PSOE, Spain’s main traditional party of the centre left, is experiencing one of its most critical moments since its founding in 1879. It was unlucky enough to find itself in power, in a government presided over by José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, when the world financial crisis started to unfold.
Ever since, it has suffered a serious credibility problem. This has led to a loss of office and parliamentary seats, along with political and social influence, due to the party’s inability to present a convincing response to the crisis on the basis of social-democratic policies.
In the 2011 elections, Zapatero’s successor, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, achieved the worst results for PSOE since the country’s return to democracy. Rubalcaba was succeeded by Pedro Sánchez in 2014, who saw the party’s seats further reduced to 90 and then to 85 in the rapid elections of 2015 and 2016 respectively.
If Spain were following the pattern of other European countries, we might be led to believe that PSOE’s recent electoral performance is part of a wider decline in support for social democratic parties – having achieved the goals for which they were created, with voters forgetting their contribution the people opt for other parties with new approaches. The history of PSOE is that of a successful party that oversaw the modernisation of Spain in the latter part of the 20th century.
However, the social regression that we are currently witnessing in a nation that still has not recovered from the crisis should mean greater support for a progressive option, which preaches equality as one of its principal political values.
This is the context in which we need to place ourselves in order to understand the recent history of PSOE. The party held its 39th Federal Congress in late June where Pedro Sánchez was ratified as the party´s general secretary. Politics rarely allows for second chances although in this instance the re-born’ Sánchez has been given a second political life, having been pushed out of the leadership in October 2016 by the party establishment he regained the top job in May by repositioning himself as a radical voice of the grassroots.
Furthermore, Sánchez is now supported by the political capital that comes from having taken on the political machinery of the party, which was behind a different candidate with alternative policy proposals, and won the primaries against all expectations. As a result, Sánchez is not only benefitting from a second chance politically; on a personal level he has been able to create a new narrative, a previously unseen public image, with a history of coherence and resistance.
In itself, however, this is not sufficient to win elections. There is an immediate need to confront the following challenges which comprise the short-term political route map for Sánchez.
First, he must facilitate the regeneration of the party internally and externally so that it is fit to deliver social transformation, while at the same time bringing peace and building cohesion, following several months of confrontation within the party after his forced resignation last year.
Next, he must rebuild his image in order to consolidate his leadership. During his previous period leading the party, he was labelled as both superficial and volatile, accused of having little substance with a tendency to change his mind easily. He now needs to make use of the authority that derives from the support of the membership to build a new leadership that is serious and credible – and in other words, electable. Sánchez also faces the challenge of being a general secretary without a seat in parliament and therefore needs to be innovative in order to find his place in the increasingly complex media agenda.
Third, it is critical that the public once again have confidence in PSOE. Sánchez needs to lead the change that renews faith in the party as an alternative for government and should therefore be self-critical regarding the past, calmly reviewing the errors made and learning from them to recover the credibility and confidence of voters: in other words, more strategy and less of the confusing tactics.
Fourth, the new PSOE must be at the forefront of the profound transformation that the public believes it needs. The elimination of inequality, the democratic regeneration of public life, the return of the welfare state, support for public education and the health service. These priorities must permeate the political discourse of Pedro Sánchez, without ignoring the generation gap highlighted by the Felipe González Foundation in its report, Millennial Dialogue Spain, which showed Spanish millennials to have lost confidence in politicians and believe that they do not prioritise doing what is best for the younger generation.
A further key challenge will be to characterise the new relationship between PSOE and the left-wing populists, Podemos, who have made such huge inroads into the party’s support. This means clarifying the narrative that Sánchez will follow with the far left; whether it is the erratic path of his French colleagues or the more successful example of the Portuguese. This presents a difficult dilemma, because if he toughens his discourse in order to win back those voters that gave their support to Podemos – his main adversary in the battle for hegemony on the left – he could lose voters who consider themselves to be centrists as well as potential political allies necessary for any governing pact. The new liberal upstart Citizens party (Ciudadanos) stand ready to pounce for any moderate PSOE voters deterred by a swing left.
Finally, he must confront the challenge of the territorial structure of Spain, or how to meet the most burning political question of the day: the dream of independence for Catalonia. Sánchez has supported the concept of multi-nationality, of Spain as a nation of nationalities. A federal project will allow the ground lost in Catalonia to be recovered on the one hand (PSOE is now the fourth political force there) and, on the other, to continue with the standard territorial discourse leaving aside comparable grievances in other parts of the country.
PSOE’s very future is at stake and, although it has only just woken up, it is now more necessary than ever. Spanish society is looking for solutions for its three major crises: the socio-economic; the politico-institutional; and the territorial. The new PSOE led by Pedro Sánchez must not let down those whose expectations were built up during the energetic party leadership primary nor should he raise false hope. He should look at these crises as an opportunity to lead change with a majority project that is exciting, inspiring and transformative, driven by the tension created between the impossible and reality as a new means for constructing the possible while at the same time demonstrating that social democracy is more relevant than ever.