What future for Spain’s PSOE?

Posted on 15. December 2016

by Germán Jiménez Montes

german-jimenez-montesThe Greek tragedy of European social democracy turned into a soap opera last October, after the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party’s (PSOE) leader, Pedro Sánchez, was forced to resign. The offensive was led by former socialist Prime Minister Felipe González, when he declared in Spain’s most popular morning show that he felt fooled by Sánchez. He argued that in the days following Spain’s June election Sánchez had privately assured him that he was going to respect the wishes of many in the PSOE by dropping his objection to allowing Mariano Rajoy, the leader of the conservative Partido Popular (PP), to form a minority government. Despite this promise, Sánchez refused to give in to the pressure, saying he would do nothing to facilitate the formation of a government led by such a corrupt party as the PP.

The internal coup – which, as most coups, began with a radio message – was soon supported by mainstream media groups. The next morning, half of the party’s federal committee resigned, forcing the dissolution of the executive board. In self-defence, Sánchez and his team literally locked themselves up in PSOE’s headquarters, closing the door to any disloyal comrade and waiting for the storm to pass. Some hours later, however, he caved and announced his resignation.

With Sánchez out of the game, the social democratic group’s abstention in the parliament finally led to the endorsement of Mariano Rajoy’s minority government (134 out of 350 seats) for a second term. It took 315 days, two elections (20 December and 26 June) and the beheading of the PSOE leader to accept Rajoy’s victory. At this point, the conservatives were not willing to negotiate anymore, and thus PSOE could only offer a blank check to accept Rajoy’s candidacy.

The delay of their decision was somewhat understandable. After their new failure in the June elections, PSOE was facing an impossible trilemma. Supporting the PP’s minority government was from the beginning the expected option; despite being the most unpopular alternative, this would at least secure the PSOE’s survival in the short term. The other two possibilities were, in fact, far riskier. On the one hand, the party could reach an unstable alliance with both Podemos and Ciudadanos. On the other, as a last resort, it could opt for third elections, which would have likely condemned them to even worse results than the previous ones.

The symptoms of PSOE’s collapse do not differ much from those of other social democratic parties in Europe; lack of leadership and incoherent ideological discourse in the last decade have exacerbated the disaffection of their traditional voters. Moreover, the emergence of new political alternatives – liberal right-wing Ciudadanos and populist left-wing Podemos – have left PSOE on the verge of political irrelevance. Ciudadanos and Podemos rose easily, connecting with a new generation of voters that blame both PSOE and PP –protagonist of a de facto bipartisan system- for their current precarious situation. Whereas the popularity of the PP among the elderly have made them more resilient to electoral disaffection, the PSOE is yet to find its way in a new context in which the conservatives are not the only competitor anymore.

This has been the breeding ground for the internal confrontation between Susana Diaz, president of Andalusia (Spanish largest region), and Pedro Sánchez, which has split PSOE; on the one side, there are those in favour of Diaz’ iron fist and, on the other, there are those willing to take Pedro Sánchez back. This should not be understood as an ideological struggle to re-connect with voters but as a power conflict among territorial federations of the party, due to continuous setbacks in their presence in local and regional institutions.

The risk of a pasokization is real, as Yannis Varoufakis pointed out in a recent article at eldiario.es. The future of PSOE will depend on its reorganisation after the extraordinary congress in 2017. In the meantime, they have assigned low-profile politicians as spokespersons, paving the way for Pablo Iglesias (Podemos) to lead the parliamentary opposition. PSOE is condemned to play a double game until then: fighting back the opposition to stop the advance of Podemos, while keeping Rajoy afloat to avoid a governmental crisis and new elections. The Spanish political arena has dramatically transformed since 2007, and PSOE may have in this extraordinary congress its last chance to adapt to it. It is time for PSOE to decide what their place is in this new scenario: will they move closer to the deep social transformation proposed by Podemos or to the consolidation of the neoliberal reforms promoted in recent years by PP? Is there a space in between for a new generation of social democrats? Unfortunately for PSOE, the foreseeably personal clash between Díaz and Sánchez will prolong the crisis of the party, evading the crucial ideological decisions that it has been putting off for years.