Spain’s Left Is in Turmoil—and Now It’s Facing a Huge Electoral Test

Spain’s Left Is in Turmoil—and Now It’s Facing a Huge Electoral Test

Spain’s Left Is in Turmoil—and Now It’s Facing a Huge Electoral Test

Now that Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has called snap elections, we will see whether the left can set aside its divisions and block the far right from power.

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Is Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez a political chameleon, a phoenix, or a kamikaze? This is the question running through the minds of many on the left in Spain after May 29, when, less than 12 hours after his Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) was humiliated in local and regional elections across the country, Sánchez suddenly announced that he was dissolving the parliament and calling a general election for July 23—a full five months earlier than expected.

Sánchez’s decision stole the spotlight from his main rivals, the conservative Popular Party (PP), which won major municipal elections in longtime social democratic regions, such as Andalusia, and captured Madrid’s city and regional governments with absolute majorities. Such a wipeout might be expected to lead to a period of reflection; instead, Sánchez immediately raised the stakes even higher.

The snap elections, which took the country and even many within Sánchez’s own party by surprise, come down to an all-or-nothing bet. On a practical level, they will determine whether the progressive coalition he’s headed up since January 2020 with the Unidas Podemos group (UP) will be replaced by either a PP majority or, more likely, a potential coalition between the PP and the far-right Vox party. More broadly, though, the elections will be a test of whether the PSOE can buck the extremist conservative wave sweeping across Europe—and whether Spain’s fractious left can unite to form a credible popular front with a positive vision for the country’s future.

Both camps have framed the choice as one between the mainstream and the radical fringe. During a meeting of PSOE representatives on May 31, Sánchez asked whether Spain was to have “a social democratic party committed to Europe” or “a tandem of right-wing extremist parties that together copy…the methods and rhetoric that we have seen in Washington, Budapest, or Brasilia.” The following day, PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo took to a popular morning talk show to fire back. “The only person who is an extremist here is you [Sánchez], you are the only one who has governed with all the extremism that exists in this country,” he said, referring to Basque and Catalan nationalist parties, some of which have provided parliamentary support to Sánchez’s government. Because “Sánchez is a worse candidate than his mayors and regional governors,” Feijoó predicted, Sánchez’s Socialist party “will do worse” in July than it did in May.

Regardless of whether he governs alone or with Vox—something the PP is already doing at the regional level—Feijóo has promised to undo all the progressive reforms of the past three-plus years. These include a string of legislative victories on labor, fiscal, and housing reform, which have resulted in an expansion of stable employment contracts, a return to pre–Great Recession levels of unemployment, and legal limits on rent increases and evictions. Feijóo has mostly avoided talking about these reforms, focusing instead on others that will rile up his base: laws recodifying gender identity and sexual violence, as well as a law addressing the country’s amnesia over its authoritarian past. Meanwhile, outside observers are already placing their bets. On May 30, the bank JPMorgan told clients it expects a Feijóo government with the external support of Vox, a boost to GDP, and a reversal of corporate investment prospects, which, it claims, “languished” during the Sánchez era.

If Sánchez beats the odds and is able to form a government following the July elections, it will be the third major political resurrection of his career. The first came in 2016, when he regained the leadership of the Socialist Party after internal dissent—and a looming third general election in less than two years—forced his resignation. The second came in the summer of 2018, when Sánchez ousted Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy from power with a congressional no-confidence vote, a first in Spain’s history. Since then, he has held his unwieldy coalition together by a thread. This time, however, Spain’s politics appear to be more closely aligned with the rest of Europe, where a reactionary wave has washed over the continent and spelled the demise of social democratic parties.

Yet Sánchez’s ability to form a government will likely be out of his hands. In the local and regional elections in May, the PSOE lost a little over a percentage point compared to the previous local elections four years ago. Adding up the votes from the May elections, the PP secured just over 7 million votes to the PSOE’s 6.3 million. The difference is sizable, but not as dramatic as the sweeping changes to city halls and regional parliaments would suggest. But the leftist parties which have been propping up the more centrist PSOE for the last few years floundered. It was their lackluster performance on May 28 that tipped the balance in contests across the country, resulting in a likely right-wing takeover of four regional governments where the left and center-left governed in a coalition—as well as hundreds of city councils, including in Valencia, the country’s third-largest city, and possibly Barcelona.

Chief among the defeated is Podemos (“Yes We Can”), the party that once galvanized the hopes of the Spanish and European left. In the two years following its founding in January 2014, Podemos and its allies won the mayoralties of half a dozen major cities and achieved an astonishing 21 percent of the vote in its first general election, translating into 69 deputies in Spain’s 350-seat parliament. Since that initial high point, however, the party has seen its electoral support wane. The decline has been especially precipitous since 2019, when Podemos dropped from 168 representatives across Spain’s 17 regional parliaments to just 96. The latest elections have pushed that number down to 34. Despite its alliance with the United Left (Izquierda Unida or IU), which includes the Spanish Communist Party, and its decisive role in Sánchez’s coalition government, where it controls five cabinet posts, including the Ministry of Labor, Podemos will disappear from many regional parliaments and city councils after failing to meet the 5 percent threshold, including in Madrid and Valencia, where it was previously dominant.

Although the Podemos leadership has blamed its decline primarily on hostility from the corporate elites and the right-wing media—which has battered it nonstop with a barrage of fake news, spurious court cases, and made-up scandals—the party has suffered at least as much from internal conflicts, often followed by purges or defections. These include some of the party’s most prominent founders, who have criticized Podemos’s rigid, top-down leadership structure and its “bunker mentality,” which belie the party’s founding promises of political renewal and assembly-based decision-making. According to Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, a political scientist at the Carlos III University of Madrid, “The leaders of Podemos have focused their speeches and proposals on a relatively small group, namely, the party’s irreducible or unconditional followers.” This, he told us, is partly responsible for the low left-wing turnout.

To make matters worse, the Spanish electoral system, which combines proportional representation with a threshold that excludes parties that get less than a certain percentage of the vote from entry to governing institutions, punishes fragmentation. In the city of Huesca, for example, a handful of parties to the left of the Socialists together garnered close to 20 percent of the vote on May 28; but because no one party crossed the 5 percent threshold, those votes will be left without any representation in city hall. July’s general elections may wreak further havoc: Though the electoral threshold for the national parliament is 3 percent, there are many three-deputy districts where any party landing in fourth place is out of luck, meaning that the real threshold for representation is around 15 percent.

It’s this division and fragmentation that Yolanda Díaz, the current minister of labor, is determined to overcome with her new movement, Sumar (“Adding Up”), which will attempt to unify the left and reassure voters that no left-wing vote will go unrepresented. Sumar was formally launched in April—too late to join the May 28 elections but just in time for the parliamentary face-off this summer. Díaz, its leader, is a charismatic 52-year-old labor lawyer and lifelong member of the Communist Party whose hard-fought victories for job security and the minimum wage have made her the country’s least-hated politician. Her political savvy is undeniable. In the 10-month run-up to the launch of Sumar, during which she toured the country for a series of “listening sessions” while working groups of activists and experts designed “a project for the country,” Díaz managed to secure the support of the majority of left-wing parties, including Ada Colau’s Barcelona en Comú, Íñigo Errejón’s Más País, and Equo, Spain’s major green party.

However, Podemos, possibly smarting at the implication that it is no longer the leading light of the Spanish left, has yet to sign on. Despite her support among Podemos supporters, Díaz’s relations with the party’s Madrid-based leadership remain complicated. When the party’s secretary general, Pablo Iglesias, who was also Sánchez’s deputy prime minister, unexpectedly stepped down from both positions two years ago, he named Díaz as his “heir” in the coalition government. The decision, he said, was meant to “feminize” the party leadership, yet it was taken without consulting Díaz first. Although Díaz accepted the challenge, she has not forgiven Iglesias for putting her on the spot. She also did not hesitate to begin charting her own course, distancing herself from Podemos in a manner that Iglesias—who continues to exert significant influence as a pundit and through his own online news channel—has publicly described as disrespectful.

Meanwhile, the drawn-out negotiations between Podemos and Sumar over joining forces have so far proven fruitless. The undeniable fact is that talks have stalled on issues of power—the parties reflect different political styles, but have no policy disagreements to speak of. Furthermore, it has fueled distrust if not hatred among the loyalists, while further disenchanting the broader progressive electorate.

In the first post-election chess move of the negotiations, Alberto Garzón, the leader of IU, announced that he would not run in the July elections. To many observers, Garzón’s decision to step aside was a concessionary gesture to those in Podemos. Colau also declined a similar opportunity to run for Sumar in the general elections. These public decisions have put pressure on Podemos to have some of its more polarizing figures also step aside. Among them are Ione Belarra and Irene Montero, the current ministers of social rights and equality, respectively.

During her time in office, Belarra, who is also the secretary general of Podemos, has attempted to advance an animal welfare law, which the right has used to shore up the rural vote, stoking fears of an “animal-rights dictatorship.” Montero, for her part, managed to pass major laws on sexual consent and allowing trans people to freely determine their gender identity, which the right has countered by stirring up widespread, if often muted, traditional and religious views on gender roles. Both ministers have become easy targets for a right that is betting on culture-war polarization to hand them an electoral win in July.

If the May 28 elections have shown anything, it’s that the current political climate yields high returns for Trumpist tactics. The center-right PP and the far-right Vox have wielded them to great effect, crying election fraud, questioning the legitimacy of the current government, associating the entire left with terrorism and sedition, and spreading fake news. The PP has also blocked judicial reform to protect its advantage in the country’s highest courts.

“We have seen that elections are not won through good governance,” Joaquín Urías, a constitutional law professor at the University of Seville, wrote in the magazine Contexto. “In these moments,” he said, “elections become an emotional process in which the biggest vote-getters are those who best surf the waves of the great social questions and manage to create believable emotional frameworks through which to understand them.”

Sánchez, who knows he needs a strong partner to his left, has repeatedly urged Sumar and Podemos to get their act together. His decision to call for a general election on short notice is meant, in part, as an incentive for them to bury the hatchet and rapidly forge an electoral coalition under Díaz’s guidance, a process for which Spanish election law gives them until June 9. But Sánchez may also present himself as the only viable candidate, seeking to capture the far-left electorate for his own party by appealing to the “voto útil” or nose-holding tactical vote.

Much depends on whether Díaz’s relative popularity can translate into a higher turnout on the left. Since Spain’s transition to democracy in the 1970s, the right has won three of the four elections with the lowest turnout; meanwhile, the left has won three of the four elections with the highest turnout. Sumar “is right now nothing more than an open question, which is good because it can separate itself from the errors of the past and begin anew,” the philosopher Clara Serra, a former two-time representative in Madrid’s regional assembly, told The Nation. But, she added, it can also be “bad because it must now face an electoral battle being too young and still empty of content.” The challenge ahead, she said, is to forge “a properly left-wing political project able to fight the cultural battle against the far-right surge in Spain and the rest of Europe. Podemos had the opportunity but lost it. Sánchez’s PSOE, which moves strictly within the confines of neoliberalism, is not up to the task.”

The past decade has made clear that without a strong partner to its left, the PSOE will naturally verge to the right, such as when, in 2015, it immediately sought to form a coalition government with a center-right party rather than Podemos. Even within the current coalition, Sánchez and his fellow socialists in his cabinet have drifted to the right on policy from border control to housing to gender violence, often revising bills to acquiesce to the party’s more centrist old guard.

Despite talks on the right of “Sanchismo,” Sánchez himself has never had a clear vision for Spain’s future. His politics has been one of fending off the advance of the right, rather than inspiring the electorate with a clear plan for how to overcome a decade of PP-led austerity. His decision to call for snap elections in July also had the right in mind. The campaign will coincide with negotiations to form right-wing regional and city governments across the country, which in many cases will involve the center-right PP joining forces with the far-right Vox.

The prospect of such a coalition governing Spain at the national level, Sánchez hopes, will prove scary enough for the progressive electorate to come out and vote in droves. Yet, according to Sánchez-Cuenca, who has been involved with Sumar’s working groups, fearmongering about Vox simply won’t work. Regardless of what the PSOE does, Sumar, he says, cannot simply “announce that not voting for the left will be a disaster.” It must build a politics that “inspires hope” and is “directed toward a social majority.” Serra agrees. “The left has erred when it has allowed itself to be dragged into the emotional terrain of the right,” she says. “When the left gives up pointing to horizons, promising a better world, it gives itself over to a politics of defeat that leads to desolation and paralysis.”

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