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29 April 2019

Pedro Sanchez’s balancing act: on the unexpected survival of Spain’s socialist government

Sunday’s election results show that Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is the most underrated figure in Spanish politics

By Giles Tremlett

Social democracy jumped back into the drivers’ seat in Spain at a bitterly-disputed general election on Sunday. But socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez will have trouble steering the country out of its current political quagmire.

With 123 of the 350 seats in the Spanish parliament, his Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) now boasts almost twice as many deputies as any of its rivals. Sanchez’s party won 50 per cent more seats than at the previous elections in 2016, putting an end to speculation that it was in terminal decline.

It is a considerable personal feat for Sanchez, whose party has governed Spain for 20 of the past 40 years – but it does not mean a return to business as usual. Almost 30 per cent of the vote still went to anti-establishment populists, or to separatists in Catalonia and the Basque country who want to leave Spain.

Sanchez has proved skillful at navigating his way through a chaotic period in Spanish politics, as a traditionally two-party system based on the socialists and the right-wing People’s Party (PP) has fragmented over the past five years. He cannot, however, claim to have inspired voters with a message of hope and progress. Fear, combined with the absence of other viable options, was a far more potent motivator.

The emergence of Vox, the first far-right party in Spain since the death of dictator General Francisco Franco, propelled many of those who were fed up with politics back into the voting booths – with turnout a massive 75 per cent. Pollsters had given Vox almost twice as many parliamentary seats as the 23 it finally won with 10 per cent of the vote.

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That is a relatively modest vote for the far right compared to other European countries. It is, however, a reminder that Spain’s experience of right-wing absolutism is far more recent than for most of the rest of the continent. It does not want a return to Francoism, or anything like it.

The only rival for left-wing votes was Podemos, the insurgent “populist” party led by the pony-tailed and charismatic Pablo Iglesias, which only four years ago looked like it might overtake the socialists. Podemos offered a radical reconfiguration of Spain while pledging to be less dogmatic and fractious than previous far-left coalitions.

Iglesias has failed, however, to reign in the infighting – with many of his principal allies leaving the party. Dispirited supporters fled to the socialists, leaving Podemos with just 42 deputies – though this may still be enough for them to enter into a coalition government with the socialists.

The appearance of Vox, meanwhile, set right-wing parties on a race away from the centre as they vied to prove just how patriotic, reactionary or anti-Catalan separatist they could be. Even Citizens, the reformist liberal party with a Macron-style leader in Albert Rivera, joined in.

Pablo Casado, the broad-smiling 37-year-old new leader of the People’s Party (PP), treated Vox as his greatest threat – copying some of the hard right’s anti-feminist, anti-immigrant and anti-separatist rhetoric – while handing the centre-ground to Sanchez. As a result, Casado led his party to an historic defeat – gaining just 66 deputies, only a handful more than the 57 of Citizens. Casado’s party may well sack him before European elections next month.

Fragmentation of the right, an unheard of phenomenon only half-a-dozen years ago, also helps explain the socialist victory – since Spain’s D’Hont voting system is not fully proportional. In fact, the three right-wing parties jointly won almost exactly the same number of votes as the two parties on the left, but by dividing those votes amongst three options, they ended up with 18 fewer seats.

Quite what Sanchez will do with the power he has been handed is unclear. He can lean left, and govern with Podemos, or lean towards the centre and govern with Citizens. Or he can try to form a minority government, seeking support from either left or right for his budgets or other individual pieces of legislation.

Spain’s transition away from a two-party system to the kind of fragmented parliaments that are common in many other European countries has proved fraught. The previous government, led by Sanchez with just 85 deputies, lasted eight months. The one before that, led by the corruption-plagued PP, survived for only 18 months.

There are plenty of outstanding problems, starting with Catalonia. Separatist leaders such as the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont are either in self-imposed exile or standing trial on secession charges. Their wealthy and populous north-eastern region has still not digested the failure of a civil disobedience campaign designed to achieve independence which ended with the ghastly sight of police officers beating up voters 18 months ago. Radicalisation of the right, and the emergence of Vox, owes much to that.

Employment is returning to pre-crisis levels, but salaries are depressed and inequality amongst the worst in Europe.

At a 23 April television debate, Sánchez did his best to avoid the Catalan question. “Catalonia will not gain independence. There will not be a referendum,” he pledged, offering only a vague promise of dialogue. Increased federalisation, an option he once favoured, was not mentioned. “Inequality is Spain’s biggest problem,” he repeated. His solution is gradual and timid wealth redistribution through taxes.

These solutions are not bold enough for his potential allies in Podemos, but are too radical for Citizens. Sánchez is the most under-rated element in this situation. Most parties would have dumped a leader who, in 2015 and 2016, twice took it to its worst-ever election results. Yet the 47-year-old economist emerged victorious from the most serious infighting the Socialist party has seen over the past half century, seeing off a challenge orchestrated by González, the El País newspaper and his party’s mighty Andalucia federation.

Against all odds, and with just 85 deputies, he has already been prime minister. With 123 deputies, and Podemos a willing ally, life has just got easier – but his ability to navigate perilous political waters may prove his key virtue.

Giles Tremlett is a contributing editor of the Guardian and the author of Ghosts of Spain.

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