Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias.
Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias. (Image: AP/Emilio Morenatti)

For more than a century, the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world has presented the contradictory character of being so backward that the pressures of history propel it suddenly to the front.

Barcelona 1937. Cuba 1959. Brazil ’66. Lisbon’s “carnation revolution” of 1974. The “pink tide” that began in Venezuela in 1999. And from the right, too. The US-backed coup in Guatemala in 1954 made it clear that even moderate reforming governments would not be tolerated. It was revolution or the junta for the West’s share of the Third World.

That tradition continued in an action-packed few weeks, with President Evo Morales of Bolivia deposed and sent into exile in a classic military and police coup, the return of the left in Argentina, the release of former president Lula in Brazil, and the formation of a Socialist Party-Podemos coalition government in Spain.

This volley of events represents, in various manners, the next stage in global politics — though it is far from uniformly encouraging.

To Spain, first, which has formed a government after four elections in four years, two of them this year, and the first to include a social movement party of the left in Podemos. The move seems as much a defensive maneouvre to stop the growth of the right, arising out of a political impasse that now appears insoluble.

The province-based proportional system introduced after the return to parliamentary democracy in the ’70s served a rural/industrial society of unified social classes adequately enough; now it has fractured under the twin pressures of class decomposition/complexification, creating multiple social groupings.

Simultaneously, regional nationalism has spread from Euskara (the Basques) and Catalonia to multiple regions of a nation-state whose modernisation was not completed in time before regionalising pressures arose. Thus, one of the upstart parties in the small province of Teruel is called “!Teruel Exists!”.

When such a recognition demand becomes core policy (no one denies for a moment that Euskara exists), you’ve hit a new political era. But that process has re-composed a nationalist opposition: the Vox (Voice) party which is pro-unified Spain, anti-EU, populist on matters economic and social (wanting state economic stimulus, opposing new laws addressing loopholes in domestic violence legislation).

Thus the Socialists won 120 seats in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies (i.e. lower house) of the “Cortes Generales” (even the name is residually medieval), with Podemos getting 35. On the right, the People’s Party won 88, getting back 22 seats they had lost to the initially centrist “Citizens” party, which lost 47 of its 57 seats; the remainder went to Vox, which won 52. Regional Catalonian and Basque parties got about 30 or so, and about a dozen other “tapas” parties scored one or two seats each.

The leadership of both major parties might have preferred a grand coalition, but pressure from within has made that impossible. The Socialist-Podemos will be just short a majority without a tapas party or two. The dilemma has been greater for Podemos than the Socialists — who are of course a neoliberal social market party.

Podemos has already had one split with the defection of leftish group Mas Pais ( loose translation: “More of those delicious oil-fried potatoes, waiter”). It now becomes an enforcer of the EU order against the social movements it sprang from. But languishing in opposition would have simply put its legitimacy in question.

Yet Bolivia is a reminder of what happens in the Spanish area if you make a misstep. There, Morales and Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linares attempted to gain a constitutionally questionable fourth term, fearing that the right within their party would take over (as per Ecuador). There was voter fraud on both sides. Morales agreed to a call from the Organisation of American States for new elections. It wasn’t enough. The military and police, in classic style, appeared on TV to announce a takeover to “restore stability” and Morales and Linares went into exile in Mexico.

It never is enough. Morales and Linares pursued a non-Venezuelan centre-left strategy with few nationalisations, fast economic growth, wage rises, rural and urban health and services, Indigenous protection, nature “rights”, non-GDP social progress measures, and action on gender equality and violence. But the old interests want the silver from the mines, and now, the lithium, and they have seen that Argentina has thrown the right out after a single term, and Lula is now free next door, and so the foot goes back on the neck.

Guatemala ’54 redux. No matter what the class compromise proposed, never enough, and so they push people to the gun and guerrilla war.

Foolish of Podemos and others to be wary of what their enemies might do? Not if you know the Spanish world now. Or just simply the world. But !Teruel Exists!

Peter Fray

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