Galicia and The Syriza Effect

‘Hai que paralos’ – they must be stopped

Today’s Irish Times leader article reports on recent electoral events in Spain. Titled A respite for Rajoy, the important perspective is, as ever, that of the head of government, and not that of the people whom this figure is supposed to serve. The article speaks of the ‘badly needed comfort’ Rajoy received with the PP election win in Galicia, crediting him with a ‘a remarkable achievement’; one that enables him to ‘hold his head high in Brussels’ as a ‘premier who has taken a series of very hard decisions and still has the solid support of voters’.

It’s worth bearing in mind the local context in which the article is being published: Rajoy’s party forms part of the same European Parliamentary grouping as Fine Gael, and the overall agenda of both the Irish and the Spanish government is very similar – enforcing massive cuts in public spending, driving down wages, stripping away social protections, opening up public services to privatisation, whilst simultaneously protecting the interests of the financial sector and the profitability of asset price speculation.

As the latest round of public mobilisations in Spain have shown, the Rajoy government has very little democratic legitimacy. It won an absolute parliamentary majority in the last general elections, but with the votes of around only a third of the electorate. After it was elected, it proceded to renege on its electoral commitments. Therefore the message from the Irish Times article is fairly clear: rewards await those politicians brave enough to do the will of the markets and renege on promises made to the public (those who make good on promises made to the public and defy the will of the markets are, like Hugo Chávez, denounced as authoritarian strongmen and regional pariahs).

The IT article reminds me of the time a while ago that I heard Lucinda Creighton, the Fine Gael Minister for Europe argue against the notion that Troika-backed austerity policies had no democratic legitimacy. She cited the Partido Popular’s electoral victory as an example of popular support for such policies, when it was nothing of the sort. And it is by no means true, as the Irish Times, suggests, that Rajoy ‘still has the solid support of voters’. He does not even have the solid support of voters in Galicia. Only 28% of Galicians registered to vote actually voted for the Partido Popular, whereas 36% of those registered to vote abstained.

But also omitted from the IT leader, unsurprisingly, is what happened in Galicia apart from the Partido Popular victory and how this serves the head of government. Below is a translation of a piece by Pablo Iglesias Turrión, published yesterday in Público.

Galicia and the Syriza effect

The Syriza effect is a politico-electoral anomaly that has threatened European political regimes since last June. Back then, the young Alexis Tsipras was on the verge of turning Syriza (a coalition of radical left formations) into the grouping with the highest votes in Greece, winning almost 27% of votes. Since then the onetime all-powerful PASOK has turned into a junior companion to the Greek right. Something, apparently possible in a formal democracy, such as a a large part of the Greek electorate going for an alternative political option to that of the right, different from social democracy, set alarm bells ringing among all the European powers, who unleashed a political and media offensive against Syriza, presenting their possible victory as chaos.

The Syriza effect comes about when, in a system of parliamentary representation traditionally dominated by two large parties, one liberal-conservative (centre-right), and another social-liberal (centre-left), there emerges a left wing force with a popular appeal that overtakes the centre-left as an electoral option. Any nuances that might be drawn out from here depend on the complexities of each political context. At any rate, it appears that one of the consequences of the transformation of economic crisis into political crisis in various European countries has been the opening up of a structure of opportunity for political forces historically condemned to the periphery of political systems.

We should not forget that the stability of political regimes in Western Europe rested, in large part, on the taking turns between political options that maintained consensus over basic issues. This taking turns was based on the fact that, to a certain extent, the centre-left and the centre-right could govern in different ways without moving beyond the lines of an economic order designed by its owners; what once, without fear, was called the capitalist class. And of course, there can be no doubt that in Western Europe, a considerable part of the working class organised in unions had good reasons to feel comfortable in these regimes of taking turns, as civil society of the centre left and as the privileged negotiator of social conflict with the centre-right. 

With very broad strokes, this is the history of postwar European so-called social democracy and its associated union organisations.

Well, this illustrative broad brush story, whose ending had been foretold with the neoliberal policies of the 1980s and whose epilogue began after the fall of the Berlin Wall, has now ended once and for all. Social democracy (which stopped being such a thing a long time ago) no longer has political space to govern in the south of Europe in a different way to the right wing, and the unions would do well to bare their teeth properly if they want collective bargaining to be more than just history. And it’s not just me who says so. one only has to look at the radical pragmatism of Tomás Gómez [Madrid PSOE leader] to realise that even some socialist leaders have realised that they are not going to touch power with forms of “responsible and loyal opposition”.

It’s obvious that 25, 30 or 50% of the votes in an election is not enough to change power relations. Those of us who work in political science know that the object of study of our discipline is precisely power, not merely electoral systems and parties. And power has to do with economic, social and military mechanisms that cannot be reduced to the unity of the state apparatus that is accessed by means of elections. The image of Salvador Allende, poorly armed, living out his final moments in La Moneda on the 11th of September 1973, is the metaphor for truth in politics; as true as the image of patriotic parachutists who restored democracy to Venezuela in 2002.

But with that said, the Syriza effect is the lever most within reach of the European left as it plays its cards in these times of systemic crisis.

What does this have to do with the Galician elections?

In Galicia we have seen that social outrage can be turned into votes if the left is able to present itself as a real opposition. In little more than a month, Alternativa Galega de Esquerda (Galician Left Alternative), an electoral coalition between federalists and independentists, has turned the Galician electoral map upside down and wound up with 14% of votes out of nothing. If we bear in mind that the historical BNG (Galician Nationalist Bloc), free moreover of its right wing which moved off into the void, got more than 10% of votes, we have more than 24% of Galician voters who chose political forces to the left of the PSOE, which has wound up with a little more than 20%. We should not forget that only a month ago, the CIS (Centre for Sociological Research) only forecast one deputy for the coalition led by Xosé Manuel Beiras and Yolanda Díaz, and there were few of us who thought that AGE could go beyond two or three seats.

The only assets that the Galician Syriza were presumed to have were the federal drive of Esquerda Unida [in Galician, United Left] (which in the general elections had obtained a decent result in Galicia and whom surveys had given a token representation in the Galicial legislative chamber) and the charisma of a Xosé Manuel Beiras who, though a veteran, would be able to steal some support from the BNG. Many will now seek to say that what has occurred is a realignment of nationalist votes, but one only has to read the results carefully to realise that Beiras is much more than an image that takes away votes that belong to the BNG and that AGE is much more than a traditional nationalist force allied with Esquerda Unida out of mere convenience. It may well be that there are there are some in the coalition, unable to see because of the myopia and mediocrity of many plumbers [translators note: this isn’t a reference to plumbers as such, but to people who operate as ‘plumbers’ on account of their role within a party apparatus], might see it that way, but luckily politics sometimes flies higher than bureaucrats.

Beiras has shown himself to be much more than the recent history of Galician nationalism, revealing himself as a leader of stature, capable of identifying the political contradictions and possibilities of the present time. Those with contempt for intellectual training in politics have tasted the bitterness of a lesson they will not forget; that leaders, in order to be such, are obliged to study and raise their head above the internal life of the party. Beiras never stopped studying and his journey through social fora and his closeness to the movements have made him understand very well what the 15M meant and what a regime crisis means. Plumbers might win conferences but to win in politics what is needed is a certain amount of that intelligence that the Sardinian genius called organic and which serves to connect with the people.

Yolanda Díaz, for her part, was able to recover the best tradition of communism; her ability and generosity in weaving broad fronts that aspire to represent a social and popular majority at a historic moment in which democratic resistance against a fascism with a technocratic face is the best prescription for the left to aspire to something more than a third space. The re-founding of the left that many saw contemptuously as a tactical ploy on the part of its promoters has reached a crucial strategic phase in Galicia.

The proof of what I am saying is that a political coalition with scant resources was able to fill out meetings and to mobilise, in little more than a month, a social enthusiasm that has transformed, especially in urban centres, into the living opposition to the Partido Popular. The AGE spokespersons have mobilised Galician national consciousness better than anyone but, above all, they have taken aim against the politics of the elites, with an irreverent style, disruptive, and making their own a large part of the messages and the style that the social mobilisation of recent times has embedded in a large part of society.

We also have to take note, besides, of something that they have known about in Latin America for some time and that AGE has handled as well as its Greek reference point: having good spokespeople. Presenting good candidates is much more than playing with image and charisma as elements of political marketing. Good candidates are the essential ingredient so that speeches become engines that organise social outrage.

There is undoubtedly a bitter lesson in the result of the Galician elections, that is, that the conversion of the social defeat of political regimes into electoral defeat takes more time than many of us might wish for. This was driven home in Greece when Syriza’s 26% was not enough to overcome the right wing. But fear has already gripped the PP. Today one of its spokespersons declared in front of the TVE cameras with regard to the elections: “Our party is ending up without an interlocutor on the centre-left for the affairs of State”. The Syriza effect is in motion.




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