Spain’s Pedro Sánchez is paying the price for underestimating the far right

After refusing to form a left alliance, the Socialist Prime Minister gambled on an early election and was painfully exposed. 

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Spain’s acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is standing on a stage set up in front of the headquarters of the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) in Madrid's Arguelles neighbourhood. The quiet street has been blocked to traffic so that a few hundred PSOE supporters can watch their leader deliver what is meant to be a victory speech, but which feels like one of defeat. 

The PSOE was the undoubted winner of this general election, finishing comfortably ahead of the centre-right People’s Party (PP). But it lost seats, the far-right Vox advanced (winning 52 seats, an increase of 28) and the parliament could not appear more divided. Sánchez, then, was simultaneously the victor and the biggest loser of the night.

It’s unsurprising that the Prime Minister, who took office last June, was so visibly frustrated. He called the snap election — the second in 2019 and the fourth in as many years — with the intention of “unblocking” the Spanish political stalemate and strengthening PSOE’s position. 

The previous election in April handed Sánchez victory but his party was still short of the 176 seats needed for an outright majority. To be elected president of the parliament’s lower chamber, the Congreso de los Diputados, and become de facto prime minister, Sanchez needed the support of a party with enough seats to carry him over the threshold.

A coalition with the centre-right PP was ruled out early on by both Sánchez and the conservative leader Pablo Casado. The Prime Minister had to look to his left, where a much-weakened Podemos still commanded 42 MPs (down from 71). But negotiations with the party’s ponytailed founder Pablo Iglesias amounted to nothing. 

The far-left group wanted more than token dossiers and demanded control of the labour ministry. Sánchez, meanwhile, admitted that while a PSOE-Podemos coalition would have made him prime minister, he “would not have been able to sleep at night”. And so, as King Felipe VI dissolved parliament and triggered a new election, Sánchez set himself the task of convincing more Spaniards that his political project was the only answer to the country’s volatility.  

In their own speeches on Sunday, many progressive politicians used the word “irresponsibility” to describe Sánchez’s decision to choose a snap election over the formation of a left government. This weekend’s contest saw the PP gain 22 seats (winning 88 in total) and Vox surge into third place. Sánchez’s decision was, at best, a miscalculation and, at worst, proof of a lack of faith in his own abilities.

Instead of keeping a poker face while holding conversations with business and negotiations with the far left, the prime minister-elect crumbled. Perhaps he hoped to enjoy the same luck as one-time PP premier Mariano Rajoy, who temporarily tightened his clutch on power by holding a snap election in the summer of 2016, barely six months after Spanish had last gone to the ballot box.

Sánchez was complacent, assuming that VOX had reached its zenith in April when it won 10 per cent of the vote (it secured 15.1 per cent last night). The Prime Minister failed to anticipate how two Supreme Court decisions would leave him exposed on the campaign trial. The first was the approval of General Francisco Franco’s exhumation from the Valley of the Fallen basilica, a move Sánchez himself was behind. The second was, of course, the sentencing of the Catalan independence leaders to a collective total of 100 years in prison. Both events gave the far right an opportunity to grandstand on primetime television and spew reactionary propaganda about the “hooligans” who took to the streets of Barcelona to protest. 

Sánchez’s naivety over how the right would capitalise on these events was shared by some on the far left. And they echo the shock of others who find the rise of the far right in Spain surprising or inexplicable. But such reactions reflect an unawareness of the experiences and the psyche of the average Spanish person in 2019.

Spanish fascism didn't end with a war or a revolution. Instead, the dictatorship was replaced with a “transition government” made up of numerous Francoists, who drew up the constitution still used in Spain today. The narratives built and taught for 40 years about what it meant to be Spanish, narratives that went far beyond white supremacy to encompass anti-socialism and Catholic ultra-conservatism, where never truly undone through physical or ideological conflict. 

Political imagination in Spain has been reformed but never revolutionised. Except, that is, during the mass anti-austerity protests of 2011-2015 (which gave birth to Podemos) and, more recently, through the renewed push for Catalan independence. Too afraid of the unbridled popular power of these two political movements, Sánchez underestimated the viability of reactionary thought. It is a mistake he will spend the rest of his political life rueing. 

As he delivers his bittersweet speech on Calle de Ferraz, something else is irking Pedro Sánchez. His supporters keep interrupting him with their chants. Worse, they keep interrupting him with chants of “con Casado no, con Iglesias si”, setting out a very clear path for the Prime Minister in the weeks to come — alliances are to be made with the left, not with the conservative leader. It's a silver lining in the very dark cloud that has set over Spain. The appetite for a coalition with Podemos is there, certainly when the alternative is kowtowing to PP.

Sánchez says that in order to “unblock the political situation” he will invite all parties into negotiations, except for those that “sow the speech of hate and anti-democracy.” But in a Spanish parliament even more fractured, with a total of 17 sitting parties, it remains to be seen if Sánchez can do now what he was unable to do in April. If he holds his nerve he might just retain office and form a government able to last a full term. Should he fail, Spain may face yet darker times.

Joana Ramiro is a freelance journalist who has written for the New Statesman, the Independent and Jacobin