Turning the tables on the right

Patrick Costello looks behind the resurgence of the Spanish Socialist party under Sanchez

For European socialists, the bright spot of the May European elections was the Iberian Peninsula. While in Portugal, this was a reflection of over three years of successful anti-austerity government, in neighbouring Spain, it was a more immediate follow-up to victory in unplanned national elections one month earlier. Pedro Sánchez, the young leader of the Spanish party PSOE, vindicated at the polls, won 20 MEPs to become the largest national delegation in the Socialist group. He is now striding the European stage as the lead negotiator for the Socialists in the talks between parties to agree on the EU leaders of Commission, Council and Parliament for the next mandate and is in a strong position to push Josep Borrell, his foreign minister, for the post of EU foreign policy supremo.

This is, by any standards, a remarkable turnaround of fortunes. Three years ago, Sanchez led the socialists to their worst result in post-Franco elections and was forced to resign as party leader. As late as December last year, the Socialists were pushed out of power in Andalucía after 36 continuous years of regional government by a coalition of conservatives, liberals and the new far right party Vox. To understand what has happened in Spain can potentially offer the European left lessons on how, in this volatile political era, the rejection of centrist third way politics and a willingness to return to the basics of socialist policies can reconnect with a disillusioned electorate.

Sánchez has required a measure of luck. He returned as leader within a year of losing the 2016 elections with the support of the grassroots members of the party, to whom his shift leftwards on economic policy and strident pro-Europeanism appealed more than a return to the centre offered by his rivals. The conservative government of the lacklustre Mariano Rajoy quickly ran into trouble over a series of corruption scandals and the PSOE, with only 85 out of 350 seats in the Congress, was able to win a no-confidence vote in June 2018 that enabled him, just like his neighbour in Portugal, to become prime minister with the support of MPs from Podemos on the left as well as of Catalan and other regional nationalists who hated Rajoy’s confrontational and violent approach to the Catalan independence movement.

This minority government was extremely fragile. At any moment the plug could have been pulled by either Podemos or the Catalans. Podemos, seeking support in the same vote pool as Sánchez, had an interest in timing a withdrawal of support to maximise their potential electoral advantage over the PSOE. With the Catalans it was even more difficult since while Sánchez supported a negotiated solution, independence was a red line: the talks set up by the new government quickly reached deadlock. However, despite the fragility, a clear new policy direction was set and a government formed with several ministers drawn from the pool of Spain’s senior EU officials. They set about introducing a raft of popular policy measures.

A new election was always on the cards however, and after less than a year the Catalans pulled the plug, refusing to vote for the budget in protest at the government’s clear refusal to contemplate another painful independence referendum in Catalonia. At the polls, on 28 April, in an almost mirror image of 2016, the tables were turned with the conservatives (PP) suffering their worst result post-Franco. The Socialists nearly doubled their numbers of seats in Congress to 123 – not enough for a majority alone, but facing an opposition unable to form an alternative coalition. Sánchez was asked by the King in early June to form a new government.

Most of the gains were at the expense of Podemos, who had suffered in most of Spain from their support for Catalan self-determination. However, these gains were compounded by the fracturing of the conservative Popular Party, who faced a classic squeeze, losing seats both to the liberal “Macronite” Citizen’s Party on their left and the ultra-nationalist Vox on their right. The eruption of the hardline anti-immigration far-right Vox onto the political scene split the PP’s voters. Advised by Steve Bannon, Vox’s slick communications and social media messages were effective and they won over 10% of the national vote in April, the first breakthrough of the far-right into national post-Franco politics. The Citizen’s Party, by going into coalition in Andalucía in December with the PP and Vox, had tainted their centrist brand with PSOE voters but it also enabled them to eat into the more moderate parts of the PP vote bank.

It is too early to predict the direction that the new government will take, though its pro-European credentials are clear. Formally they have the choice of building majority support either with Citizens or with Podemos and some of the nationalists. The latter seems more likely however. Even if Citizens were willing to go into coalition, Sánchez’s success has been based on taking the PSOE leftwards. This is more than pragmatic politics; his political history shows an aversion to building coalitions with the centre-right: in 2014, he instructed his MEPs to vote against electing Commission President Juncker when there was a cross-Parliament Socialist/EPP deal to do so. More likely, strengthened by the two polls, he will continue to pursue the anti-austerity programme launched during his brief tenure last year. This will mean relying on support from Podemos and some of the nationalists. Crucially, the numbers mean that he does not need the support of the most hard-line independentistas in Catalonia which will give him greater flexibility and, hopefully, more stability. The timing of his victory is also a fortuitous one, coinciding with the European centre-right losing its hegemony over European politics for the first time for two decades.

If this is the direction chosen, Spain’s socialists, like in neighbouring Portugal, will have decisively rejected the politics of the third way. They can become a powerful voice in the EU for the anti-austerity economics of people-centred economic growth and, with his political family, for a greater willingness to reject grand coalitions and seek instead coalitions and alliances of the left.

Patrick Costello

Patrick Costello has worked in different European institutions for over two decades. He was a contributor to Our Europe, Not Theirs.