Our new issue, “From Socialism to Populism and Back,” is out on Tuesday. Get a discounted $20 print subscription or limited edition poster today!

Crushing Franco’s Heirs

The Spanish Socialist Party swept to victory in this Sunday’s general election. Yet the risk of a liberal-centrist government shows the need to do more than just mobilize progressives against the far right.

Vox party supporters wave flags outside their headquarters before polls closed in the Spanish general election on April 28, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno / Getty

There was only one winner in Sunday’s Spanish elections. Securing the most seats by a comfortable margin (though not an overall majority), incumbent premier Pedro Sánchez successfully harnessed the apparent threat of a hard-right government to mobilize progressives behind his center-left PSOE (123 of 350 seats). While the Franco-nostalgists of Vox made a significant breakthrough, securing 10 percent nationally, ultimately they fell short of preelection expectations, and the Right performed poorly overall. As for the Left, Unidas Podemos, campaigned strongly despite the polarization over the national question, and managed to retain 42 of the 70 MPs they had gained last time out.

While Vox entered parliament for the first time, arguably the biggest shock of the night was the collapse of Spain’s major conservative force, the Popular Party. Also facing competition from the liberal/center-right Ciudadanos, it saw its share of seats more than half from 137 to 66. If the decisive Andalusian contest last December saw the parties of the Right take over government in Spain’s largest region, this failed to translate into gains on the national stage, in a ballot marked by greatly increased voter turnout.

Sánchez was effective in casting himself as a bulwark against an increasingly radical right, in which Vox also set the policy agenda for Ciudadanos and the PP. However, this also displays the precariousness of the PSOE leader’s position. Far from fighting the election around the promise of serious social-democratic reforms, his message was mostly defined in negative terms, by what he opposes. In recent years his PSOE has swung from the center to the left and back again in rapid succession. As he weighs up whether he can govern without Podemos’s potentially destabilizing presence, Sánchez faces a fresh moment of truth.

The Two Spains

The election was fought between two polarized blocs. The Right’s strategy was based on the belief that the wave of Spanish nationalism sparked by the Catalan independence crisis would be the decisive factor in mobilizing voters. The three right-wing parties (the Conservative PP, center-right Ciudadanos, and far-right Vox) also wagered that the fragmentation of their vote could in fact help appeal to distinct sectors and mobilize a greater combined vote than the previously hegemonic PP had been capable of alone.

Things didn’t work out that way. In a country still coming to terms with the legacy of Franco’s dictatorship, many feared Vox more than the Catalan separatists. If the competition among the right-wing parties encouraged them to outbid each other in attacks on Sánchez and the left bloc, ultimately this also alienated centrists. The PP’s strategy of appropriating some of Vox’s more radical rhetoric and anti-feminist stances, as a means to halt the flow of votes to their more extremist rival, backfired spectacularly. One of the most memorable moments of the campaign came when the PP’s Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo questioned the principle of active consent and in a seeming reference to notorious “Wolfpack” rape trial asked: “Is a silence a no?”

In contrast, buoyed by tensions over the national question, Ciudadanos’s sharp turn to the right clearly paid off. On Friday, its leader Albert Rivera promised a ten-year intervention from the central state in Catalonia while his histrionic display in the debates positioned him as Sánchez’s harshest critic. On the back of this, Ciudadanos picked up twenty-five seats and came only one point off the PP’s result of 16.8 percent. But this was more a question of stealing votes from the PP than of making inroads among centrist PSOE voters.

Nor did Vox’s “hidden electorate” materialize. Many commentators had predicted that Santiago Abascal’s party would reach new voter demographics who normally abstain or vote for the Left. It was imagined that its staunchly anti-feminist, anti-LGBT, and ultranationalist rhetoric would appeal beyond traditional conservative voters. Yet its 10.3 percent score on Sunday shows that the party created in 2013 is nothing but a scion of the PP. Rather than bringing together a new transversal electorate, its breakthrough has been based on giving autonomous expression to a hard-right element that had previously occupied a subordinate position within PP ranks.

Before the election, Steve Bannon predicted the party would gain third position on 15 percent. Yet Abascal made no effort to reach out beyond his solidly middle-class base in an effort to attract forgotten working-class voters as Marine Le Pen has achieved in northern France with her protectionist rhetoric. The party’s economic program is staunchly neoliberal and its purely identitarian appeal had a clear electoral ceiling.

United Against the Right

In contrast, Sánchez had measured the political mood perfectly — with most of Spanish society feeling fatigued after eighteen months of tensions around Catalonia and many ex-Podemos and Ciudadanos voters willing to cast their ballot tactically against Vox. His strict anti-right strategy successfully painted the Socialists as Spain’s best hope of avoiding a regression to the worst of its Francoist past.

This left Podemos fighting an uphill battle of a campaign as it found itself positioned as the junior partner in PSOE’s broad left-wing bloc. In its first electoral assault in 2015, it had surfed the wave of social-movement protest that erupted in the country after the financial crash, and largely set the terms of the debate. Articulating a new class-based left populism, it divided the political space between “those from below” against the elites at the top. Yet with the exhaustion of the Indignados movement and the ebbing of anti-establishment feeling which coursed through Spain in 2011–16, Podemos has struggled to come to terms with its new institutional role.

The formation of Sánchez’s minority government in June 2018 had been seen, within Podemos’s ranks, as an opening to harness its parliamentary weight, so as to force the PSOE into accepting substantive social measures. Yet with Sánchez’s “Frankenstein coalition” (also including regional nationalists) unstable from the beginning, this tactic never gained traction. Instead, the PSOE was able to dictate the pace of events from office, deciding to call snap elections in February after the Catalan nationalists withdrew their support for his budget, indeed at a time when Podemos was itself embroiled in its split with former deputy leader Íñigo Errejón.

With polls showing a considerable swing away from Podemos to the PSOE, the radical-left party’s leader Pablo Iglesias concentrated on fighting the idea that the election was a simple choice between the radicalized right and the assorted left under PSOE’s leadership. In the electoral debates he successfully put Sánchez on the defensive by repeatedly daring him to rule out a centrist coalition with Ciudadanos — big business’s favored option at a time of great instability in Spanish politics. This was enough to minimize the party’s losses, as Podemos moved from 12 percent at the beginning of the campaign to 14.5 percent on election night. Yet this was still way off the 21 percent Iglesias’s party achieved in 2016.

A Defensive Stance

Positioning himself as the only bulwark against Spain’s “new-old monster,” Sanchez’s win bucks the trend of the European center-left. Yet it also resembles Emmanuel Macron’s victory against Marine Le Pen more than Jeremy Corbyn’s historic gains in 2017.

Sánchez secured his second stint as PSOE chief in spring 2017 through a mass revolt of the membership against their party hierarchy. Yet with PSOE members having an average age of sixty, this was not exactly a campaign driven by “millennial socialists.” There was no equivalent to the pro-Corbyn Momentum movement in Labour and instead of attracting a new wave of members with a new class-based politics of “the many,” Sánchez’s core appeal played on the sense of betrayal felt among activists at the party’s decision to back a PP government. Greater cooperation with Podemos was a key plank of Sánchez’s platform, but he has often pursued this with the clear objective of curtailing the radicalism of Iglesias’s formation.

Beyond the PSOE’s increased parliamentary weight, three further factors have reinforced Sánchez’s position. First, he took advantage of the elections to clean house, deselecting en masse MPs who had been loyal to his major rival, and leading party right-winger, Susana Díaz. Many of these MPs had been at the point of open rebellion in February when Sanchez was in negotiations with the Catalans. His majority will not now depend on the support of these pro-independence Catalan parties, which had voted down his budget in February. In particular, former Catalan Premier Carles Puigdemont and his center-right PDeCAT will not be able to exercise the same type of influence as they have over the last year. In turn this should allow for a political agenda less dominated by the national question. Finally, Podemos’s reduced haul of seats should see it become a more manageable force on his left flank.

Yet given his repeated tactical shifts over the Catalan question as well as economic and foreign-policy issues, it is not clear what Sánchez’s next move will be. As he addressed supporters at PSOE’s Madrid party headquarters on Sunday night the triumphal Socialist leader was met with a chorus of “Si se puede” (“Yes we can”), the slogan of his left-wing rival Podemos. If his base has made it clear — now as in his primary win — that they favor a left coalition of some kind with Iglesias’s formation, Sanchez’s response was characteristically ambiguous, attacking Ciudadanos’s own promise not to back his government: “unlike them we have not laid down any cordons sanitaires.”

Yet the response from the Spanish elites was equally swift. In a report to its major clients Spain’s largest bank Santander recommended a PSOE/Ciudadanos government rather than one with “populist” Podemos. This was followed by a string of editorials uniting the major right-wing and center-left newspapers behind some form of centrist arrangement.

As things stand, the parliamentary numbers offer no one obvious outcome. Vice-premier Carmen Calvo has said the PSOE’s intention is to govern alone, seeking external support from other forces. With Ciudadanos now intent on reinforcing their gains by taking up the leadership of the Spanish right, it looks like an agreement with Podemos and the Basque nationalists is the PSOE’s only realistic option. Iglesias has made clear his price for such a deal would be a full coalition government, in which his party can impose serious reforms. This will be vehemently opposed by the economic establishment, as with the pressure that scuppered such talks in 2016. In coming weeks will see if Sánchez will satisfy his base by opening to such a pact, or instead seek a new centrist turn under the cover of alliance with Ciudadanos.