Brian O’Leary reports on the success of the Spanish Socialist Party and coalition dilemmas
After highly charged election campaigns and big turnouts the Socialist Party (PSOE) made significant gains in both the general election in April and the EU election in May, helped by the parties on the right being split three ways. However the PSOE’s national vote still left it short of the necessary majority to form a new government. Before the results, but expecting this outcome, there was militant grassroots pressure in the PSOE for a coalition with the radical left populist grouping Unidas Podemos (UP), which in turn was keen to gain ministerial posts. However, UP support fell sharply in both polls, while in regional and municipal elections that coincided with the EU vote many of their candidates and close allies suffered the same fate.
The PSOE had formed a minority government last summer following a successful vote of no confidence against the conservative Partido Popular (PP), which was mired in massive corruption scandals.
Despite its minority position the PSOE, encouraged and supported by UP, was able to implement some progressive measures, such as increasing the minimum wage, reversing rising job precarity and extending parental leave. Meanwhile, although the PP changed leaders and moved further right, it began to be challenged by the newly emergent extremist Vox, even more socially conservative and nationalist.
The April election was triggered when Catalan nationalists refused to support the budget of Sanchez, the leader of the PSOE, because of his continuing refusal to speak up against the Constitutional Court’s ongoing prosecution for treason and imprisonment of Catalan unofficial independence referendum leaders.
Nevertheless, left voters in general saw Sanchez as a safer pair of hands to stop a comeback of an even more reactionary right as well as to reverse severe austerity. As a matter of urgency the PSOE has promised to confront gross social and income inequality – which has escalated due to years of Euro-area imposed contraction and unemployment in excess of 20% – through job creation and the rebuilding of the core welfare state.
Despite the EU Commission’s recent removal of Spain from its Growth and Stability deficit reduction special measures, there is a potential for a future conflict with the PSOE’s spending aims. In maintaining an uncritical support for current EU institutions and treaties, which are pro-austerity, it pledges to further reduce the deficit and debt as percentages of GDP even though there are strong signs that the whole EU is on the verge of a recession.
At the time of writing, parliamentary arithmetic would make forming a government instead with the liberal centre right, Ciudadanos (Citizens), more straightforward and as well as attractive to the PSOE’s own moderates who want no drift to the left. The PSOE could of course attempt once more to form a minority government and pursue a piecemeal agenda. This could satisfy no one and possibly provide a political space for the right to regroup.
It is still feasible for the PSOE and the UP to form a left unity government supported by some smaller parties, and almost uniquely in Europe offer a progressive alternative to neoliberalism and nationalism.