Eight months ago nobody would have expected it. After an internal coup forced him to resign as leader of Spain’s Socialist Party (PSOE), Pedro Sánchez seemed politically dead. Even his closest allies within the party had abandoned him. Yet after turning to the left in recent months, he secured a resounding victory in the party’s leadership race last Sunday over one of the key figures in the heave against him. Finishing 10 points ahead of prominent right-winger Susana Díaz, Sánchez secured just over fifty percent of the vote and won in all but two of Spain’s seventeen autonomous regions.
His triumph was fuelled by a rebellion of PSOE activists angered by the party’s decision to return their historic adversary, the Popular Party, to power. Unlike most of the PSOE hierarchy, Sánchez had refused to back a policy of abstention in the vote on Prime Minster Mariano Rajoy’s investiture. This stance, as well as his forced resignation, allowed him to position himself as the anti-establishment candidate defending socialist values against the party machine.
The parallels with the victories of Benoit Hamon and Jeremey Corbyn are evident. As Jaime Pastor has noted Sánchez’s programme was based around the promise of a renewed “social democracy that sought, through a harsh critique of neoliberal capitalism and a new set of Keynesian proposals, to tap into the popular outrage at austerity policies.”
This in itself was a remarkable transformation for a politician who had secured his first leadership win as a moderate centrist backed by the party’s old guard and Díaz herself. Furthermore throughout the political impasse last year, when Spain spent ten months without a government, he had prioritized a centrist pact with the liberal Ciudadanos instead of pursuing a left-wing coalition with Podemos and Izquierda Unida.
Thus although Sánchez has since recognized it was a mistake to marginalize Podemos during these negotiations, questions remain about the credibility of his recent left turn. For The Guardian he might be a “hardliner” but to those on the wider Spanish left his conversion is seen as largely opportunistic. And it is still unclear to what extent he can translate his victory into actual political authority within such a divided party.
Changing the Narrative
Days after resigning from the Spanish parliament, Sánchez gave a now famous television interview to Jordi Evole in which he spoke about the strict limits placed on his power over the previous year. He admitted that after the disappointing elections in December 2015, he had “accepted a series of conditions” from the PSOE federal committee that in effect prohibited him from pursuing a coalition with Podemos. Dominated by allies of Díaz, the committee required that in his attempts to form a government, Sánchez could neither seek the support of Catalan nationalists nor share office with any party who supported a referendum in Catalonia (as Podemos did).
This was a striking departure from his previous narrative. Whereas Sánchez had spent the preceding six months blaming Podemos for his failure to form a government, now he shifted the focus onto the role played by the right-wing of his own party and their corporate allies. He talked openly about the type of pressure the corporate sector had applied so as to force him to accept the PP’s return to power. In particular the management of El País, whose parent company PRISA is owned by a number of major banks and multinationals, gave him an ultimatum: back Rajoy or it would withdraw its support.
With one eye on the primaries, Sánchez went on to claim that PSOE now had “to work side by side with Podemos”, with the two parties condemned to understand each other. This developed into one of his key arguments during the campaign as he spelled out the core dilemma facing the Socialists: the PSOE could either accept a subordinate position to the Spanish Right as was implied in the Diaz backed policy of abstention, or if it wished to lead a left-wing government again, it had to adapt to Spain’s new multiparty system.
A reference throughout the campaign was Portugal’s Socialist minority administration, which had come to power with the backing of the left-wing Bloco de Esquerda and the Communists. For Sánchez this type of arrangement offered PSOE an alternative to Pasokification and decline.
Beyond the question of Podemos, he also recognized that both his own political survival and that of the party’s depended on charting a left course that broke with the policies and discourse of the third-way. He called for a re-foundation of social democracy around a robust defence of universal public services and a new set of social protections aimed at tackling inequality and precariousness.
His economic program called for the gradual introduction of a thirty hour work week, a minimum wage in line with sixty percent of the medium salary and the implementation in stages of a universal basic income. These ambitious measures were framed in terms of the strategic aim of advancing “towards a post-capitalist society.”
Sánchez also struck a more radical note on Catalonia, recognizing it as “a nation” and calling for a constitutional change so as to acknowledge the plurinational character of the Spanish state. Though not going as far as to support a referendum on independence, his language was largely indistinguishable from that used by Podemos.
There is no doubt that the surge of popular support for Sánchez’s campaign was genuine, with PSOE activists responding to his new status as a political outsider pitted against the party hierarchy. Yet Sanchez himself is a more ambiguous figure. Thrown into this outsider role by circumstance, unlike Corbyn, he lacks any sort of background in progressive social struggles or left-wing politics. In contrast to his radical economic program, his record over the past decade is an orthodox one: he supported the EU fiscal compact, TTIP, CETA and Zapatero’s labour market reforms.
In this sense, it is difficult to rule out Sánchez turning back towards the centre. However, at least in the short term, such a move is complicated by the question of PSOE’s relationship with the minority PP government. This is the issue which fractured PSOE over the past year and Sánchez has staked his reputation on a clean break from the politics of abstention.
The current line from his camp is that they are aiming to cut Rajoy’s term in office as short as possible, believing that given the ongoing corruptions scandals involving the PP, it is they who can dictate the pace of events. The prospect of further high profile arrests or developments in various graft investigations has left Rajoy wary to call new elections.
In this context Sánchez’s advisors have talked about a more intransigent stance in the parliament. The hope is to take advantage of the PP’s weakness so to push the government into a series of concessions before ultimately forcing early elections. Another possibility being discussed is PSOE working with Unidos Podemos in the Autumn to bring its own motion of censure against Rajoy, either leading to an alternative PSOE led coalition from the current congress or fresh elections.
In any such way the current government’s days look numbered, thus raising the possibility a left alternative in Spain sooner rather than later. For the party’s right-wing and their allies in the PRISA group Podemos’ price for such a pact (a decisive break with austerity, the nationalisation of the rescued banks, concessions on Catalonia) would be intolerable. There is little doubt they would use their considerable influence to resist any move in this direction.
Yet after his decisive victory in the primaries, it is Sánchez who has the momentum, with one preliminary poll suggesting PSOE could see a jump in support by 9 percent. Crucially Sánchez has also won a majority of delegates to the upcoming PSOE congress in June, which will choose a new national executive and Federal Committee, while also setting a new political strategy for the party. Unlike 2014 when he was forced to accept a party leadership dominated by allies of Díaz, the congress should be an opportunity to further consolidate his internal position and ensure a loyal executive.
Sánchez’ victory has received a guarded welcome from Unidos Podemos. If Díaz had won, Podemos could have expected to become the dominant force on the Spanish left and the second party in Spain but it would have also pushed the possibility of a left leaning government well into the future. A disaster for the country, which would have given the Spanish oligarchy the time needed to further embed their preferred post-2008 model of curtailed social rights and low-wages.
Yet a Sánchez led PSOE complicates the struggle for hegemony over the Spanish left. Even in the poll where PSOE got a nine point bump to 28 percent, Unidos Podemos’ support only dropped 1.3 percent to 19. The deep generational divide means the two parties have distinct bases, with Sanchez unlikely to win back the youth vote that has little connection or past history with PSOE.
However his win makes a Podemos sorpaso in possible new elections less probable and Iglesias and co. could find themselves once again in negotiations over a PSOE led coalition. The question would then be which Pedro Sánchez turns up. The one who a year ago sought to divide and subordinate Podemos or the man who in recent months promised a radical renewal of social democracy.