Marga Ferré, co-president of transform!, analyses in this dense interview the left’s recent defeat in Spain, the new radical-left electoral coalition Sumar led by Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz, their governmental record, their chance to win in the upcoming 23 July general elections and the ways to counter the menace of the far right coming to power.
For the last decade or so, Spain has been one of the most exciting countries in Europe for the Left. Ever since the 15-M Movement and the Indignados began rallying against austerity in 2011, the Spanish Left has seen a number of inspiring developments, such as the founding of Podemos in 2014, its alliance with Izquierda Unida (IU) two years later as Unidas Podemos (UP), and its ultimate entry into a coalition government in 2019. Although not without its critics, the coalition under Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) passed a number of meaningful pro-worker reforms and seemed to offer a model to leftists across Europe looking to turn protest into policy. But all that came crashing down on 28 May, when Spain’s regional elections saw the left suffer heavy losses across the board, losing to the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) along with its far-right competitor, Vox. Sánchez’s decision to call snap elections for 23 July now means that the parties of the radical left, led by current Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz and her new electoral platform, Sumar, are tasked with both defending their electoral record while at the same time convincing voters that they represent a radical alternative to the status quo.
After Sumar finalised its candidate lists on 19 June, María del Vigo from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Madrid Office sat down with Marga Ferré of Izquierda Unida to interview her about last May’s disappointing result, the new electoral platform, and the prospects for Díaz’s presidential run.
How would you sum up what has been happening within the transformative left in Spain over the last month?
Like a gale, a storm that caught the left in the midst of an unfinished debate. Calling the general elections sped up the political timeframe of a process of collective construction that had not been completed: the left was caught in mid-construction and was pushed to levels of improvisation that I have never seen in my life — and I have been an activist for 35 years. It took us by surprise.
When Sumar stood for election with its own candidates, you wrote an article saying that it was an important step because what was at stake was not who rules the left, but who rules the country. However, since the municipal and regional elections on 28 May, we have been paying more attention to the former than the latter.
The first paradox that should be explained is how it is possible that, in a country with a progressive left-wing coalition in power which has not done badly in terms of protection during COVID-19, protecting workers under Yolanda Díaz’s Ministry, with employment up, improvements in working conditions, and an economy that is not in decline — almost a novelty in Spain in the last 15 years — the two governing parties, PSOE and Unidas Podemos, are down in the polls.
In Spain, unlike in Germany, there is no cordon sanitaire against the extreme Right. The lines between the conservative Partido Popular and the far-right Vox are becoming increasingly blurred, with boundaries that are overly permeable. This right wing is politically bankrupt even compared to the same right wing of a few years ago, which, though horrendous, at least had a vision for the country. How is it possible that they can be gaining ground?
The PP is not growing on its own merits. Its rise is mainly due to the disappearing of Ciudadanos. As this (liberal centrist) political party vanished, the 2 million votes that it had went directly to them.
It must be understood that municipal and regional elections in Spain have a special relevance because Spain is basically a federal state. The PP gained in almost all the Autonomous Communities in those elections, not so much in votes as in institutional representation. In other words: the conservative and progressive blocs are very evenly matched in Spain.
The PSOE lost only 1 percent — 400,000 votes. Unidas Podemos lost in the 28 May elections. The explanation of why it lost 25 percent of the electorate after forming part of a government with very well-managed ministries, such as Labour or Equality, can only be due, in my analysis, to terrible leadership management. Public exposure of the divisions in the left never helps, neither here nor anywhere else in the world.
The display of divisions is superbly inflated by the right-wing media, of course, but that is something we should expect — which is precisely why we should not do it. And yet, there have been constant clashes. I believe they are the fundamental reason why part of the population accepts the capitalist adage that describes the left as excessively fragmented and unable to come to agreements.
Unidas Podemos is a coalition that stood for election and ended up entering the Spanish government. The possibility for it to become more than a parliamentary group was always on the table, as it is now with Sumar. That is to say, it could become an active political actor outside of Congress. But this was never achieved, and this lack of a foundation with Unidas Podemos, which has exclusively behaved like a parliamentary group all these years, has in part led to its failure.
Emotions are probably not the best battleground for the left. Feminism is confrontational, being a member of the working class is confrontational, being anti-racist is also confrontational.
When, in the middle of this legislature, Pablo Iglesias decided to abandon the vice-presidency of the government and lead Unidas Podemos in Madrid, a reshuffle took place within what had been Unidas Podemos, and he appointed Yolanda Díaz as new leader. The whole thing was created, therefore, with a staggering lack of democracy. This is the original sin of the Sumar project.
This designation of Yolanda Díaz was not questioned because she was and is the best, most highly valued labour minister in the history of Spain. Her labour reforms have improved the lives of 16 million people across the country, embodying the idea that many of us on the left believe: that politics can have a both a performative and an immediate role in people’s lives.
Now Yolanda, who is not a member of Podemos, is looking for a winning project, in principle very much in line with the vision that the left has been debating since 15M — that is to say, the need for horizontal clusters to come together to form a contestatory political group.
The Sumar idea is, in my view, excessively abstract, and is based almost exclusively on the desire to make Yolanda Díaz president. Sumar was based on Boric’s approach in Chile: bring together all sectors, political parties, independents, intelligentsia, and culture to support Yolanda Díaz for the presidency of the country. Bring them together to win the elections — something not impossible a year ago. The polls showed Yolanda Díaz could overtake the PSOE on the left and therefore it was logical that she should preside over a coalition government.
That was the original idea behind Sumar. The idea itself was too abstract and has taken a long time to introduce itself through a very slow process. Yolanda Díaz began a “listening” process because her team recognized that part of the Spanish population felt unheard. The idea was that Yolanda would travel around the country listening to the demands of social movements and citizens, but the process did not work and ended up becoming a succession of events in which Díaz presented the Sumar project to people who were already politicized.
After this process, in April this year, she announced her national campaign in Madrid. In principle, there were nine months left before the general elections, which were to be held in December. Díaz invited all the left-wing parties to the event, but Podemos did not attend. Here lies the essential problem with Sumar: if Podemos is not under the umbrella of Sumar, it is obviously a failed project. If the idea is to encompass the whole of the left, it cannot have fewer components. Even so, Yolanda launched Sumar without Podemos, anticipating that the nine months until the elections would be used to continue working on its incorporation. But the early elections have shattered those plans.
It is important to explain that, on entering the government, Podemos focused its political activity primarily on the Ministry of Equality, the work of which provokes massive opposition from the right and the extreme right. The leaders of Podemos, in particular Pablo Iglesias and Irene Montero, have been subjected to ferocious physical, media-based and verbal attacks from the right on their family, on social networks, in the courts — it has been truly insufferable. This has put them in a very defensive position, which I can understand.
In this context, Podemos feels that Sumar is not taking care of them, or is not according to them the leading role they should exercise within the Spanish Left. And that is a big part of the conflict.
So yes, indeed, we have become bogged down in who is in charge on the left. With so many grudges, open wounds, and painful pasts, dialogue is very difficult. I think with more time it would have been possible and ultimately healing, even, but this has not been the case.
If we agree that emotions mobilize people more than data do, should the left start to incite some positive emotions? With all the baggage that you have mentioned, is there room to do so?
The central mechanism of the far right, which is permeating the right throughout Europe, is the use of negative emotions, which are the ones that spread most quickly. They simplify the messages that the extreme right wants to get into the political agenda. In other words: debates around culture, which are the ones that stir emotions. It shouldn’t be like that, but it is. People have an emotional position on migration or the LGTBQI+ movement, but not on unemployment or the nationalisation of companies.
It is not clear to me that emotions are the best battleground for the left. Talking about arousing positive emotions might lead one to think that one could make progress in politics by smiling and avoiding confrontation. I don’t think so. I believe that feminism is confrontational, I believe that being a member of the working class is confrontational, and I believe that being anti-racist is also confrontational.
Sumar is a political party that, because of the improvisation mentioned earlier, is standing for election with practically no agenda. And that is, to say the least, an anomaly.
Therefore, in the face of the negative emotions stirred up by the extreme right, the answer is not necessary to evoke a positive emotion. What is needed is a passion for justice, and that does not necessarily have to be done with friendly words and a smile.
However, I believe that toning down the rhetoric does help. The extreme polarisation in the exercise of power that capitalism demands, pushing it to be more authoritarian — which the extreme right also advocates — is something we have to steer clear of. But I do believe that ideas must be defended firmly.
The polls seem to indicate that Sumar’s performance will determine whether or not the extreme right will enter the government. Can we rule out the possibility of renewing the coalition government?
Vox is losing votes. They don’t seem to be, but they have gone from 16 percent to 14 percent in a short time, and it is possible that Sumar will gain more support than Vox. The extreme right is not growing in Spain, it just has more loud advocates. It is true that it has managed to get its political agenda on the table through the PP, especially through its leader in Madrid.
Sumar, although it may have a lot of room for improvement, is in the running, made up of 13 political parties, including Podemos and Izquierda Unida, with the possibility and the hope of at least maintaining Unidas Podemos’ place in Congress. This means that, if the PSOE does not lose too many votes, preventing the right and the extreme right from governing is feasible.
This is the negative impulse driving these elections. It is not so much a question of having a vision for the country as of preventing fascism from returning to rule Spain after Franco’s death.
But I do not rule out the possibility of renewing the coalition government. In fact, I think it is quite possible, but it will be different. The only possibility for the right and the extreme right to govern is if they achieve an absolute majority together. If they do not achieve this, even if they gain the most votes, they will not be able to govern, because no other party across parliament will support Vox’s agenda. That is their great weakness.
The fact that it is quite possible that the right does not win in Spain does not mean that the left-wing bloc has set out a proposal that is sufficiently sustainable to generate the passion we were talking about earlier, and which was Sumar’s founding idea. This is not the case. I believe that this coalition currently does no more than bring together people who want to create a useful instrument to prevent the right and the extreme right from governing in Spain.
What chances do you see for Sumar if it is not in government?
The best scenario would be for Sumar to enter the Spanish government in one way or another. The reconfiguration of the left in that case would be a very different one than if Sumar were not in power.
If it is not in government, its role is reduced. The reconfiguration of the left in Spain and its roadmap will vary depending on the outcome of the elections, and whether there is a progressive coalition government, the PSOE alone in power, or a government of the right and far-right.
Has the electorate changed? Is everything shifting so fast that the new left has become old?
Completely. I have two aspects of this question on my mind at the moment. One is the victory of Fratelli d’Italia with a 40-percent abstention rate in Italy, much of it in the south and in the progressive electorate. There was a high level of abstention in last month’s elections in Spain, too, and probably part of that abstention is due to the weak mobilisation of the left-wing electorate. I hope not, but it is possible that this will be repeated on 23 July.
Our society has not shifted rightwards, but the right-and far-right messages are highly amplified. Whether people on the left see their hopes embodied by a political party is another matter.
The other aspect is that I believe that we do not live in a society that has shifted rightwards, but that the messages of the right and the extreme right are very highly amplified. Despite this, a large part of the population does not share their values. Whether or not people on the left see their hopes materialised in a political party is another matter.
Spain is not a particularly homophobic or racist country. It is, but it is noteworthy that Vox places more emphasis on anti-feminism, security, or national unity, which are the issues on which, unfortunately, insufficient progress has been made through democratic consensus in Spain.
But the electorate is out there. It is one thing for it to be unenthusiastic and quite another for it to be irrecoverable.
Sumar, beyond Izquierda Unida and Podemos, is a coalition formed by parties with pro-sovereignty regionalist leanings: Drago, Chunta, Mes, Compromís, among others. Is it possible to have a united and coordinated leadership in a parliamentary group in which some of its members have clear territorial priorities?
It will be very difficult. Sumar is a political party that, because of the improvisation mentioned earlier, is standing for election with practically no agenda. And that is, to say the least, an anomaly. I believe that the left-wing political projects that manage to endure do so because they are based on a solid programme.
Spain is practically a federalist country. The regional parties are very much loved in their territories and it is true that you cannot sit in Madrid and tell other regions how to do things. But, in any case, I believe that the management — not so much of the parliamentary group, but of the political space in its broadest sense — is going to be complicated. I see it as so complicated that I would start from scratch on 24 July.
What is your opinion on Sumar’s lists, the new additions, and the absences?
Putting together electoral candidacy lists from 13 parties in two weeks was done however it could be. We did not choose the timing or the speed of the process, which forced us to improvise a great deal.
I do think that, to some extent, the parties have been penalised in the way the lists have been drawn up. I think it is good that there are independent people on the lists, but I think that in some cases, people who have demonstrated their political commitment in other parties over the years were overly penalised.
As for the absences, I would say that there is basically one: the Minister for Equality, Irene Montero. I think her work in the coalition government has been very significant and, as we were saying, she has suffered vicious attacks from the right and the extreme right. In my opinion, her work and role should have been recognized. The fact that she doesn’t appear seems to me to be a shortcoming.
That said, it’s not a big deal. There are more people from Izquierda Unida and Podemos who won’t be there, and others who will. We must focus on stopping the regressive right. The goal is to win the country. That is our most urgent task.
Originally published by the Rosa-Luxemburg Foundation on its website.