Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

The Battle for Spain’s Soul

Alberto Garzón

Tomorrow's Spanish election pits an increasingly hardline right-wing against the country's Left in a fight over the future. Unidos Podemos MP Alberto Garzón discusses the polarised political landscape.

Interview by
Eoghan Gilmartin
Tommy Greene

Spain goes to the polls for the third time in four years tomorrow. The Socialist Party’s interim Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called snap elections in February after losing the parliamentary vote on his anti-austerity budget. Only in the job eight months, Sánchez’s so-called ‘Frankenstein coalition’ was unstable from the beginning. 

His majority depended not only on the support of left-wing grouping Unidos Podemos but also on the backing of Catalan and Basque nationalists. With Sánchez unwilling to agree to ‘mediated’ talks over the Catalan independence crisis, and against the background of the trial of pro-independence leaders for sedition, Catalan MPs voted against the budget deal, despite its promise of an 18 per cent investment boost for the region. 

The Socialist Party (PSOE) currently tops the polls on 28 per cent, but in a fragmented electoral landscape it is unclear if it will be able to form a government. Its potential coalition partner Unidos Podemos (the electoral alliance between Podemos and the Communist-backed United Left) looks set to suffer losses after a year of high-profile splits. If in 2016 the talk was of the potential ‘sorpaso’ (electoral overtaking) of PSOE, the latest polls see the left-wing alliance trailing in fourth place. 

The more recent insurgent force in the country is the extreme-right Vox party, which made a historic breakthrough in December’s Andalusian elections winning 11 per cent of the vote. Although sitting fifth in the polls, its rabid anti-left and anti-Catalan discourse is dragging the wider Spanish right to increasingly reactionary positions. 

Opposition leader Pablo Casado recently accused PM Sánchez of being a traitor and ‘coup-plotter’ for negotiating with pro-independence Catalan MPs, while promising to implement direct rule in the region if his Partido Popular was elected. For many Spanish progressives, the nightmare scenario is a government of ‘the three rights’ (Casado’s Partido Popular, the liberal-right formation Ciudadanos, and Vox) which could see crackdowns on abortion, immigration, and labour rights.

Eoghan Gilmartin and Tommy Greene sat down with Unidos Podemos MP, and leader of the United Left, Alberto Garzón to discuss the upcoming elections, the rise of the extreme right and where the Spanish left goes from here.


Eight months ago, the PSOE came to power after a motion of no-confidence against then conservative Prime Minster Mariano Rajoy. Given the fragility of the coalition backing Sánchez and the constant tensions generated around Catalonia, how would you sum up your engagement with his minority government?


It has been an ambiguous experience. We have secured some important advances, in particular the 22 per cent hike in the minimum wage. However, when the motion of no confidence ended the Right’s eight years in power, expectations were raised that have not been fulfilled. Many of the promised measures have fallen by the wayside, such as the repeal of Spain’s repressive gag law or the regulation of the rental market.

Instead, the PSOE has repeatedly prioritised its own tactical interests, while the Catalan nationalists have been guided by short-term considerations. The Catalan independence crisis has left our political system trapped in a type of ‘prisoner dilemma’. All the parties, whether Catalan or Spanish, recognise in private that the standoff can only be dealt with through sitting down and engaging in political negotiations. However, they also know the first to offer concessions in public will be branded a traitor. Nobody is willing to take the first step towards defusing the situation.

PSOE’s Pedro Sánchez is widely viewed as the likely winner of Sunday’s election.

Pedro Sánchez has lacked the political courage to break out of this dynamic. He was unwilling to assume the cost of engaging with the crisis. Instead, since the new year, he has sought early elections. On the other side, the two major Catalan parties [the Republican left and centre-right PDeCAT] wanted to vote for the Left’s budget deal. It would have benefitted Catalan workers. But having claimed that Sánchez’s government was complicit in the prosecution of pro-independence leaders, they were unable to walk back their position. So, in the end, the strategic wager on which this government assumed power failed to deliver.


April’s elections are taking place in a very distinct context to that of the two general elections in 2015/16 when the Left was in the ascent and Podemos made its historic breakthrough. In the polls Unidos Podemos has fallen to 14.5 per cent, six points off your 2016 election result. In December’s regional elections in Andalucia your vote was about a third below the combined result of Podemos and the United Left in 2015. How would you explain this decline?


Between 2011 and 2016 the political agenda in Spain was dominated by social and economic questions, with people’s anger at austerity channelled through progressive forces like the Indignados movement, the anti-eviction La PAH and later Podemos. Spain was seen as an exception in Europe, with most of the continent witnessing a reactionary wave as extreme-right parties gained ground. 

With the emergence of Vox and the wider radicalisation of the Spanish right, clearly this has changed. The political agenda is now dominated by nationalism, not only at the level of the Spanish state but also in places like Catalonia. In this context it is difficult for a social agenda to gain traction. For example, the recent ultra-nationalist rally in Madrid’s Columbus Square received wall-to-wall media coverage despite attracting only 50,000 people. Meanwhile a larger protest in Galicia on the same day defending the region’s public health system went largely unreported. 

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias with United Left’s Alberto Garzón at a Unidos Podemos rally.

In this context we are facing a complicated election campaign. Unlike with Marine Le Pen in parts of France, the rise of Vox has not been based on its ability to attract working class voters. It is a splinter group of the most reactionary elements from within the Partido Popular and has found its base among middle- and high-income voters. Our voters are demoralised and simply stayed at home for the Andalucian elections. All left-wing parties, including PSOE, lost ground and so there is an issue with the progressive electorate in general, not just one party or the other.

The beginning of this demobilisation can be traced back to the failure in January 2016 to form a left-wing government between PSOE, Podemos, and the United Left. Those six months in which Spain was without a government were a turning point. They created a deep frustration among voters, particularly Podemos’ who had voted for change. With the Right’s subsequent return to power, a new political cycle opened defined by frustration on the left, renewed nationalism around the Catalan crisis as well as a sense of increased economic stability after eight years of financial turmoil. 

The question now is how to remobilise our voters and combat abstention. Sánchez’s strategy is to position the PSOE as the pragmatic option for all voters wishing to counter the extremist threat. In this context Unidos Podemos must centre our discourse on the material needs of working-class families, putting forward measures to deal with precarious labour conditions, energy poverty, and the housing crisis. 


Sánchez is aiming to polarise the electoral space between a radicalised right, on the one hand, and a broad progressive bloc of which he is the leader. He is framing the vote as a clear choice: either a regression to the worst of Spain’s past or a defence of the country as a modern, open democracy. Is it fair to say that this strategy risks leaving Unidos Podemos marginalised? 


Many on the left fear a right-wing victory and yes, it could lead them to vote pragmatically for the PSOE. The ‘three rights’ [the Popular Party, Ciudadanos, and Vox] are pushing a very conservative idea of Spain that pits a closed homogeneous nation against an ‘anti-Spain’ or internal enemy. This has been the dominant framing of Spanish identity for much of the last two hundred years and has been used to tar anarchists, communists, socialists, Catalans, Basques, and even atheists as enemies of the nation. In talking about coup-plotters and traitors, leaders like [the PP’s] Pablo Casado are employing this type of divisive, reactionary discourse.

In response the Socialists have set out to defend another idea of Spain. It is, however, very ambiguous, defined more by what it opposes than its positive content. Unlike the British Labour Party, the PSOE has not managed to reconnect with the historic principles of social democracy. Pedro Sánchez is a technocrat who for tactical reasons has assumed some of the Left’s rhetoric but is more similar to Tony Blair than to Jeremy Corbyn. In terms of confronting business interests, he has been weak. We agreed in the budget deal to regulate prices in the rental market, but in the end Sánchez had no appetite to take on the banks and investment funds that dominate the sector. 

Far-right party Vox have rode a wave of nationalist feeling to emerge as a serious force after the Catalan independence controversy.

It is also clear that part of the Socialist Party is preparing for a government with Ciudadanos [Cs]. This is the preferred coalition for the economic elites and Brussels — a government that will guarantee financial stability while isolating the extreme right. We have to explain to voters the massive difference between a PSOE pact with Cs and one with the Left. Cs has made clear it opposes the increase in the minimum wage and wouldn’t take measures to improve the welfare of working families. Our job is to get that message across while crystallising our program into four or five measures that explain our priorities.

To do so will require a grassroots campaign with activists on the ground. Right now, we are being forced to operate on a terrain designed by our opponents — doing interviews in which we are only asked about Catalonia or Venezuela. We cannot win by playing by their rules.


The Spanish left goes into these elections divided having suffered a series of splits in recent months. Most notably, Podemos co-founder Íñigo Errejón and Madrid mayor Manuela Carmena have set up their own rival organisation to run in the local and regional elections in the capital. To what extent has this added to your current slump and what do you see as at the root of these splits?


Those to the left of the PSOE have historically been able to win at most 14 per cent in elections. In recent years, with the economic crisis and the corruption scandals which engulfed the political class, there were millions of new voters willing to support our forces. The emergence of Podemos as well as various local and regional platforms established a heterogeneous set of alliances. Some people came to this new scenario with a perspective informed by the traditions of the Left and Marxism, others came from distinct political cultures, even if they had similar political opinions on certain issues.

To keep such diverse alliances together is difficult enough when we are advancing, but in a moment of retreat it is nearly impossible. So, we are seeing various initiatives which seek to break with the existing alliances to defend their own particular ideas and interests. We have divisions not only in Madrid but also Galicia, Catalonia, Valencia, and so on. For the United Left the priority is to develop stronger structures that can better allow us to work together within the same space. In the end the nucleus of this bloc, the alliance between us and Podemos, remains intact. That is necessary for the future. 

Podemos deputy leader Íñigo Errejón (left) left the party in the months before the election to form a new alliance with Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena

The world is not going to end with the upcoming elections and by historic standards our polling numbers remain at the higher end of the spectrum for the radical left. But we need to adapt to the post-2016 context in which our electoral space has narrowed. We are no longer in a moment of growth and the sense that the regime is about to fall has passed. Instead, we find ourselves in a period of apparent calm. I say apparent because a new economic crisis is coming. We are also facing ecological collapse, wars in South America, and the slow implosion of the European Union. However, in this moment, the middle layers in Spain are quiet and no longer possess the same radicalism as at the height of the crisis.

I’m not a voluntarist and so believe that while the abilities and actions of political leaders are important, they are not the determining factor. We operate within a framework conditioned by the economy, international relations, and other factors. 

There are leaders within our political space who believe we failed to surpass the Socialists because we have not been sufficiently intelligent. And look, we have made tactical errors. But our current difficulties are not simply down to this. You have to take into account the objective conditions. For example, when European Central Bank Chief Mario Draghi promised to do ‘whatever it takes’ to save the euro, he was ensuring that here in Spain no further banks collapsed. This produced a certain stabilisation and had impact on our position and the correlation of forces more generally.

Our task is to get ready for the next opening. Being a revolutionary is pretty easy during crises but in moments of stability it is more difficult. We have to regroup — accumulating forces beyond the institutions. Like the workers’ movement in the nineteenth century, we need to construct parallel institutions. The Left needs to be present in all spaces where socialisation takes place. This includes television and social media but also sports clubs, bars, neighbourhood associations and, of course, unions. 

The battle for hegemony will be won in the field of civil society. To concentrate solely on the institutional realm is like trying to play chess with most of your pieces missing. So far, though, we have not managed to advance that far in this direction. The institutions trap you, absorbing your energy, time, and resources.


There has been a lot of focus on social movements in Spain, given their prominent role in mass demonstrations in recent years. But at the same time, another pillar of the Left’s strength, the trade union movement, has been in decline. What role do you see trade unions having in any left-wing breakthrough in Spain?


Spain’s largest trade union [CCOO] has been forced to engage in some reflection recently. Historically, unions have sought a corporatist pact with capital. They have never really had a wider alternative proposal for the country. This left trade unions trapped in the post-war era where the conflict between capital and labour was institutionalised.

Today, there is nobody on the other side interested in dialogue. Corporations don’t want to speak with unions. Trade unions find themselves having to reflect on how best to set out new formulas. Many precarious workers are not currently affiliated to unions, in part because of the legal barriers to organising. To get beyond this means overcoming the traditional boundaries that circumscribe the movement.

Spain’s trade union movement has fought public service and pension cuts in recent years, but been less of a decisive force than the country’s social movements.

That’s where left-wing political parties come in. We are of two different cultures, which sometimes can make this kind of connection difficult. You collide with one another at first and then you have to begin to come closer and work together. And we need to be quick about doing it. In my opinion, there won’t be any kind of left-wing transformation in this country if it doesn’t have trade unions and political parties backing it.

But we also need to be able to effectively link organised actors across the board. In recent years, the major mobilisations — such as the Indignados in 2011 and 2014 — have been social movements. Trade unions were at the margins. There were many trade unionists within these social mobilisations, of course, but they weren’t there under instruction or as part of a strategic move.

Strikes are powerful to the extent that the conflict becomes institutionalised and recognised as valid for negotiations. The problem is, big companies don’t recognise strikes today in the same way that strikes might have been considered, say, thirty years ago. Then, you could put a temporary stop to an industrial sector and the country would be paralysed for as long as the strike went on. Today, the power of the industrial sector has been so heavily weakened that similar strikes wouldn’t have the same effect.

Many small-scale strikes in industries or companies like Vodafone and Coca-Cola have made advances and have won. But we’re not talking about general strikes here — we’re talking about other, more limited and specific experiences. The country doesn’t have the same industrial clout, for instance, as some central European countries do. The Left is having to innovate because Spain has its own specific industrial composition and weight. 

About the Author

Alberto Garzón is the leader of Spain's United Left and a Member of Parliament for Madrid representing Unidos Podemos, the left-wing alliance led by Podemos and the United Left.

About the Interviewer

Eoghan Gilmartin is a writer and translator who covers Spanish politics for Tribune and Jacobin.

Tommy Greene is a freelance journalist and translator based in Madrid.