How far can Socialist support fall?

By Manuel de la Rocha Vázquez
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2 December 2016
Spain Spain
Spain’s fragmented parliament means the minority government's legislation could now be defeated in a number of different ways
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The Spanish parliament having finally approved the investiture of Mariano Rajoy, the conservative leader, as prime minister for a second term has put an end to almost 11 months of agony and incertitude in Spanish politics. Rajoy was appointed after two general elections, with the abstention of most Socialist MPs.

The result of the most recent election left the Socialist party (PSOE) holding the key to the formation of any government; either allowing a new PP government or trying to form an alternative one. Unfortunately, each option had important costs for the party, which was far from united in the direction to take. In the face of this dilemma, PSOE ended up torn apart, its leadership deposed and its image severely tarnished among the public due to infighting.

Pedro Sánchez, the then leader of PSOE, pledged not to facilitate any PP-led government as a matter of principle. This decision was made despite the fact that forming an alternative government was very unlikely given the manifest incompatibility between Podemos and Ciudadanos, the support of which was, in principle, necessary.

Another more risky option was to try to forge an agreement between PSOE, Podemos and the Catalan nationalists. But many senior figures in PSOE opposed any negotiations with the Catalan pro-independence forces and were very vocal about it. In this context, Sanchez’s decision to block Rajoy’s government implied sending the country to an unprecedented third election.

It is clear that PP’s many corruption scandals, the four years of harsh austerity policies and Rajoy’s incompetence to deal with the Catalan challenge made it very unpalatable for Socialists to allow him a second term. Yet, deep down lied deeper reasons for the PSOE leader to prevent a conservative government: a struggle against Podemos for the hearts and heads of the leftwing voters. At stake lies the hegemony over the left side of the political spectrum, which PSOE has comfortably dominated for the last 30 years. but which is now clearly challenged.

A segment of the PSOE leadership, including Sánchez, believed that the only way to rebuild its voter base – severely eroded on its left side – was by regaining the party’s credibility as a distinct leftwing party, marking clear distance with PP and Rajoy’s four years of government. Ultimately, this approach would have necessitated holding out, rather than allowing, a Rajoy government.

As the deadline for mandatory repeat elections was rapidly approaching yet again, Sanchez’s strategy was increasingly questioned by other senior party figures, who felt that given the electoral results PSOE should not block the formation of a PP minority government and, instead, should concentrate in leading a firm and useful opposition. In the end, on 1 October, Sánchez put his position to a vote before the over 300 members of PSOE Federal Committee and lost. He presented his resignation and its executive committee deposed him.

A caretaker leadership was then elected and PSOE announced its abstention in parliament, thus paving the way for Rajoy’s appointment. However, this change of position was not painless, since 15 of the 85 Socialist MPs decided to vote against the whips. Among them were the seven Catalan Socialists MPs, creating a historic rift between PSOE and its autonomous sister party. As of yet, the consequences of this are unknown.

The new term has just kicked off, with a minority government and a fragmented parliament, thus opening the floor for ‘variable geometry’ in terms of the various coalitions that can be formed to approve legislation, even against the ruling party. For the Socialists, the path ahead remains turbulent. The new PSOE leader, who will emerge from the party conference that should take place sometime in the next six months, will have a daunting challenge to ascertain their leadership over the party, unite the various factions, and regain credibility before an electorate that is rapidly abandoning it.

In the last elections PSOE got the worst results in its recent history and yet, with a voter base mostly limited to old people and rural areas, there is no indication where the floor lies. In fact, the latest polls put PSOE clearly in third place, having been surpassed by Podemos.

In truth, many of the challenges that confront the Socialist party are not different from those facing social democracy across Europe: fighting inequality, ensuring social cohesion and promoting decent jobs in a globalised and competitive world, constrained by serious fiscal imbalances and eurozone rules and regulations.

Yet, in the case of Spanish Socialists, at least two internal debates remain unsettled and need to be addressed urgently and in earnest.

First, how to deal with Podemos. The new party represents a formidable opponent that, with a combination of populism and the mastering of social networks, has suddenly begun attracting the vote of swathes of young people, urbanites and progressives disillusioned with the Socialists. Within the Socialist ranks divisions lie deep as to whether they should confront Podemos head on as their full rivals, and try to occupy the center-left political spectrum, or to treat them like potential allies, finding areas of convergence in the struggle against the real adversaries, rightwing parties and neoliberal ideology.

PSOE cannot try to beat Podemos by playing the populist card, as it has appeared to have done at times. Nevertheless, lessons can be learned from the ascent of the new party: a bottom-up organisation that connects with ordinary people, through simple but effective messages and an image of honesty and coherence that citizens do not currently associate with PSOE.

Ultimately, given PP’s solid electoral floor of around 30 per cent of the electorate, the clearest way for the left to regain power is for PSOE and Podemos to leave behind their mutual mistrusts and join forces around a common and realistic progressive agenda that can galvanise the hopes and aspirations of a social majority into an instrument for social and economic transformation.

Second, Spain’s Socialists have been deeply divided over the challenge on Catalan independence, a problem that has been consuming Spanish politics for over a decade, with no solution in sight. While the party is united in its rejection of Catalan independence – or even the idea of a referendum – there are strong disagreements on how to deal with the issue.

Part of the party is loosely aligned with the government strategy to treat it mostly as a law-and-order problem, a position that has given no results and is clearly enlarging the rift between Catalans and the rest of Spain. The other more sensitive approach, taken by parts of the party, involves political negotiations and engagement with the nationalists to amend the constitution in a federal sense that could better accommodate Catalan singular identity. Both sides broadly reflect the country’s differences between a homogeneous south and interior, and the very diverse and multicultural Mediterranean regions and most of the north.

Which path the party takes in each of those debates, and whom and how PSOE elects as its new leader will shape the future of the Spanish socialists for years to come.