Almost a year has passed since the December 2015 general election that was to put an end to Spain’s de facto two-party system. With the Popular Party’s share of the vote declining from 45 to 29 percent, a historic low, it seemed as though the end was nearing for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
After months of political deadlock new elections were called for June. Podemos, the script went, would use these to surpass the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) thanks to an alliance with the United Left. But the results did not meet expectations: instead, support for the Popular Party increased. Rather than strengthening the position of the Spanish left in parliament, there was a shift to the right — small in terms of MPs but dramatic in terms of its effects.
With political momentum on their side, the Popular Party and Ciudadanos very nearly had enough support to form a government. An abstention from the PSOE, their historic opponents, would be more than enough to break the deadlock that had kept Spain without a government for a year. After a high-profile political struggle this is what happened on Saturday, October 29.
The PSOE’s capitulation played out in dramatic fashion. At the behest of the party aristocracy — led by the president of Andalusia, Susana Díaz, and former Spanish president Felipe González — the PSOE abandoned campaign promises made by party leader Pedro Sánchez, precipitating his departure.
Following an internal struggle which had seen one faction locked out of the party headquarters, a vote endorsed this decision. Sánchez announced his resignation, which allowed him to avoid both abstaining and breaking party discipline to vote against Rajoy. “I am resigning as MP because I will not go against my ideas,” he said, fighting back tears as the cameras snapped around him, “and because I love my party.”
While Sánchez stressed that he did not share his party’s decision to support Rajoy, his resignation was clearly an act of subordination to its bureaucracy at the expense of its voters. The message was straightforward: the PSOE cannot disappear. Like Sánchez’s political career to this point, it has become an end in itself.
The resulting three-way pact between the Popular Party, Ciudadanos, and the Socialists appears to confirm the political diagnosis that resonated across Spain when the indignados took the squares in 2011: “PSOE y PP, la misma mierda es”; “the Socialists and the Popular Party are the same shit.”
The Path to the Center
In many ways the PSOE’s attempts to hold the center mirror recent experiences in the European Union. Like the European Union, Spain itself is a supranational construction that seeks to subordinate various national identities to a single sovereign power. A substantial part of the country’s population has long viewed centralized authority with suspicion. In this context, a party’s fortunes are inextricably linked to its ability to keep social, political, and national conflicts from proliferating, to its being a centripetal force.
In Spain, as in Europe, political and ideological differences that define the left and right of the spectrum have taken a backseat to a single technocratic governing coalition working to guarantee togetherness and stability as increasingly unpopular social and economic policies are passed. These policies underwrite a process wherein social conflicts multiply, usually taking the form of demands for democratic accountability, local sovereignty, or national retrenchment. And each new party that abandons its popular base rather than dealing with these demands simply deepens the crisis of legitimacy.
But to see this process only in the present moment would be to miss the PSOE’s history of tacking to the center, the events of which provide coordinates for a political journey. An early moment was the 1977 Moncloa Pacts, a set of political and economic measures signed at the outset of Spain’s transition to democracy by all of the major parties, including the Socialists and Communists and their respective labor unions.
These pacts put a cap on social spending and set wage increases below the level of inflation, which slashed workers’ earnings, especially in the long shadow of the 1973 oil crisis. At the time, only the anarchist National Confederation of Labor (CNT) union rejected the Moncloa Pacts. Today, depending on who you ask, the agreement is viewed as either having tipped the balance of power in favor of the Right for the remainder of “la transición,” or as a necessary set of concessions that made liberal democracy possible.
Another defining episode was the party’s 1979 congress that followed Spain’s first elections since General Franco’s death. At that congress, then secretary general Felipe González proposed that the party abandon Marxism as its official ideology. When the congress rejected the motion, González resigned from his position, leading the party to be run by a managing committee until it held an “extraordinary congress” to decide its future. At that congress, as in October 2016, Felipe González got his way.
In 1986, as Spain held a referendum on whether or not it would continue its participation in NATO, Felipe González reversed the position he had campaigned on, once again threatening to resign as president if the Yes vote lost (it didn’t, despite massive mobilizations). Then, between 1983 and 1987, González waged a dirty war against Basque separatism, hiring illegal death squads to kidnap and torture twenty-seven Basque nationalists with often dubious links to political violence. More recently, we could point to the Zapatero government’s support for austerity, or the so-called “express reform” of the Spanish constitution in 2011, which made paying the debt a priority over social spending.
To a certain extent, the PSOE’s present predicament can be traced even farther into history, in the moment the First International took root in Spain. The country’s peasantry and urban working class were mostly drawn to Mikhail Bakunin’s anarchist wing, with its praxis of direct action, self-management, strike, and sabotage. In contrast, the Marxist wing, from which PSOE descended, preferred negotiation over confrontation, channeling workers’ demands through the state and merging their interests with those of the petit bourgeoisie.
In 1879, just a few years after the First International’s Hague Congress formalized the split between anarchists and socialists, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party was founded at the Casa Labra Pub in the center of Madrid. Between the nineteenth and twentieth century, Spain went from being a colonial powerhouse to being a fractured Western state. The country’s foundational narrative also disintegrated during this process, and the reactionary forces, most notably the church, the monarchy, and the military, sought to stop this decay through the violent imposition of a national-Catholic identity.
It was in this context that the PSOE developed its historical role — one that secured an enduring relevance for it in Spanish politics. Shortly after the municipal elections of April 1931 forced King Alfonso XIII to abdicate, the Socialists took control of the government with help from the Republican left. By December of that year, the constitution of the Second Spanish Republic had been adopted. The Socialists shared hegemony and momentum over this process with the Republicans and the country’s massive, predominantly anarchist labor movement.
Together, they confronted the national-Catholic establishment by building on the country’s diversity and emphasizing class politics. They established freedom of speech and freedom of association, legalized divorce, stripped the Spanish nobility of their special legal status, and established legal procedures for the nationalization of public services, land, banks, and railways. They also granted all of Spain’s regions the right to seek autonomy.
This is the history that the party’s latest capitulation has dismantled. In embracing the Popular Party, the PSOE rejected cooperation with Podemos and broke any remaining left-right axis in Spanish politics. Its primary reason for doing so was “the national interest,” not only in terms of stability but the unity of Spain — in opposition to a referendum on Catalan independence. Its time of defending a class vision of society from national suffocation had come to an end.
Today, the most common political joke in Spain is that the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party has simply become the Spanish Party — socialism and workers have disappeared from their agenda. Now, their primary goal is to guarantee the unity of Spain and suppress the country’s most persistent sociopolitical conflicts.
Their decision is already having its effects. Following their capitulation, support for PSOE in the polls has fallen by 5 percent with respect to the June elections. Meanwhile, support for Unidos Podemos has risen by only 2 percent, but it was enough to overtake them. This dynamic is likely to intensify. With a new round of austerity measures planned for 2017, soon the main question in Spain will be how to respond to the tsunami of cuts on the horizon.
There was an alternative to a Rajoy government. As Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón stated frequently in the media, “the numbers were there.” Podemos proposed a coalition that included the regional parties and recognized the right of self-determination, a position that has long been espoused by Spain’s radical left but remains taboo for much of Spanish society. The Socialists, however, rejected this from the outset. And, unlike so many positions they’ve rejected from the outset, this one did not change as time went on.
Thanks to the PSOE’s aristocracy, Mariano Rajoy was elected into office with the lowest number of votes against a president in Spain’s history. But this does not imply that there will be political stability in the country anytime soon. As the parliament’s votes were being cast, tens of thousands of protesters surrounded the Spanish congress and filled the iconic Puerta del Sol, where the indignados movement was born. Five years have gone by since they first cried “No nos representan” (“They don’t represent us”), and the aftershocks from that mobilization continue to rattle Spain’s political system.
Their story is inextricably linked to the hollowing out of the political center, a trend we have seen in Egypt, Greece, Turkey, and beyond. In the wake of the global financial crash, social movements in these countries initially framed neoliberal austerity, property speculation, political corruption, and police brutality as questions of democracy. This gave way to what Pablo Iglesias has often referred to as a “regime crisis,” a situation in which the structure of political opportunities is remarkably open. The indignados approached this moment by popularizing calls for a real democracy, using a broad, disobedient, and confrontational repertoire of collective action against the political establishment to legitimize their claim.
The PSOE did not know how to read this situation, and their decline is a direct result. Unidos Podemos and the radical municipal candidacies governing Spain’s major cities have absorbed many of their former voters by being more porous to the demands, language, and structures of the indignados.
To some extent, the Catalan nationalist parties have also incorporated democracy, disobedience, and confrontation into their discourse against the Spanish state. In contrast, the Socialists chose to reaffirm the party’s independence from its social bases to reinforce its own political caste, as well as that of their supposed opponents. Why wouldn’t voters be looking elsewhere?