How the Spanish left is caught in no-man’s land

Prime minister Pedro Sánchez has appeared an unhinged radical to the right but a disappointment to his left-wing supporters. 

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In her lucid essay on France’s 1936-38 Popular Front, the philosopher Simone Weil reflected: “The state of imaginations sets the limit within which power can be effectively exercised.” She added: “To sense these things, to keep a perpetual look-out for them, is to know how to govern.” Ultimately, the French socialist prime minister Léon Blum’s incapacity to channel popular élan into state action doomed his government.

Weil’s insight captures a critical dimension of present Spanish politics. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s announcement of a snap general election on 28 April – the third such vote since 2015 – further destabilises Spain’s volatile politics. The outcome remains frustratingly unpredictable.

Sánchez, the 46-year-old leader of the centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), was never widely expected to finish his term as prime minister. He entered office in June 2018 following a no-confidence vote against his predecessor Mariano Rajoy, whose conservative People’s Party (PP) was enfeebled by corruption scandals and its unpopular pursuit of austerity. But since the PSOE only holds 84 out of 350 parliamentary seats, Sánchez was forced to form a pact with the left-populist Podemos and smaller Basque and Catalan nationalist parties, the latter of which were enraged by the PP’s autocratic response to their declaration of independence in 2017 (the Catalan leadership is on trial for staging an unauthorised referendum).

The right overreacted to its eviction from office, presenting the new government as illegitimate and determined to fracture the country. Until recently, the combined forces of PP and the centre-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) roughly matched those of PSOE and Podemos. In December, however, the surge of the far-right Vox (founded by former PP members in 2013) tilted the balance in favour of a reactionary bloc. Neither PP – now led by Pablo Casado – nor Citizens have hesitated to form a three-party alliance, which polls suggest could achieve a parliamentary majority.

In this context, the decision of the Catalan parties to vote against the government’s budget made the call for early elections inevitable. A radical right-wing government, in turn, would strengthen the Catalan nationalists’ depiction of Spain as a reactionary and authoritarian monolith.

Though it is now hard to recall, Spanish progressives were euphoric only eight months ago. Last June, Sánchez appointed a majority-female cabinet, welcomed refugees crossing the Mediterranean and announced the exhumation of Francisco Franco’s corpse from the fascist-era Valley of the Fallen. The government’s proposed budget – negotiated with Podemos, which took a leading role drafting the document – included an increased minimum wage and the reversal of public spending cuts, financed through higher taxes on the wealthy.

Yet uncompromising opposition from the right, coupled with Sánchez’s lack of conviction, soon led him to vacillate in a political no-man’s land: an unhinged radical for the right but a disappointment to his left-wing supporters. Podemos, meanwhile, has struggled to benefit after abandoning the populist style that made it successful, and is torn by internal struggles. Party leader Pablo Iglesias, who is on parental leave, suffers dismal approval ratings.

It was against this backdrop that the right achieved unprecedented success last December in Andalucía, where it ended 36 years of PSOE rule. But the new alliance may have already shown the limits of its electoral reach. Vox is not an anti-establishment force as much as a reactionary People’s Party offshoot. Its regressive politics – fusing hostility to immigrants and women with promised tax cuts for the top 1 per cent – holds little appeal for dissatisfied leftists.

More importantly, this reactionary project lacks a strategy beyond stoking conflict with Catalan nationalists. According to recent opinion polls, a majority of voters favour negotiation over the curtailing of the region’s government and the criminalisation of the pro-independence movement.

While the right has overestimated its strength, the elections in April may not yield a positive outcome for the left. With Sánchez presenting himself as a bulwark against the far right, the PSOE will likely grow at the expense of Podemos but still fail to secure an absolute majority with the latter. The party’s old guard will push for a centrist coalition with Citizens – a partnership facilitated by Sánchez’s break with the Catalan parties – which would be ill-suited to address the socio-economic challenges that have accrued over a decade of crisis and austerity. (Citizens, for the time being, would rather join a coalition with the far right than with the PSOE.)

Another conceivable outcome is a hung parliament and an eventual electoral repeat – a disquieting prospect since voters already rank politicians among Spain’s greatest problems, second only to unemployment (which stands at 14.5 per cent). As the late political scientist Peter Mair warned in his masterful book Ruling the Void, the erosion of traditional political structures across Europe enhances a social landscape of disaffection and anomie. The consolation is that, in such a volatile environment, subtle mood swings can upset the drift towards reaction.

The only viable option for progressives is to harness the “state of imaginations” unleashed last June. Between today and the election stands 8 March, the first anniversary of last year’s nationwide “feminist strike”, which five million female workers joined in protest at sexual discrimination, domestic violence and the pay gap.

If it achieves a comparable level of public backing, the left can still fight the campaign with confidence and mobilise support through the hope of a better future, rather than merely fear of the right. Whether Spain’s political leaders can sense and channel these impulses will determine the country’s fate.

Jorge Tamames is the managing editor of Política Exterior

This article appears in the 22 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Islamic State