Through the Smoke of Atocha: A Reflection on Spanish Politics

Nunca respondas al necio según su insensatez, para que no seas tú también como él.
Responde al necio según su insensatez, para que no se estime sabio en su propia opinión.
— Proverbios 26:4-5

The language of hyperbole and cliché generally counts for too much in a lot of political analysis, but in the case of the Spanish state it would be fair to say that the recent election of a PSOE (Socialist Party) government has sent shock waves throughout the international political world. That the Socialists, led by their fresh young leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero – and that one can be fresh and young at the age of 43 must stand as something of an indictment of mainstream politics – won the election against all prediction was surprise enough. That the defeated incumbent, José María Aznar, leader of the neoliberal, neoclerical Partido Popular, had been a key international figure, along with Tony Blair, in the preparation and carrying out of Bush’s war in Iraq added to the novelty an international dimension. And that, within days of assuming office, Zapatero, completing the first fulfilment of his election promises, ordered the immediate withdrawal of the Spanish state contingent of the occupying forces in Iraq prompted many commentators to speak of a global realignment of the political stage.

Of course, to say that the election had been held in extraordinary circumstances would be to put it mildly. Just three days before, the campaign had been brought to a crashing halt as a series of holdall bombs – timed to explode simultaneously in the giant terminus of Atocha – ripped through early-morning commuter trains in Madrid, leaving around two hundred dead and five times as many maimed and injured.

Up to that point it had been clear that there was no possibility whatsoever of the PP losing the election – the only doubt in people’s minds was whether it would be able to maintain its absolute majority or not. But that there was any serious possibility of the Socialists winning was regarded, outside of the party’s headquarters in the Calle Ferraz in Madrid – and even by some within this sanctum, already sharpening their knives in anticipation of the power struggles ahead – as absurd.

So before we look at the specific circumstances of the election itself, the prospects for the new government, and the ramifications of its election both within and without the Spanish state, it would be worth first reflecting on why its victory had been regarded as so improbable in the first place. And in order to do that, it will be necessary to take a step back from the immediate conjuncture, and take a rather longer term view of the political make-up of the Spanish scene as it has unfolded since the death of the dictator Franco in 1975.

More (pdf: 448KB): Through the Smoke of Atocha

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 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 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.

More (pdf: 191KB): Frankenstein and the Monster

Where Are All the Captured Guns? The Trade Unions in the Spanish State Following the ‘Transición’

A one-day general strike was held last 20 June in Spain, called in opposition to a recent government reform of the unemployment insurance system, a reform which threatened the benefit of unemployed people who did not accept the offer of what was termed a ‘suitable job’. It was the first major strike directed against the present government of the Partido Popular (PP) (there were two previous one-day general strikes – in 1988 and 1994 – directed against Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) governments), and it came during the Spanish Presidency of the EU and on the eve of the European Council summit of heads of state in Sevilla of 21-22 June. The strike was sufficiently well-observed for the unions to declare it a great success, yet, as is often the case, sufficiently patchy for the government to declare it a failure. Nevertheless, the PP government was sufficiently embarrassed by this visible display of opposition to its policies, sufficiently worried about appearing ‘out of touch’, that July brought a major ministerial ‘reshuffle’ in which around half the cabinet – including some of the government’s previously most visible big-hitters – were dumped to make room for new blood.

All this appears superficially very encouraging: general strike, mass protests in the streets, and a seriously rattled government. But this picture is a misleading one, for it belies the desperately difficult situation that the trade union movement in the Spanish state finds itself in. The rest of this article is an attempt to give a background picture of the less than encouraging situation that the trade unions in the Spanish state find themselves in.

More (pdf: 130KB): Where are all the capured guns