urtasun

Here, there are two different kind of agreements. In Catalonia, since the last elections we are already one single list between ICV, United Left, and Podemos. And everybody was in the coalition, so that worked very well. But on the other hand, at the Spanish level it was not possible for Podemos and United Left to form that coalition at that point.

Chris Maisano

Why was it easier to do it in Catalonia, but not Spain as a whole?

Ernest Urtasun

I think that there was a problem of understanding between the current leadership of Podemos and United Left, because Podemos was a newly created party. There were a lot of people in Podemos that actually came from United Left to form the party. Also, at the beginning in that election, I think there was a need for Podemos to become a so-called, “catch-all” formation not directly linked to the former political spectrum of which United Left is part. That’s why it wasn’t possible to have an agreement at the Spanish level.

On the contrary, at the level of Catalonia there was already an experience of all of us working together in the municipality of Barcelona, where we created the list, and in 2015 we managed to win the municipal elections. Also, there was previous work already being done in terms of working together between the different forces. Of course, the presence of ICV as a party that was building bridges between the two worlds helped a lot. That’s why we had a coalition in Catalonia, and not in the rest of Spain.

Now, the new thing is that we now have a coalition also in Spain as a whole. This is a big development. In the Spanish electoral system, when you are a small political force like United Left, you can win 1.5 million votes but still get very few seats. If you add these 1.5 million votes to the votes of Podemos, it creates a multiplier effect in terms of seats.

That is one of the reasons why we now expect to become the second largest force in Spain. I think the effort to create this coalition was made both by Alberto Garzón, the leader of United Left, and Pablo Iglesias jointly. They wanted to create a better political environment in order to try to win the election. That is now the current situation. We have both the coalitions in Catalonia, and the rest of Spain, and that is very positive.

Chris Maisano

What are the main points of the coalition’s election program?

Ernest Urtasun

First, we will have a very difficult time with our budgetary negotiations with Brussels. That is going to be hard, because the former Spanish government had agreed to a deficit target of 3 percent for this year. This is due to the Stability Pact at the European level and a fiscal reform made by the Spanish government — which reduced taxes on the rich. Now we are in a situation where we have to negotiate with Brussels to not have sanctions imposed, because the current deficit is much higher than the 3 percent target.

The first thing we will need to do is to renegotiate the fiscal target, and one of the Unidos Podemos proposals is that we cannot reach 3 percent next year as the other parties want to do. We are saying that we need two years to do that, because we don’t want to do more social cuts like the current government has imposed. That is one key thing in our political platform.

We also want to do fiscal reform and reintroduce taxes that have been withdrawn by the previous government. For instance, we want to reinstate the inheritance tax. We want the property tax back, which has been withdrawn in many regions in Spain, and we want higher taxation for the rich. With this these reforms, we think that we can have a better environment to renegotiate our fiscal targets with Brussels.

We also think that with this fiscal reform, we will have enough funds to do an investment program of around 60 billion euros. The plan will focus on what we call a “social emergency plan,” which tackles the basic needs of housing and food for the most vulnerable populations.

Of course, we also have a set of proposals around transparency and ending corruption in Spain, which has been a systemic problem in the last years.

Third, and I think this is a vital part of our program, is how to deal with the question of Catalonia. Both Podemos and United Left are the national parties that are actually defending Catalonia’s right to hold a referendum on independence. We are not for independence. We favor a kind of federal solution with constitutional changes where we can recognize that, in Spain, there are actually different nations with different languages, but this plurality needs to be constitutionally recognized. But we think that Catalonia has the right to the referendum.

Chris Maisano

What about the European Union and eurozone? The experience of Syriza, in particular, shows rather dramatically the role that “Europe” has played in beating back the program of left-wing parties that enter office. In general, what is the coalition’s orientation to the question of the EU and eurozone?

Ernest Urtasun

Our platform, in relation to the eurozone, is that the Maastricht Treaty in 1991 was a mistake, because it created the monetary union without certain necessary fiscal elements. This means that we are a monetary union without common automatic stabilizers, and without a common budget that can absorb isometric shocks.

That is a fundamental misconception of what a monetary union should be. For instance, take the bankruptcy of California some years ago. The impact was not that big, because in the United States you have a very strong federal budget, and you have as well automatic stabilizers, and then those kind of situations can be easily absorbed.

That’s not the case in our countries where the member state is absolutely left alone when it has a huge financial crisis, and they have no support at all from Brussels. The support that we have had has basically been an International Monetary Fund-led bailout program with a micro-economic conditionality. We know how that works, and how the IMF works, and that those programs also impose pro-cyclical measures that ultimately are a disaster. That’s what happened in Greece.

We are not happy at all in how the eurozone is currently functioning. Our platform proposes to complete the eurozone.

We favor the creation of a strong federal budgetary level with enough capacity to absorb these isometric shocks. We favor the creation of automatic stabilizers. For instance, we think a common unemployment scheme at the European level is absolutely necessary.

Also, we have a strong position in terms of the need to go for further democratization of the governance of the eurozone. At the moment we have an institution, the Eurogroup, that is not accountable at all — not even at the European Parliament where I work. We need to go further into democratization of the governance of the eurozone at the level of the European Central Bank, and the Eurogroup, mainly.

Those are some of the proposals, and we would like to go to that direction. We believe that after what happened in Greece this is necessary.

Chris Maisano

So the coalition does not support breaking with either the eurozone or the European Union?

Ernest Urtasun

No, that is not the position of the platform. Our platform is pro-European, and in favor of further integration. We have an understanding that the eurozone as it stands cannot survive, so those reforms that I just mentioned are absolutely necessary and urgent. We don’t favor the breakaway of the eurozone, because that would have much worse consequences in our understanding.

Chris Maisano

What does the coalition hope will be the outcome of the election? Obviously, you hope to get the best result possible, but in terms of the  governing coalition, what is your goal? Do you want to form a broad government of the Left as in Portugal?

Ernest Urtasun

Portugal is a good model of what we would like to do. We have been saying during the whole campaign that we want to form a government with the social democrats. We believe that is what we need to do.

Recent polls show that together with the Socialist Party we could be near 170 members of parliament. A majority requires 175 members — we are very, very close. A coalition with the social democrats, with the external support of some of the regional parties, could actually be possible. That is what we favor.

I think we are clear on that. If one political force has been very open on what kind of agreements in government would like to do after the election, it has been us. The problem is that on the side of the social democrats, the answer is not clear and we don’t know what their intentions are. Whether they want to go for that, or whether they want to try to make a coalition with the conservatives, or try God knows what. We don’t know.

Chris Maisano

If the social democrats do agree to enter into coalition with Unidos Podemos and regional parties, do you think the PSOE will be a roadblock to implementing your program? What sort of role do you think the social democrats would play in a governing coalition, aside from just mathematically getting it to the point where it can take office?

Ernest Urtasun

During the last [Socialist] Zapatero government that lasted until 2011, many of its decisions, especially in the economic field, were extremely negative. It went as far as making a constitutional change at the level of the parliament to impose a golden rule for the repayment of the debt before any other spending at the state level. These were disastrous reforms.

I think there has been a process of self-criticism in the Socialist Party of what was done during that time, and I think that if we manage to form a coalition government it wouldn’t be that difficult to agree on a common platform for new economic development. We share many things. We have differences as well. For instance, we want to withdraw the two labor reforms. We agree on withdrawing of the last labor reform made by the PP. However, we would like to withdraw the labor reform that the social democrats did when they were in government in 2010 — that’s more controversial.

Chris Maisano

Can you describe the nature of those labor reforms?

Ernest Urtasun

When there was the recent economic crash in Spain, the policy that the Troika imposed — and the social democrats and conservatives both accepted — was that Spain could only get out of the crisis through a massive wage devaluation. That wage devaluation was done through these two reforms, which dismantled collective agreements at the sectoral level, which weakens the role of the unions.

The laws also reduced the payment a worker receives when he or she is dismissed. Now, we have a labor market that is much more precarious, where labor rights have much less protection than they used to have before 2010. That was, basically, the intention.

The first labor reform of the social democrats was quite tough. The second one was even tougher, but actually, that is a European policy. If you see what is happening right now in France, the government wants to do what’s already been done in Spain, which is to dismantle the power of unions to defend salaries.

That is one big difference, but to go back to your question, I think the social democrats will make a historic choice after the election. If they agree to join with us, they will stay a left-wing force, driving for change in Spain. Whereas, if they decide not to join us they will most probably follow the path of the social democrats in Greece, which means fully becoming a social liberal party that makes agreements with the Right. They will probably lose the majority of their electoral base. That’s a choice they will have to make next week.

Chris Maisano

Tell us about the Initiative for Catalonia Greens’s ideological and political development.

Ernest Urtasun

The roots of the ICV go back to struggle against Franco in the 1970s. The root is basically the old Catalan Communist Party, which had its roots in the Eurocommunist movement and was very much aligned with what the Italian Communist Party’s orientation. It was a kind of democratic communism. Immediately before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, that party decided to enlarge its scope to try to become a broader political force, including some socialists, some ecologists, and some left-wing Catalan Nationalists. Out of that the ICV was created.

The Initiative adopted the so-called eco-socialist platform. The new party defined itself as left-green, and in the late 1990s it became a member of the European Green Party. We are a party coming from the Left, but which is now a member of the European Green Party. Myself, I’m a member of the European Parliament, and then I’m member of the Green faction of the European Parliament.

That party was the strongest party of the alternative left in Catalonia until three years ago when both Podemos, and Barcelona en Comú appeared. These new parties came very much out from the grassroots movements. What ICV decided basically to do was to immediately open up to these social movements. We didn’t want to just keep the party as it was established. We quickly understood that the political landscape was changing, that Podemos and Barcelona en Comú were here to bring a new dynamism on the Left. And so we immediately entered negotiations with them.

The first coalition, and process, that we made with those new movements was the candidacy of Ada Colau, who managed to win election as mayor of Barcelona one year ago. Now, we are part of this new movement of Barcelona en Comú of Unidos Podemos. We are part of this broader movement that probably will become the second political force in Spain today.

Chris Maisano

You said before that Unidos Podemos, at a national level, does not support independence for Catalonia. Within Catalonia, what has traditionally been the ICV’s orientation to that question? How does it relate to those forces within Catalonia like the CUP that support independence?

Ernest Urtasun

We have always defended Catalonia’s right to self-determination. That’s our party’s policy, but we have favored a federal or confederal solution to the relationship between Catalonia and the rest of Spain. Even though there have always been members in the party that favor independence, this was always a minority position. As a party, we have always supported the federal or confederal solution while backing the right of self-determination.

The difference with the CUP, basically, is that while we are united in favor of self-determination, they are openly pro-independence. Our common goal is to get to a process of self-determination.

In the last year, to tell the truth, we have had a political divide, because the pro-independence parties in Catalonia decided to launch a process of unilateral independence through a regional election that they wanted to turn into referendum election. We have always said that this process cannot start without a proper referendum, without democratic guarantees, and we have always criticized that unilateral independence was actually a non-existent political choice.

I think that for Catalonia, the solution, of course, is to do a referendum, and in that respect we share the objective with the other independence parties. What is important is that in Spain, we never had an important political force to support the right of Catalan self-determination, but now we have one. Unidos Podemos supports the referendum and will make that idea prominent at the national level. Of course, in that referendum, what ICV and Unidos Podemos would favor is a constitutional change in order to recognize the plural nationality of the Spanish state.

Chris Maisano

When we talk about Unidos Podemos, we’re talking about two very different formations with unique organizational cultures and political perspectives. What sorts of tensions have developed as a result of the coalition, both within IU, and between IU and Podemos?

Ernest Urtasun

I would say that during the campaign we haven’t really seen tensions. Of course, United Left has a more traditional left-wing profile — they wave their republican flags and like to have a more classic stance on some matters. But it’s more a way of how you present things, because in terms of proposals, both United Left and Podemos have managed to create a common platform.

I would say the difference is that Podemos continues to try to present itself as a kind of catch-all party not directly linked only to the Left, but to being able to get support from all the political spectrum, while United Left likes to present itself as a more classic left-wing political force.

The identity of the Left, and whether that’s important, is an issue of differences between the two political forces. But, in practical terms, I have to say in this campaign, we haven’t experienced any kind of tension. There is a common platform that has been agreed, and I think that we have managed to speak with one single voice. To go back to your question of the eurozone, there are some parts of United Left that favor to break away with the eurozone, but that’s a minority position. It hasn’t had really a relevant impact.

What is the coalition’s social base?

Basically, it’s the urban areas. That is why one of the possible outcomes on Sunday is that we will have many more votes than the social democrats, but maybe in terms of seats the result will be closer. Why? Because in the rural areas, there is a premium for seats. You can get more seats with fewer votes. Since our votes are concentrated in the urban areas, there probably will be a difference between the number of votes that we get and the number of seats.

Additionally, we have probably a younger voting base than the other parties. For instance, the conservatives rely on the older segment of the population. Also, in terms of social background of the voters we find the majority of our support in working-class and middle-class areas.

I would say our base of support is urban, younger, and rooted in the working class.

Chris Maisano

What impact does the Brexit vote have on the elections in particular and the European left as a whole? Will this will open up opportunities for left governments when, say, they have to renegotiate agreements with Brussels, or is this something that is only going to strengthen the most reactionary elements across the continent?

Ernest Urtasun

That’s an interesting question. In electoral terms for today, there has been an immediate call by the Popular Party to not vote for new and inexperienced parties in uncertain times. This is a call for the so-called “order vote” to secure a stable government to face those challenges at the European level. Today, I think the conservatives think they can win from the Brexit, but of course, what we are insisting is that the crisis at the European level is the consequence of the long standing policies that the social democrats and conservatives have agreed on.

In terms of the impact in the long term, I think it’s not going to be easy because we will have immediately far-right parties trying to develop more referendums in other countries. I can very much see the Netherlands voting on their membership rather soon, because they have an easy constitutional mechanism to go for a referendum. We don’t know what will happen in France. Today, Marine Le Pen has also asked for a referendum. I think the Brexit has given a lot of political space to this far right movement.

On the other hand, I think also there’s an opportunity for us — the Left that is always striving for a change at the level of the eurozone. I think there’s room for us here because everybody realizes in Brussels and in France that this is needed. We should be able to open a discussion on whether our economic government is correctly managed, or not; on whether common fiscal rules make sense, or not; and, whether the euro currency can continue as it stands, or not.

I think that debate will also be open, and here, the Left has an opportunity to change things. For that, it’s important that we have progressive government. Up until now, we have Greece and Portugal. With Italy and France, both governed by social democrats, you never know if you can count on those governments. And of course, it will be vital to have a progressive government in Spain to play a concrete role in that debate.

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Ernest Urtasun is a Member of European Parliament for the Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds (ICV), a Catalonia-based member of the Unidos Podemos alliance.

Chris Maisano is a Jacobin contributing editor and a member of Democratic Socialists of America.

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