Spain’s comeback kid?

By David Mathieson
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7 June 2018
Spain Spain
Can Pedro Sanchez be more than a stop-gap leader for Spain?
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Two years ago the political career of the Spanish socialist (PSOE) leader Pedro Sanchez looked finished.  Following two election defeats, he resigned his seat in the Spanish parliament and was forced out of the PSOE leadership by the party’s big guns. But then the 44 year old economist began to fight back. Taking to the road in his family’s Peugeot 407 he covered some 45,000 km and spoke directly to meetings of PSOE activists all over Spain. Taking to the left, he adopted a leftwing tone, which surprised even his closest associates, but it was a message which went down well with party activists. Like the UK Labour party’s Jeremy Corbyn, they voted him back as their leader against the full force of the party aparatus that had ousted him. Last week, Sanchez again ignored received wisdom and tabled a motion to censure – and so dismiss – the Popular Party (PP) prime minister, Mariano Rajoy. No censure motion attempt has managed to oust the incumbent President in the history of modern Spanish democracy. But Sanchez succeeded and under the constitutional rules the proposer of a successful no confidence motion (Sanchez) automatically replaces the defeated incumbent (Rajoy).

Understanding Sanchez’s extraordinary rise to power is important for what it reveals about the man who now occupies the presidential office called the Moncloa. It is evident that he does not duck a challenge. People who have worked with Sanchez describe him as energetic, warm, friendly – but with an inner core of steel. He will need all his mettle to deal with the problems now waiting for him in the Presidential in-tray.

Sanchez’s most immediate difficulty is that he does not have a parliamentary majority. PSOE only have 84 of the 350 seats in the Spanish congress (lower house). He won the censure vote last week by deft negotiation with a plethora of other parties and will need to retain their support to win majorities. Some have already dubbed his government a ‘Frankenstein’ coalition in with any number of different parties bolted on to make it work and Sanchez has already said that he will call fresh elections before the end of this legislature (fixed for 2020).  In reality, he will be reluctant to do so and few of the other parties will push too hard. Polls suggest that support for the left in Spain remains fragmented between PSOE, the far-left Podemos and smaller regional parties. The most likely beneficiaries of a fresh general election would be the centrist Citizens (Cs) party, which looks set to make big gains at the expense of the rightwing PP. Corruption in the PP is endemic.  It was the stiff prison sentences recently handed down to PP officials that led to the censure vote last week, and disgusted voters have deserted the party in large numbers. The leader of the Cs, Albert Rivera, bears a remarkable resemblance – both politically and in appearance – to Emmanuel Macron. Rivera may well emerge as the winner of any fresh elections leaving Sanchez looking like a mere stop-gap president.

The second question facing Sanchez is how to manage the economy. Rajoy’s budget was approved in the parliament just a few weeks ago after much wrangling. Although PSOE and the left voted against the budget, Sanchez has pledged to retain it for the time being. He wants to avoid spooking the markets and retain the support of the Basque nationalists who were given a generous settlement for their region. Nevertheless, there are serious issues to be addressed. The country faces a huge pensions black hole which must be plugged. Poverty and inequality have increased as a result of the economic crisis – Spain is one of the least equal countries in the EU. Unemployment has fallen but only at the expense of new laws which have slashed job security. There will be pressure from the left – PSOE members and Podemos deputies in parliament – for radical new policies to address these problems. Sanchez will need to find solutions which redistribute wealth but do not jeopardise the healthy growth rates and increasing confidence in the economy as a whole.

Finally, Sanchez will need to resolve the political chaos in Catalonia. The region is currently under direct rule from Madrid following an illegal declaration of independence by the separatist administration in Barcelona. Elected separatist leaders have avoided arrest by moving to other EU countries and are facing extradition proceedings. Others are actually in jail awaiting trial. Sanchez has promised to open negotiations with the Catalan nationalists, but it will be difficult to find a way forward. The situation is now highly polarised and Sanchez cannot afford to alienate opinion in the rest of Spain, which is generally hostile to the Catalan nationalists. And, crucially, the President has no control over an independent judiciary. His election will be the chance for a fresh start but he will need to show that dialogue can achieve real results.

The problems facing Sanchez are daunting. But he has been written off many times before and defied the odds to be the ‘comeback kid’ of Spanish politics.  He will need all his political skills now to prove his critics wrong again.