Frankenstein and the Monster (Part I)

Ed George edgeorge at
Sat May 31 17:45:47 MDT 2003

Frankenstein and the Monster

The Spanish State Left after the Elections of 25 May

  'There is a tide in the affairs of men
  Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune;
  Omitted, all the voyage of their life
  Is bound in shadows and in miseries.'

      --Julius Caesar, Act IV, Scene 3

On 25 May local elections [1] were held in the Spanish state: a
veritable rehearsal for the general elections scheduled for next spring.
And for the first time since 1993, PSOE, the Spanish Socialist Party,
won more votes across Spain that the neo-clerical [2] conservative
Partido Popular (PP), in power in Madrid since 1996. A cause for
celebration? A sign of change for the future? Not a bit of it. Although
PSOE managed to win a marginal lead over the PP in terms of total
municipal votes cast, the very narrowness of this lead fell far short of
both the party's and popular expectations. The other left force,
Izquierda Unida, failed to increase its vote. Viewed in context this was
a truly miserable performance on the part of Spanish-state social
democracy, a performance, moreover, in its contours utterly predictable.
Why this should be the case forms the substance of what follows below.


To say that Spanish State Prime Minister [3] José María Aznar has had a
difficult last six months would seem to be stating the obvious.

In an unluckily symbolic fashion Aznar's PP government began its
difficult winter last November, as the Greek-skippered,
Bahamas-registered and Liberian-owned tanker Prestige sank off the
northern Galician coast - site of some of the richest beds of shell-fish
in Europe - taking 60,000 tonnes of Russian-owned fuel oil and seemingly
the reputation of the Spanish government down with it. It wasn't so much
that the PP mishandled the situation - although its dithering over
whether to bring the ship into port or send it further out into the
Atlantic did in the end prove fatal to the vessel as it broke up in
heavy seas: it was that the government, both in Madrid and in Galicia -
the latter itself an historical heartland of the PP, where the President
of the regional government is none other than Manuel Fraga, a founder of
the PP and a former Francoist minister - appeared indifferent to the
impending ecological catastrophe. Fraga himself was away on a hunting
trip as the Prestige went down, but took the time out to assure the
panic-stricken Galician fishermen, who were seeing the possibility of
the source of their livelihoods being destroyed forever, that 'God would
resolve everything,' and that they had to put their trust in Him (in
God, that is; not Fraga).

Nevertheless, despite both divine caprice and Madrid's soothing
reassurances that the combination of sea pressure and the cold would
safely solidify the oil that remained in the ship, an enormous slick
that was to herald the worst ecological disaster in Spanish history was
washed onto one of the most beautiful coastlines in Europe. As
volunteers rushed to the scene from all over Spain, and indeed from all
over Europe, to help clear the oil from the Galician beaches, the
complacency of the government once again stood exposed as prime-time
Spanish-state television viewers were treated to nightly news reports
showing volunteers clearing away the oil without even the most basic of
protective equipment, at times even having to scoop up the highly toxic
and carcinogenic heavy fuel oil, which has the consistency of sticky
chewing gum, with their bare hands. With Fraga cast as Marie Antoinette,
and his protégé Aznar as Louis XVI, the PP had seemed to have forgotten
the first basic rule of bourgeois government: that, in a crisis, it is
better to do the wrong thing that to be seen to be doing nothing at all.

As if this was not bad enough, more troubles were to come.

Aznar had long harboured aspirations to play the role of world
statesman. His long and public courtship of whom he would refer to as
'my friend Tony Blair' (the Blair and Aznar families had been long in
the habit of taking their summer holidays together) had been followed by
the bestowing of political favour by one George W. Bush, who, knowing a
soft landing when he sees one, opened his first European tour as
President with an official visit to the Spanish state on the reasoning
that, no matter how tough things might get later, at least in Spain he
was sure of a welcome and something of an easy ride.

Thus, as war loomed over Iraq, Aznar was keen to play a key role in the
setting up of the international alliance in favour of military invasion.
Aznar it was who authored the first draft of the 'Carta de los Ocho',
later redrafted by Tony Blair and subsequently co-signed by the
governments of Italy, Portugal, Hungary, Poland, Denmark and the Czech
Republic, in which, in frankly racist terms, the pro-war European
faction nailed its colours to the mast of US militarism. [4] And it was
Aznar who was invited by Bush and Blair to the Azores summit in April
where the final decision to go to war was taken. So even if the final
Spanish state contribution to the military effort was in the end
negligible (amounting only to a few botched attempts to distribute food
aid at its close) Aznar played a significant diplomatic and propaganda
role in drumming up international support for it, for which services he
has subsequently been obsequiously feted on both anglophone sides of the

But rarely has a government been so unsuccessful in taking its people
with it. Although the anti-war mobilisations were huge all over the
world, in the Spanish state they were truly enormous. On 15 February,
probably the peak of the movement, if one tots up the total numbers who
mobilised in Madrid, Barcelona and many other Spanish state towns and
cities one comes to the figure of something around an unprecedented four
million - one in ten of the population - marching that day in Spain, in
a mobilisation hardly matched by anything seen since the days of the
Second Republic.

Trouble had in fact been looming for Aznar as early as the beginning of
that same month when the Goyas, the Spanish version of the Oscars,
turned into a veritable anti-war protest as the Spanish cinema gliterati
declared itself almost unanimously against the government. The Aznar
government found itself almost completely isolated over the issue: not
only did the major trade union federations and the Communist Party come
out against the war, but the mobilisations of 15 February were also
backed by PSOE. An opinion poll published by the conservative Madrid
daily El Mundo at the end of March put the opposition to the war in
Spain - and this before any military assistance had been committed by
the government - at an astonishing 91 per cent. [5]

Thus by early spring, and only one year before general elections and
barely three months before the recent local elections, Aznar's
government - in power since 1996 - looked to be in fairly serious
trouble. But the War over Iraq and the Prestige crisis were not the only
harbingers of electoral difficulties ahead. Indeed, the PP itself has
been hovering on the brink of a succession crisis for some time now,
since Aznar has long since decided that he would not be leading the
party in the 2004 elections. [6] Although no formal candidates have put
themselves forward for the future vacancy, it is clear that there has
been a sharpening of knives for some time now.

And if all this were not enough, it is well known that, taking stock of
more long term features of Spanish society, the Aznar government has
been presiding over some of the worst social conditions in the European

Labour insecurity is a chronic problem in the Spanish state: a little
under one third of the entire Spanish workforce is on temporary
contracts - around triple the EU average - a phenomenon that is
naturally more pronounced among women, among young people, and in the
private sector. As a consequence, nearly 40 per cent of women working in
the private sector work with temporary contracts; with respect to young
people, in 2001 the temporary employment rate stood at 63 per cent among
the population aged 20-24, and 44 per cent among those aged 25-29. Of
all new contracts registered with the Spanish State employment ministry,
an astonishing 90 per cent plus are time-limited in some way.

The unemployment rate, even going by the heavily massaged official
figures, stands at over double the average of the OECD area, and is
rising. Spain is additionally a low wage economy: the last government
increase in the national minimum wage, the Salario Mínimo
Interprofesional, put its level to €442.20 per month (or €14.74 per
day). This level, less than €2 per hour, is the lowest in the EU and is
far below the EU average of €5.65. It is true that most workers are
covered by compulsory employer-union agreements which normally set wage
levels relatively higher, but it is still estimated that around half a
million Spanish workers receive the minimum wage.

In addition to all this, Spain is in the grip of a fierce
speculation-fuelled housing crisis: house prices have risen by over 63
per cent in the last four years. In 2001, the growth in the average
price of housing property was 15.4 per cent while inflation stood at 2.7
per cent. That these rises are fuelled by speculation and not by a
'normal' supply and demand imbalance - i.e. that they indicate that
something is going awry in the economy as a whole - is illustrated by a
growing homeless crisis, as a huge number of dwellings stand unoccupied:
second and unoccupied homes at present stand at a total of 7 million
dwellings, 34 per cent of the total housing stock.

As a consequence of the housing crisis, unemployment rates and job
insecurity, over two thirds of all Spanish 25 to 30 year olds still live
- through economic necessity - with their parents. And this startling
figure is rising.

On the strength of all this - the government's clear incompetence over
the Prestige crisis, the massive opposition to its position on the war,
the structural difficulties in the labour market - it seemed as if the
Partido Popular was set for an electoral comeuppance on 25 May. But it
didn't come about.

The only source of good news for Spanish-state social democracy on 25
May was their largely symbolic fractional lead won over the PP in terms
of municipal votes cast on a Spanish-state basis. But given the
acknowledged fact that Spanish voters generally vote more
'conservatively' in general elections than in local ones [7] a
fractional lead, in normal circumstances, would have been regarded as a
scant victory. Given the developments of the last six months, however,
anything less than a total humiliation of the right must be regarded as
failure. Every PSOE electoral target bar one (and this only partially)
was not reached. PSOE had counted on maintaining control of the
Comunidad Autonómica of Baleares (they lost it), consolidating its hold
on Barcelona (they lost seats, if not control), wining control in the
Comunidad Valenciana (they didn't) and, in Madrid, wining both the
ayuntamiento (they didn't) and the Comunidad (at the time of writing it
looks as if they will be able to control the Comunidad - even though
they were outpolled by the PP - through a probable governing pact with
the Communist Party's electoral front Izquierda Unida).

The other branch of Spanish-state social democracy, [8] Izquierda Unida
(IU - United Left), [9] also has little to shout about. Again we can see
a failure to capitalise on the misfortunes of the right. The 6.1 per
cent of the vote won by IU on 25 May compares with the 5.5 it won in the
general elections of 2000 and the 5.9 in the previous local elections of
1999. If, looking on the bright side, things are not worse, being
realistic - and bearing in mind that IU publicly set itself the
electoral target of turning the winter and spring mobilisations into
votes in the ballot box - this is a pretty poor performance.

With the possible exception of Euskadi. Here, IU is - uniquely in the
Spanish state - not run by the Communist Party. The independent group
around its leader Javier Madrazo has charted an independent course,
especially in relation to Basque politics (much to the annoyance of IU
headquarters in Madrid). In the last elections for the Basque parliament
in 2001 it was given to be understood by the leadership of PSOE and the
PP that were their combined votes sufficient they would form a coalition
- anti-Basque nationalist - government in Euskadi. As it happened, they
narrowly failed: on a near record turn-out, the two moderate Basque
nationalist parties, PNV and EA - who stood on a joint ticket - won
sufficient votes to form a government. And - highly significantly - this
government has been (quite correctly in my view) supported by the Basque
section of IU: again to much horror at IU headquarters in Madrid
(Madrazo is in fact the Housing Minister in the current autonomous

This story took another twist last summer. In August, the PP government
in Madrid passed a new amended version of the law relating to the
regulation of political parties which made it a crime not to condemn the
actions of the armed radical Basque nationalist organisation ETA. [10]
As a consequence, Batasuna, approximately the Basque equivalent of Sinn
Fein, was banned, and its assets seized. An attempt to set up a new
political formation to run in these elections - Autodeterminaziorako
Bilgunea (AuB) - failed when it too was refused electoral registration
under the new legislation. (There is a bitter irony at work here. A good
part of PSOE's recent electoral campaign was marked by the claim that
the PP were 'threatening democracy': principally because they persisted
in support for the war in Iraq when public opinion was solidly against
it - as if bourgeois democracy didn't work in this way! But in fact the
only place were the PP is indeed 'threatening democracy' is in the
Basque country itself, where the PP and PSOE share exactly the same
political line.)

Thus it is highly significant that it is only in the Basque country - if
we except the Communist Party's historical power base of Córdoba - that
IU's vote significantly increased, by 3.5 per cent overall, resulting in
a near tripling of its local council representation. (In addition, both
moderate Basque nationalist parties - EA and PNV - increased their vote
as compared to the last local elections, and the abstention rate rose by
a factor of 10. [11])

Nevertheless, apart from this partial exception, overall in the Spanish
state as a platform for building for 2004 25 May offers little comfort
for the left. As a failure to capitalise on government error and
misfortune its failure has been truly colossal.

How did it come to this? Why is it that the Spanish state left is so
incapable of advancing a clear march forward in what appear to be such
advantageous conditions? To answer this question, we need to step back a
little and take a longer term view of Spanish state politics.

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