• The Development and Challenges of the Spanish United Left (IU)

  • Par Javier Navascués | 27 May 09
  • Post scriptum: After this article was written, IU obtained very poor results in the Spanish general elections: less than 4 % of the vote with only two seats. Some of the worst fears have become reality. This puts even more emphasis on the need to find a way out of the current stalemate within IU. A congress will be called in the future. Will it mean a new opportunity for the Spanish left?

    The United Left of Spain (IU) was founded in 1986 out of an ad-hoc coalition brought together for the referendum called by Felipe González to ratify the decision to join NATO. The disappointing outcome of this referendum gave way to the general belief among the left in Spain that an alternative was badly needed to push the social-liberal bent of the Socialist Party (PSOE) government to the left.

    After the 1982 general elections, when the PSOE come to power, real opposition to right-wing policies by the socialists have come mostly from the side of unions and the peace movement. The Spanish Communist Party (PCE) was badly affected by its electoral results and splits, a significant part of its cadres had joined the PSOE, and an even larger portion of its rank-and-file had ceased any kind of political activism. The extreme left followed suit. Amidst a general flowering of isolated desperate struggles the only nationwide actions were carried out by the trade-union confederation (CCOO) against pension reforms, and by the peace and anti-militarist movements against both US military bases and compulsory military service.

    Out of this experience and on the basis of certain theoretical discussions, some of them dating from the time of the Civil War and the Popular Front, the PCE devised what was called the Politics of Convergence, which was formally adopted after the 11th Congress held in late 1983. The central point in this new political line was: “Never has the PCE seen itself as the only actor in a transformation process (…). For us this conception of the central role of social movements operates from the very moment that we communists consider the urgent task of facing the current economic crisis and the democratisation of society and the state, leading all the way to the future socialist society in which the real scope of the transformations and the process of substitution of state power by social regulation makes them even more necessary.”

    This decision occasioned a split led by the former General Secretary, Santiago Carrillo1, but also produced its first results in the launching of Convocatoria por Andalucía (CA). CA was a strategic alliance built in Andalusia by the regional organisation of the PCE and led by the Mayor of Cordova, Julio Anguita. CA run the regional elections in 1986 and won almost 20% of the vote although the PSOE retained an absolute majority. Between 1985 and 1988, CA managed to reach a level of organisational deployment well beyond the party’s limits both in qualitative and quantitative terms. It was based on a double structure, sectoral and territorial-based. Consensus was the rule although new modes of collective decision-making were emerging. The programmatic content reached a high level of development.

    The second result of the new political line was the birth of the United Left (IU) which was created as an electoral coalition formed by the PCE, the PCPE (a hard-line “pro-Soviet” split from the former), the PASOC (a small split of the PSOE) and other small groups. The newly founded IU ran in the general elections in 1986 and obtained a modest result, although better than that of the PCE in 1982. One year later, in 1987, the outcome of the local elections was worse than that of 1983, but not in Andalusia, something that was seen as proof of the adequacy of the Andalusian strategy.

    In 1988, the 12th Congress of the PCE elected Julio Anguita as General Secretary and decided to build the IU as a “fully sovereign social and political movement”, far beyond a coalition. It was understood that IU would consist of “collectives and individuals, communists, socialists, and leftists of all origins, committed to a common programme, collectively decided”. In a sense, the Andalusian experience was transposed to all of Spain. Not only the political-organisational dimension, but also its strategic goals. Stated very synthetically, these were full employment, sustainable development as opposed to sheer economic growth, the reform of the state and a general democratisation of Spanish politics.

    On these premises, IU progressed in the succeeding elections up to1996, gaining parliamentary seats even in places where the PCE was never able to win them before. The best results were in the 1994 European elections (2.5 million votes, 13.67%) and the general elections of 1996 (2.6 million votes, 10.5%). Those years also saw a major growth in social struggles with two general strikes in 1988 and 1994. In the general elections held in 1993, the IU got 2.2 million votes and 18 seats. Added to the 159 won by the socialists, it would have been enough to establish an absolute majority in Parliament (175 seats were needed). However, the PSOE preferred to negotiate with the Catalan conservatives. Some months before, IU had opposed the Maastricht Treaty in Parliament and that was a strategic issue for Felipe González.

    In 1996, IU achieved the best electoral results of its history, but the right-wing Popular Party (PP) won the elections with a relative majority. The political cycle had turned and in 2000 the PP won an absolute majority of seats. The huge mobilisation against the Iraq War and specially the train bombing in 2004 brought the socialists back to power but by then with a declining IU (1.4 million votes and 5.9% in 2000, 1.3 million and 4.96% in 2004).

    The Struggles Within IU up to 1996

    As early as 1991, during the 13th Congress of the PCE, a struggle emerged between those who defended the need to give the old PCE an “honourable” burial and build a “new left” party out of IU, on the one hand, and those, on the other, who advocated keeping the parties alive within an IU that would not become a party but remain a “political and social movement” with no ideological definition but only a programmatic one. This crisis has to be understood within the historical conditions of the moment: the vanishing of the socialist bloc and the debate within the international communist movement, especially the decisions made by the Italian party who had always had great influence on the PCE.

    Although the thesis upheld by those wanting to dissolve the PCE lost, which ultimately led them to leave the party, the struggle continued within IU. For five years, a large part of the leadership of IU, who supported the idea of turning it into a new left party, fought a battle for their positions. They finally founded the Democratic Party of the New Left (PDNI) and remained inside IU until 1997.

    The harshest confrontations took place when the moment came to vote for the EMU and the Maastricht Treaty in the Parliament. The PDNI, following the labour unions’ criteria, supported a “critical yes”. The majority of IU, led by Julio Anguita and the PCE, supported the “no” vote2. The PDNI parliamentarians did not observe the vote discipline and were criticised. Anguita also harshly accused the unions for accommodating to “neoliberal policies”. 

    After the 1993 municipal elections, IU needed the vote of the socialist councillors to appoint the mayors of Malaga and Cordova. The PSOE, probably thinking of the far-reaching consequences of giving these large cities to IU, let the PP appoint the mayors instead. IU retaliated in Asturias where the regional government fell to the PP because the left was unable to coalesce.The PSOE managed to make it appear as if IU were the one rejecting an agreement.

    When IU and the PP accused the socialist government of “state terrorism” after two ETA activists were tortured and their corpses found burnt and buried in the cellar of a police station, the PSOE and the PDNI accused Anguita of having a secret agreement with the PP to overthrow Felipe González. The leadership of CCOO (where, analogously to the French CGT or, in the past, the Italian CGIL, the PCE had the greatest influence) supported this accusation. So did the major media, especially the very influential El País which actively supported Felipe González and launched a long campaign to discredit Anguita. All these stories are known in Spain as “la pinza”, the vice, and persist as a heavy burden on IU.

    This debate was to a large extent mixed with, and hidden by, an organisational debate concerning democracy within IU and the role of the PCE and other parties. Apart from those openly advocating the dissolution of the party, in many sections and federations of the PCE the leadership was fully deployed in fighting to gain positions in IU; the party members’ activity was limited to rallying behind the leaders in every internal battle. Hundreds of independent activists who had joined IU in the previous years were demoralised and left. This also contributed to exhausting the communist rank-and-file and diminished political debate within the PCE on anything apart from the internal question.

    After 2000: The “New” Debate.

    The PDNI left IU in 1997, taking with it five MPs out of 22, and joined the PSOE in 2000. Julio Anguita resigned in 1999 after suffering a second heart attack.3 Paco Frutos, Secretary General of the PCE, replaced him as candidate in the 2000 elections. Later Gaspar Llamazares was elected as General Coordinator of IU and ran in the elections as a candidate in 2004.

    In office Llamazares has been advocating for a “refoundation” of IU as a red-green political party. Although in the last two Federal Assemblies this proposal was defeated, Llamazares and the core of the leadership supporting him have persisted in the idea of a “post-communist” political force capable of making alliances with the Greens and all kind of “left” nationalists. He is quite clearly following the path of IC, Inicitativa per Catalunya, which had been the Catalan version of IU4, the only important space in which the PDNI project was successful.

    In practical terms Llamazares has supported Zapatero in parliament in the past legislature and very recently he has announced his readiness to join a PSOE-led government after the general elections to be held on March 9. This has caused quite a scandal within the PCE – his former home – and in other components of IU. In the struggle to establish the candidates for these upcoming elections, he has supported non-communists and all sorts of alliances with Greens and left nationalists.

    The PCE and other currents have tried to replace him as a candidate, but in the November primaries5 he won a majority of 62% although with a turnover of 38%. Thewe numbers are very symptomatic of the current predicament of IU and the PCE: demoralisation of the rank-and-files and a very low level of participation. Whatever the results of the elections may be there is very little political momentum in the organisation.

    Some Conclusions

    The preceding sketch describes the road leading to the current situation, which can be seen in terms of the clash, at the top, of two strategies with a very limited participation of the grassroots. The first strategy, that of Llamazares, is clearly a continuation of the former thrust of the PDNI: re-founding a post-communist new left. Its foundations would be made up of a somewhat contradictory mix of former leftists turned to identity politics, pragmatic unionists and elected officers paying lip-service to fashionable “progressive” trends, and, mixed in with all this, and causing special confusion, the nationalities that have always been so problematic and typical of Spain. This is a strategy of the top layers because it scarcely is more than a media project and requires no organisation beyond electoral office.

    The second strategy, that of the PCE, is not so clear. On one hand, its cultural and ideological principles allow it correctly to criticise Llamazares’s strategy, especially from the “red” side. On the other, it is handicapped in two ways: it cannot escape from the general crisis of old politics, and it lacks a strategic proposal for the current political conjuncture. Thus, the PCE is basically condemned to fight bureaucratic battles on Llamazares’s terrain to win spaces making all sorts of alliances with “third parties” and middle-of-the-road groups. In this sense, it is not very appealing to its own grassroots, especially the more critical sections. The war remains confined to the summit.

    Curiously IU claimed to be “another way of doing politics”. What is now occurring belies these claims. In the last years, internal democracy in IU has been at a minimum. Some good principles were indeed established at the beginning, but most of them fell victim to the old-fashioned routines and means that were deployed during the struggle with the PDNI.

    In addition, IU had a political discourse which was correct at the time of the implementation of social-liberal policies and the deficiencies of the Spanish political establishment in those moments. This political discourse was able to organise many activists disappointed by the socialists in the late eighties and nineties and to raise crucial questions related to jobs, social rights, democratic problems with the state and with the idea of becoming European, as well as environmental and peace concerns. Full employment was a powerful slogan. It is no surprise that IU managed to grow on these premises.

    Since the PP entered government in 1996 things have changed. Today we have almost full employment, with almost total precariety and 10% migrant labour-force. Destruction of the environment and carbon dioxide emissions sustain the housing boom and thus jobs and consumption. Half the population never understood who Franco was or were too young to remember. They take the EU for granted. A new discourse is needed, all the more urgently now that hard times are appearing round the corner in the form of an economic downturn.

    The PCE is initiating a process of reflection on the current model of accumulation, the democratic deficits, and the new problems. This is good as a first step to a renewed political proposal. But in past years most of the organic links with Spanish society have been broken. Of course there are communists out in the society as a whole, but so many years of discussing IU’s problems have turned social reality into a sort of ‘foreign affairs’ for the party. It is urgent to reconstruct this connection. Everyone acknowledges that hard work must be done to restore the communication with real-world people, and this is not easy.

    On the other hand, what about convergence? IU is only another stage in a long history of convergence going back to the era of the Popular Front. As this article is being written, nobody knows how convergence will develop in the immediate future. If it survives it ought to broaden. Perhaps the EL, if it gets rid of its ‘international-department’ manner and opens up to flexible and participatory activism and programmatic non-sectarian articulation, will offer an opportunity to make an appeal for a larger regrouping. IU’s failures are in no way a reason to abandon the struggle for new democratic ways of convergence in political action, quite the contrary. If we may extract the lesson learned it may be this: IU is failing because it is behaving like a (bad) party, and the party (parties) in IU is failing because it is behaving more like an internal current, not like a party carrying ideology, analysis and social existence.



    1. The new strategy appealed in many respects to those who had left the party some years before in disagreement with Carrillo and had sought refuge in social movements
    2. The position was decided in the 3rd Federal Assembly ( Congress) of IU in 1992.
    3. The first one occurred in 1996, during the general election campaign.
    4. In Spanish communism, Catalonia has always been organised independently of the other regions, in a “fraternal” way. The PSUC, the Catalan version of the PCE, decided to “freeze” itself in the early nineties giving way to IC as a political party. In 1998, a competing political force was created, called EUiA, supported by IU. Since 2003, IC and EUiA have formed an electoral coalition running jointly in the elections. IC now declares itself to be a Green party.
    5. Conducted through mail ballots!