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Spain’s Fragmented Left

John Sullivan

AFTER 20 MONTHS in office, the conservative government of the Partido Popular (PP) faces no real challenge from the Left. The Socialist Party (PSOE) which was in power from 1982 to 1996 had come to see itself as the natural party of government, acceptable to big business and able to manage the trade unions. In opposition the PSOE is able to make some left noises, but it has no intention of mobilising against the PP. The corruption which runs deep in the PSOE still counts against it. Luis Roldán, the party’s appointee as head of the Civil Guard, has just been sentenced to 28 years in prison for embezzlement, joining several more PSOE bosses who are there for corruption or for their involvement in the murder of supporters of ETA, the armed Basque organisation. The PSOE leadership refuses to accept any responsibility for such crimes and continues to back its jailed members.

The PSOE’s disgrace ought to benefit the Left, especially the Communist Party (PCE), but the troubles of the PCE and its electoral alliance Izquierda Unida (IU) continue. The most right wing part of the alliance, Nueva Izquierda (NI) split in late 1997 with the clear intention of allying with the PSOE. Despite that, the PCE leaders have no intention of abandoning the IU formula. They see IU as a success, as its creation in the mid-1980s rescued the party from the near collapse it experienced under the leadership of Santiago Carrillo, its former General Secretary, but there are inherent difficulties involved in a coalition where one partner is much stronger than all the others.

The need to give a place to every tendency within IU led to a hideously complicated structure. Its Federal Council was more than 200 strong and, until recently, the Executive Committee had 40 members. The elaborate balancing of tendencies is replicated inside the PCE, which is itself far from united. The NI split has given Julio Anguita, leader of both the PCE and IU, the opportunity to restructure. Having broken with its right wing allies in Catalonia, both party and alliance are free to build their own organisations there. However, while NI’s defection removed the openly bourgeois forces, IU is still not united, as right wing tendencies linked to the trade union leadership remain quite strong.

Anguita began a move to the left at the Fifth Assembly held in December 1997. Its results became apparent at the first meeting of the new Federal Council at the end of January where the effective leadership was installed. IU now has a Federal leadership of 69 members and an Executive of 19. The larger body had to represent all affiliated organisations, political tendencies, geographical areas, and maintain gender balance. That is just possible, if one person wears several hats, although it prevents clear political differentiation. Such a balancing act was impossible on the Executive. The smaller parties (Republicans and Pasoc) were given 4 representatives, because of their historic importance. As both moderate and loyal PCE members demanded representation, the people who lost out were the non-PCE tendencies opposed to Anguita, mainly Tercera Via (Third Way) and Espacio Alternativo, neither of whom are represented on the Executive. Those tendencies are often confused, as both represent a search for a middle way between Anguita’s tendency and the NI.

Tercera Via is close to the leadership of the Workers Commissions, the trade union established by the PCE, but no longer controlled by it. The government, while cutting budgets, privatising and driving forward with the Maastricht criteria, has avoided conflict with the unions. Espacio Alternativo, not quite so close to the union leadership, supports feminist and ecological tendencies, and it is affiliated to the, immensely tolerant, United Secretariat of the Fourth International.

The changes do mark a move to the left, but quite a limited one. While IU and the PCE do fight against the government’s privatisation and attacks on welfare and job security, there is a nervousness about encouraging mass mobilisation. IU has not taken up the suggestion of promoting popular assemblies, on the grounds that its parliamentary representation makes that unnecessary. The PCE continually refers to the unity of the "Democratic Forces" which include Franco’s heirs in the PP. It takes no independent initiative in the conflict in the Basque country, and it approved when the entire National Committee of Herri Batasuna, a legal political party, was jailed for six years.

The conflict in the Basque country could be resolved much more easily than that in Northern Ireland, as there is no religious divide and no longer a clear ethnic one. ETA knows that it cannot inflict a military defeat on the Spanish state, and there are voices being raised in favour of negotiation within Herri Batasuna and among ETA’s prisoners, but the Spanish government prefers to make political capital out of ETA’s violence rather than negotiate. The PCE’s obsessive respectability prevents it from breaking with the PP/PSOE consensus on that issue as on many others.

Opponents of IU generally aim their criticisms at Anguita. Cartoons usually depict him as an Ayatollah, although his style is more that of a parish priest. When IU was founded, his leadership of both party and coalition was thought necessary to preserve unity. A week before the meeting of IU’s Federal Council, Anguita announced that in the summer he would stand down as General Secretary of the PCE in favour of Francisco Frutos, a veteran of the anti-Franco struggle and a leftist within the party. Typically, the press depicted this as grabbing, rather than relinquishing, power.

Given the weakness of the Spanish Left, the political choices narrow down to critical support for IU or small-scale propaganda. However, while the leaders of both the PCE and IU oppose the attacks on working class living standards, and support for American and NATO military aggression, they do not reject the Common Market, nor the unity with the reactionary "Democratic Forces". The PCE bears a heavy responsibility for its part in demobilising the working class during the transition from Francoism, and its leaders remain proud of the party’s role at that time.