Spain turns to the right – but are the voters rejecting ‘the left’ or incumbents?

As the polls had predicted, Spain has a new government: Rajoy’s right-wing Partido Popular (PP) defeated Zapatero’s left-of-centre Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE). The only surprise was the large margin of victory, 16%, the worst defeat for Spain’s socialists in their electoral history.

So yet another right-wing government takes power in a European nation. On the face of it, it seems almost perverse that at a time when confidence in the deregulated capitalist system associated with the right is at its lowest ebb that those parties which champion it are winning elections. As I noted here on LibDemVoice back in August:

That societies tend to move to the right at times of economic and social uncertainty is not new. But the retreat of the left across Europe is significant, as the Guardian noted a couple of weeks ago, and as their maps show. With Portugal having elected a right-wing Social Democrat government in June, and Spain likely to elect the right-wing Partido Popular in November, only four out of Europe’s 27 nations will have left-of-centre governments.

The point was also made by Labour’s David Miliband a few months ago in a lecture self-explanatorily entitled ‘Why is the European left losing elections?‘:

The right is seeking to emulate the electoral strategies of the left in the 1990s; and the left in the last decade has not been able to decide whether to disown them or embrace them, when the key is in fact to build on them. So it is losing elections again on a grand scale.

Look at the facts.

The British General Election 2010. The second worst result since 1918. Sweden, also 2010. The worst result since 1911. Germany, 2009. The worst result since the founding of the Federal Republic, with a greater loss of support than any party in the history of the country. France, 2007. The worst result since 1969. Holland, 2009. A traumatic transition from junior coalition partner to opposition. Italy. A yo-yo in and out of power, with personal and political divisions disabling opposition to Berlusconi.

These six countries, with good claim to represent the historic heartland of European social democracy, the homes of heroes from Bevan to Gramsci to Brandt to Mitterrand to Palme, the place where revisionism as a credo was created, are now run by the centre-right.

And yet look more closely and it’s clear the picture is more complex than the binary ‘right advancing / left retreating’ meme allows.

In Denmark, in September’s election, the left’s coalition of Social Democrats, the Socialist People’s party and the Red-Green Alliance did well enough to form a new government (though we should note the liberal Venstre party gained a seat and remained the single largest party). In France, also in September, an alliance of French Socialists and Greens took control of the French Senate, and, for the moment at least, François Hollande is well-placed in the polls to defeat President Sarkozy. And in Germany, too, though elections are still almost two years away, Angela Merkel’s coalition of the centre-right CDU/CSU and the liberal FPD is polling well behind a likely alliance of Sigmar Gabriel’s left-of-centre SPD, the Greens and the hard-left Die Linke.

It is, therefore, simplistic to point to Spain as another nail in the coffin of the European left. It is at least as likely to be a reaction by the voters against incumbency. Now is not a time when being popular and being in government are an easy combination. Governments of left and right across Europe are having to implement austerity measures, whether voluntarily or because they’re compelled to by their own indebtedness; the severity varies, but it is an inevitable consequence of sluggish growth in the west.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and News.


  • Apply ‘Occam’s razor’…The simplest explanation is that, at a visceral level, the electorate blame the incumbents for the problems.

  • Foregone Conclusion 21st Nov '11 - 10:01am

    One of my friends voted in the Spanish elections, and was enthusiastically for the PP in this round of elections, but I would say that she’s of the centre, leaning towards the left perhaps. Rather telling was when she was complaining about the Spanish government, and I said, ‘oh, they’re the socialists aren’t they?’, to which she replied, ‘they’re not anything! They’re just useless!’

  • Peter Bancroft 21st Nov '11 - 12:23pm

    As liberals, would it be more useful to look at how liberal governments are, rather than sugest that European politics is all about being Socialist or Conservative? Looking at liberal parties in government all across the continent, even the other parties couldn’t claim that we’re irrelevant.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Nov '11 - 12:55pm

    It does seem to be much the same as in the UK – the government was of the left-wing party of a semi two-party system, but interpreted “left” as showing an enthusiasm for “capitalism”, standing by while “capitalism” promised it had created enduring prosperity without looking too much at how it was doing it, and interpreting being of the “left” as putting a bit of tax-and-spend on top of that. Then, when the economy “started” going wrong (actually it was going wrong all along, so what is really meant here is “visibly started”), voters switched to “the other lot” because, well that’s what you do in a two-party system, isn’t it?

    What was going wrong ALL ALONG was the extent to which the economy was being driven by borrowing on land and property. We see this in Spain, the UK, the USA, Ireland – an economy which has too much basis on the notion we can all get rich by selling houses to each other. We can’t.

    At the bottom of such economies are the little people, forced to take on mortgages they can’t safely afford because they have to in order to get somewhere to live. The net effect of easily obtainable mortgages, sold as “helping people buy houses”, is to drive property prices higher. But those at the bottom are sold it as an “investment” to stop them worrying about it. In the end, the Ponzi elements mean its bound to crash as eventually the point is reached where something breaks, someone took out just too much and found they couldn’t cover it, the whole lot goes down dominoes-fashion. Or rather, it partly goes down because it’s only partly Ponzi.

    The failure of the left comes from going along with all this. But they were made afraid not to, because to speak out against any of it was to be accused of being opposed to people owning their own homes, opposed to investment, being old-style socialists who like the idea of everyone dragooned into council-owned tower blocks. From the 1980s onwards it became politically impossible to speak out about the impending doom that an economy based too much on everyone selling houses to each other was bound to lead to.

    I spoke out myself on all this at the Liberal Party assembly in Eastbourne 1986. Yes, I really did see it coming 25 years ago, I am on record on that. I also remember the abuse I got from my political opponents – Tories and Labour – when I first started making a fuss about this issue, the way I was accused of being a “Marxist” because I wanted to see the sort of taxation that would stop this unrealistic boom and bust. Even in the Liberal Democrats, the adoption of the policy of local income tax as a replacement for the only bit of property tax we have was in effect a suppression of speaking out in this topic. This happened when I was a councillor, and I remember how difficult was then to put the view that we needed land value taxation when my own party was pushing the line that such things are unfair and the only fair tax was income tax.

  • Simon Titley 21st Nov '11 - 1:26pm

    @Simon McGrath – “the Eurozone crisis (unlike the 2008 financial crisis) has nothing to do with capitalism. It has everything to do with high spending countries borrowing far more money than they can credibly pay back.”

    So how do you explain that both Spain and Ireland had budget surpluses until the banking crisis came along?

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Nov '11 - 11:14pm

    Simon McGrath

    Except that the Eurozone crisis (unlike the 2008 financial crisis) has nothing to do with capitalism. It has everything to do with high spending countries borrowing far more money than they can credibly pay back.

    Er, not quite – it also has a lot to do with unsustainable property price booms, which are thoroughly driven by capitalism. It’s not just state borrowing, it’s private borrowing. It’s this idea that no-one need do any real work, somehow property will work as a magic money machine, and we will all make money selling it to each other.

    To a certain extent this works, but only if there is something else driving it. Otherwise, what is really driving it is first-time buyers desperately borrowing more than they can safely afford, hoping somehow some day they can pay it back, but made to feel it’s okay because it’s “an investment”, and also FORCED to do it because there is no other way to get housing. Eventually, you run out of first time buyers, and it collapses, as any Ponzi scheme does. It’s continuing in the UK because first-time buyers are being replaced by buy-to-letters, who are being paid by the taxpayer courtesy of housing benefit. However, it has reached a very dangerous stage – if we don’t have a controlled reduction in house prices, I fear something very nasty will happen. What happens when we really do need to increase interest rates, for example? It’s for this reason that though I dislike a lot of what the coalition is doing, I do actually support it in capping housing benefits. I despair at the way Labour is firing cheap shots at this, which are really defedning private landlords being handed over huge dollops of cash from the taxpayers for no better reason than they were wealthy enough to be able to get int buy-to-let in the first place.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Nov '11 - 11:35pm

    Capitalism is conventionally illustrated by cows, so maybe it can be explained that way. You have two cows. Actually, strictly, you have exercised your cow-buying options, bought the cows on loan, sold them on, and spent the profits on imported luxuries. In fact, you never saw the cows. Your friend has two cows. Actually, he never saw any cows either, but like you if he needed them he could call in the loan and get them. Come to think of it, there’s a big crowd of you, you all have cows, so that’s a lot of cows in total. Actually, none of you have any real cows. Another way of putting it, there’s a heck of a lot of cow-loans there. You’d better believe there’s real cows somewhere behind it all. You discover there aren’t. You’re all bust. Actually you’re not – you sliced and diced the cow loans and passed them on to the little people, and claimed you were a rare genius to do this, so you must be paid millions. You bought up what the little people need to live, so they HAVE to pay you. Who cares about the cows?

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