Saturday’s resignation of Socialist Party (PSOE) leader Pedro Sánchez was a watershed in Spanish politics. It followed days of drama in which a coup led by prominent party right-winger Susana Díaz attempted to oust Sánchez from his position, only to find itself locked out of PSOE headquarters.
The stand-off was widely interpreted as a debate between those in the party, represented by Sánchez, who refused to facilitate the return of the right-wing PP leader Mariano Rajoy as prime minister and those led by Díaz who would. In the end, the impasse was resolved by a vote of the party’s Federal Committee which Sánchez lost 133 to 109.
Initial reaction in the English-language press has portrayed Sánchez in a positive light. Occasionally drawing comparison with Jeremy Corbyn, he was presented as refusing to facilitate a new PP government out of political principle.
Undoubtedly, there was dignity in his determination not to walk back an unequivocal “no” to Rajoy. Especially under pressure from establishment figures to yield to an arrangement they argued was “for the good of Spain.” But in reality, he has pursued a strategy that has been key to Spain’s institutional deadlock, but just as stubbornly rejecting a more progressive option to his left.
During the last year, the PSOE has consistently refused to coalesce with the other major force on the Spanish left, Podemos, even as the option of a coalition government with them has remained a viable alternative to the PP.
In part this reflects the hostility of the PSOE to Podemos’s anti-austerity policies. After the experience of Syriza, the Socialists’ leadership believes any major concessions to Podemos would result in an unwanted confrontation with the European Commission over deficit targets. This fear meant that after December 2015’s disastrous election result which saw PSOE’s share of the vote fall to a historic low of 22 percent, Sánchez refused to chart a more radical course.
Further complicating matters was the fact that any pact with Podemos to form a government would also be dependent on the support of regional nationalists. Given Pablo Iglesias’s firm commitment on Catalonia’s “right to decide,” any move to form a left coalition was by seen by the Socialists as placing in doubt one of the key tenets of the post-Franco democratic regime: the unity and territorial integrity of the Spanish state.
As Iglesias and Manolo Monereo noted, Sánchez’s strategy aimed at “restoration,” the return of Spanish politics to its old two-party dynamic. This meant concentrating on neutralizing Podemos while at the same time insisting that the Socialists maintain their distance from the PP so as to position themselves as the only viable alternative.
For a time, it was an approach that seemed to be working. Following December’s elections Sánchez sought to outmaneuver Podemos by approaching new center-right party Ciudadanos for a broad coalition agreement. In doing so he not only headed off the need to enter negotiations with Podemos as near electoral equals, he also ensured that conversations about an anti-PP front would be anchored firmly on the right.
Podemos were in a difficult position: accept a role as a junior partner of a PSOE-led centrist bloc, or reject their tepid reform pact, which would have done nothing to address Spain’s unemployment crisis, growing inequality, or regional conflicts, and allow the media to blame Iglesias for the ongoing political stasis.
To make matters worse, Podemos was infighting throughout March, descending into an open standoff between Iglesias and his deputy Íñigo Errejón. The latter would disappear from the media for ten days in protest of Iglesias’s handling of internal tensions.
The PSOE and their allies in the powerful Prisa media group pushed a narrative which contrasted the calm, constructive leadership of Sánchez with the erratic and authoritarian Igleisas. This allowed them to continue to insist that there was no possible alternative government to this broad “progressive” alliance.
It appeared as though Sánchez had turned the PSOE’s fortunes around: Podemos’s support in opinion polls fell dramatically from 21 percent in December’s elections to 14 percent at the end of March. The momentum was with the Socialists as new elections loomed.
This dynamic changed with the emergence of a new coalition on the Left. When Podemos formed an alliance with Alberto Garzón’s Communist-led Izquierda Unida (United Left), the terms of debate changed. A broad front against the political center, containing the popular Garzón, renewed enthusiasm among activists and the party’s base.
Though it didn’t deliver the much-desired sorpasso, the pact managed to minimize the damage done by the loss of nearly one million votes for the Left between the December and June elections, as voter disillusionment with politics, particularly among the young, hit Podemos hard. While the PSOE leadership was initially relieved by the results, its strategy of using political instability to dislodge Iglesias’s formation from their position of the strength in Parliament had failed.
Furthermore the new electoral reality complicated Sánchez’s ability to continue to equivocate and blame Podemos. As the PP improved on their position as the largest party in Parliament, both Ciudadanos and the influential PSOE-supporting paper El País insisted that the Popular Party had a right to govern, with Albert Rivera calling on Sánchez to enter into a grand coalition with other constitutional forces.
Soon pressure on Sánchez began to mount from the right of his own party — led by the Andalusian premier Susana Díaz and their historic leader Felipe González who both now believed the time had come for a negotiated abstention to allow the PP to govern.
Beyond the obvious personal ambitions of Díaz and her allies, there was also a strategy to reincorporate the PSOE as a pillar of Spain’s establishment. Their position was underpinned by an unwillingness to continue to alienate their traditional allies in the corporate, financial, and media elites. Here the strong preference throughout the impasse has been for a stable government of the center that could, by freezing out Podemos, deliver further market liberalization and authoritarian social measures.
These elites were demanding that PSOE put the national interest first. A pact for a PP minority government would allow for a robust defense of the current constitutional arrangement, particularly around the thorny nationalist question in Catalonia, on which it was vital not to cede ground to Podemos’s “reckless” commitment to holding some form of independence referendum. Failure to heed their calls could put the party at risk of losing establishment support to forces farther to their right.
Against this growing opposition Sánchez played for time, indicating in private to González over the summer that he might be open to abstaining on the second vote for Rajoy’s investiture. Yet he knew this would weaken his position with party members whose support he depended on and leave the party itself open to “pasokification.” And so, by August, journalist Enric Juliana reported that he had decided to resist both internal and external pressure for him to renege on his “no.”
However, by continuing to rule out a coalition with the Left and regional nationalists, Sánchez’s alternatives were thin. If he had won Saturday’s vote he would have proceeded to new party leadership elections at the end of October. Had he been victorious, he would have had only a week until the deadline to form a new government after which Parliament would be dissolved.
Despite vague discussion of resurrecting his broad “pact for change,” the reality was a PSOE sleepwalking towards third elections, ones in which the blame for institutional deadlock would have been placed squarely at the feet of the PSOE.
Against this backdrop Sánchez’s only strategy, once again, seemed to be to hold off Podemos, hoping that the extended impasse would further disillusion young voters with electoral politics. This and an increasingly likely overall majority for the Right could leave him as the clear leader of both the opposition and the Spanish left.
But in the end, faced with mounting pressure from their elite allies and sensing that this was a gamble that could backfire on the Spanish regime, the party’s old guard and regional barons were unwilling to countenance this line any further.
And so the first directly elected leader of the PSOE has been forced out by his executive and replaced by an interim leadership so as to facilitate their historic rivals’ return to power. If this is a move towards a German-style solution to Spain’s new multiparty system, it would be a mistake to see Sánchez as having ever represented an alternative.
Sánchez spent the past year determined in his denial of a left option, instead viewing the defeat of Podemos as his primary objective. This, as much as any maneuver by the establishment, led to his downfall.
It is unclear what the consequences of this shift to the right in the Socialist Party will mean for Unidos Podemos going forward but Alberto Garzón has insisted the formation must see it as an opportunity to further expand their reach in Spanish society, writing:
Crises can also be opportunities. If something has become clear from recent events within the PSOE it is that we were right: it is an organic structure at the service of the (Spanish) oligarchy and yet, at the same time, it is also supported by activists and working-class voters who identify with the political left. The explosion of this contradiction can generate a schism with the PSOE of sufficient size that the working class of this country would be able to reorganize itself into a political force capable of successfully confronting the oligarchy and building a new model of social justice. That is the task that I believe has been set for Unidos Podemos, dedicating body and soul to unite the working class around a political project of the left, regardless of their past political loyalty and previous electoral decisions.