Spain’s Left Turn

Txema Guijarro

Podemos MP Txema Guijarro sits down with Tribune to discuss the challenges facing Spain's new left-wing coalition government, its mission to fight for working people – and its commitment to deliver justice for the victims of the Franco dictatorship.

Interview by
Eoghan Gilmartin

“Our democracy is indebted to the many heroes who were willing to risk their lives, and to those who lost them, as well as all those that risked their freedom and ended up in [Francoist] jails. These are the fathers and mothers of our democracy and this new government is committed to giving them the prominence that they deserve.”

In his first public act as Spain’s new deputy prime minister, Unidas Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias spoke at a commemoration for the victims of the 1977 terrorist attacks, in which neo-fascist paramilitaries slaughtered seven people – including five labour rights lawyers – as the country was in midst of its transition to parliamentary democracy.  

In his speech, Iglesias reaffirmed the commitments made by Spain’s newly-elected left-wing coalition on historical memory and justice. These include a ban on public exaltation of Francoism, an audit of assets and property seized by the fascists at the end of the country’s civil war and funding to exhume the remains of tens of thousands of Franco’s victims still buried in mass graves. There will also be a new national day for the commemoration of Franco’s victims on October 31 while May 8 will commemorate the half million Spaniards who were forced into exile after his victory. 

Having taken office in early January, this is only one front on which the Socialist Party/Unidas Podemos government is hoping to make progress. Though lacking more transformative measures that might have come from a Corbyn government, the Spanish coalition programme commits to strengthening union and workers’ rights, increasing the minimum wage and income tax on high earners, introducing rent controls as well as providing investment to public services. 

Such an agenda marks it out as an exception in a Europe lurching increasingly rightward. Doubts remain, however, over Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s willingness to take on the Spanish oligarchy to enact the more controversial of these measures. As the larger of the two parties his centre-left Socialist Party (PSOE) dominates many of the cabinet’s strategic portfolios but the key ministries held by Unidas Podemos – Labour, Equality and Social Rights – place the radical left in a leading position in a number of key battles to come.  

The government is also faced with another major limitation. Its combined 155 MPs – 120 from PSOE and 35 from Unidas Podemos –  means it lacks a stable majority and is dependent on the backing of smaller regional parties, including the pro-independence Catalans Esquerra Republicana (Republican Left). To discuss the coalition’s prospects and the challenges it poses for the radical left, Eoghan Gilmartin sat down with Undias Podemos MP Txema Guijarro.


Entering government represents a real achievement for Unidas Podemos, not least because you have had to resist years of smear campaigns designed to avoid this eventuality. At the same time, however, the coalition arrives at a very different moment to your initial breakthrough in 2014/5, with the radical left – as in much of Europe – having suffered significant electoral losses. What happens next? How should Unidas Podemos approach this challenge of governing with PSOE as a junior partner?


Yes, clearly the political reality we are confronted with today in Spain is not that of five or six years ago. For example, you have had the historic breakthrough for the far-right, not just in terms of Vox’s 52 MPs but also with the Spanish Right in general taking on extremist ideas which only a few years ago would have been unthinkable. There is also the situation in Catalonia where we have political leaders in jail and exile. This is politically unsustainable and has led to a heightening of tensions unknown in recent decades.

And then you also have had the exhaustion of the street movements – which is understandable as the struggles we are engaged with are long and so there has been a fall away in recent years in the muscular type of protests that marked Podemos’ birth. In this context we were confronted by a dilemma. Even though we knew we would be faced with massive limits, and that we would basically have to build our parliamentary majority anew with every vote, we still felt we had no other option but to try it – to assume the contractions that would go along with entering this government.

There is a very academic debate about when the Left should or should not take office, and under what conditions. But against those who say you have to wait for more favourable conditions to arrive, it is important to insist on being attuned to the sense of urgency which comes with defending the popular classes. The popular classes need welfare and protection – not to be told to sacrifice themselves in a permanent war of resistance.

In terms of what happens now, the government needs to begin implementing its social agenda as quickly as possible, to ensure that it is felt in people’s pockets and in their daily lives. We are already seeing the first measures [with the initial 5 percent hike in the minimum wage as well as increases in public pensions and civil servants pay]. This is key because the people have to feel that this is their government very quickly – that it is fighting for them against those at the top of society and that they, in turn, are willing to come out and defend it. The Right and its corporate allies are not going to desist in their ferocious opposition – whatever we do, they will not turn down the volume – so securing popular backing is crucial.


In terms of implementing this social agenda, what should be the priorities for the government? 


There are a number of priorities. The first is to repeal the PP’s 2012 labour reforms, not only because it has undermined basic workers’ rights, and massively increased the number of temporary contracts, but also because we need to recover the unions’ ability to engage in collective negotiation. Their capacity to do so was greatly restricted under these reforms, and so these measures have acted to disempower the working-class. 

In the more medium-term the government’s programme is also looking to improve the quality of employment in Spain. We are committed to implementing a new legal statute of worker’ rights aimed at tackling precariousness. This is also linked to our programme for ecological transition [that commits the country to being carbon-neutral by 2050] and which for us is the perfect opportunity to implement Keynesian policies, insisting on high-quality employment as we seek to transform the country’s productive and environmental model.

Beyond the question of labour, our commitments on tax reform will also be key. Spain’s welfare state has been hindered by the fact that our levels of taxation, particularly on high incomes, are much lower than in other European states. With such a tax system, it is very difficult to implement new social programmes and so in order to deliver our program, we need measures that will increase our tax intake so that it is more in line with countries like France.

We are not talking about anything revolutionary but we will be increasing taxes on incomes over 100,000 euro, taking steps to ensure a minimum level of effective corporate taxation and introducing things like a financial transaction tax. Tax justice and labour rights, these will be vertebrae of our agenda in this legislature. But we also see them as intersecting with two longer-term objectives: the ecological transition of the Spanish economy and the struggle for a more definitive form of gender equality.


How limiting is the fact you have accepted the European Union’s budget rules? This was one of the major concessions you made to PSOE – with the coalition’s programme talking about “balanced budgeting…”


Yes, in the short-term this contradiction will have to be navigated through increases in the state’s revenue. We are still opposed to these budgetary restrictions that European institutions place around member states – and we will not stop arguing that they represent a barrier towards a social Europe. But as part of our pact with PSOE we have had to accept this framework.  

But while assuming the contradictions that this implies, we still believe there is a certain margin to pursue Keynesian policies within these rules. PSOE has traditionally pursued left-wing policies to the extent that the major economic powers were comfortable with them. What we are aiming for, in a very pragmatic sense, is to extend the social state in Spain beyond these limits set by the elites. If we manage to reform the tax system so that we increase the fiscal impact on high incomes and corporations, then the type of investments in the public health system or the universities we are proposing become possible as does our commitment to introduce free universal childcare.

If we are able to move in this direction – generating step-by-step these type of concrete advances that will impact the daily lives of people – this will leave us in a stronger position to then put forward more ambitious objectives. The people need to see that Unidas Podemos is capable of delivering results, that as a governing force it can combine a long-term perspective on issues like ecological transition with an ability to respond to more immediate demands.


The other big challenge facing the coalition is Catalonia. Your majority depends on at least an abstention from the Catalan Republican Left Party (ERC), whose leader Oriol Juanqueras is currently serving a 13-year prison sentence for his part in organising the 2017 independence referendum. Its continued co-operation will require PSOE to take further steps away from its previous hard line towards the independence movement and engage in dialogue. How do you view this issue?


Catalonia will be the sword of Damocles hanging over the whole legislature and if the government lasts its full term it will be because we have succeeded in making progress on this issue. In Unidas Podemos we still believe the only definitive solution is a referendum that gives Catalans the opportunity to vote on their future constitutional status. We have, however, reached a draft for a roadmap for the initial steps that need to be taken – which is the agreement signed between PSOE and ERC [that enabled Sánchez’s investiture]. 

After more than two years of inflamed tensions, its content holds out the possibility of serious dialogue for the first time. Above all, the agreement moves away from a purely legalistic approach to the conflict [which treats it as a criminal matter] and seeks to repoliticise it through a bilateral negotiation between Barcelona and Madrid. The conflict cannot be dealt with in the courts. It requires political negotiations in which both sides see that the other is willing to engage in a trade-off.

The challenge for ERC is that it will be very much conditioned by the Catalan political agenda, which operates in terms of its own exigencies and rhythms and is obviously distinct to the one here in Madrid. Balancing the demands of engaging in both arenas at the same time will not be easy for ERC, particularly with the other pro-independence parties taking a line of “the worse things are [in Madrid], the better.” It will need to demonstrate that it can secure advances through dialogue. This is important not only for it as a party but also for Catalan society. We have to show the Catalan people that a meaningful understanding is possible. 


Is it fair to say that part of what will probably keep this diverse majority together is the fear of the potential alternative, a hard-right government dependent on the support of neo-fascist Vox? 


Our analysis of the Right is twofold. On the one hand all the parties – not just Vox – have taken up such a hard line and engaged in such anti-democratic rhetoric that it is likely to delegitimise them if they continue. The Popular Party is torn between seeking more majoritarian positions and having to compete with Vox along these lines.

At the same time, yes, one of the best guarantees of the government’s survival is the fact that the alternative would be so disastrous that it is basically unthinkable. A high level of responsibility will be required from all the various actors involved in our current governing arrangement. Each of us has to be aware that the question of who is at fault for the government’s failure won’t count for much compared to the fact that everyone will suffer for it.

And so when we insist that best guarantee to defeat the hard-right is a strong welfare state, this has to be a practical political principle that guides the actions of this government. We also have to engage in the battle at a cultural level – not just at the material. Whether it is a question of LGBT rights, feminist policies or the plurinational nature of the Spain, we have to take the fight to the Right and not cede ground on such issues.


For Podemos as a political organisation the coalition also represents a new challenge. As with most new formations that have emerged since the 2008 financial crisis, the party’s extra-parliamentary structures have been weak. How should you approach this problem of having your core leadership in the cabinet while also needing to put down roots beyond the institutions?


Up until now Podemos has been built primarily as an electoral platform, which has had a capacity for rapid tactical movements but with little solidity as an organisation. This has worked to bring us this far but in the new phase we are entering, it is no longer sufficient.

With no elections on the horizon, the challenge is now to construct something more robust – working slowly over time to rebuild our system of local branches, known as circles, increasing the number of social and cultural centres we have around the country, and making our presence felt in the neighbourhoods by engaging in local campaigns.

In the short-term, a certain tension is inevitable in terms of how to combine constructing Podemos as a governing force and as a popular one. In this respect we will have to face questions over how to balance our resources between the two tasks and how to organise the party leadership so it is attentive to both. In order to meet these challenges head on, we have decided to call our third party congress a year earlier than mandated. It will now take place this March. 

At the congress we will also be debating what our relationship with the other actors on Spain’s new Left should be. There has been a certain fragmentation of this Left space over the last year [including the setting up of the rival Más País party led by Podemos’ former deputy leader Íñigo Errejón, which won three seats in November’s election, as well as the decision of various regional platforms to also break with Unidas Podemos]. 

Without any desire to absorb any of these forces, we do need to construct a certain unity of action based on our shared political agenda and analysis of the current moment. Clearly, the rupture with Más País last year was very difficult but politics cannot become personal. What matters is a renewed willingness to co-operate to achieve concrete ends. 


One area where Sánchez’s previous caretaker government had an impact was in historical memory – with the removal of Franco’s remains from his mausoleum at the Valley of the Fallen. What are the coalition’s priorities in this area?


The programme for government attaches real importance to the question of historical memory. Firstly, it commits us to continue eliminating the various elements of fascist exaltation that still remain in place due to a lack of political will of previous governments. These include Francoist symbols in public places or state decorations given to those involved in the dictatorship’s crimes.

Second, you have to remember that after Cambodia, Spain is the country with the highest number of disappeared people in the world whose remains are still lying in mass graves. And for us in Unidas Podemos, this has to be resolved as quickly as possible. In this respect, we are committed to investing substantial public finds for the first time into a programme of exhumation and identitification of the remains of over 100,000 victims who were executed during first years of the dictatorship. This fundamental question cannot be limited to commemorations but requires that the state involves itself directly.

Families have been waiting eighty years to find the remains of their loved ones and to bury then with dignity. Yet this is not only a question of their right to a certain closure. Such a program is also necessary in political terms – that we as a people can begin to turn the page. 

About the Author

Txema Guijarro is a Podemos member of parliament representing Alicante and the secretary general of the broad left parliamentary group representing Unidas Podemos, En Comú Podem and Guanyem el Canvi.

About the Interviewer

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