Installing a right-wing government, Spain's PSOE deepens its own crisis

November 5, 2016
Ex-PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez, who resigned his seat rather than vote for a new PP government.

In the end, on October 29, it all worked out rather well for Mariano Rajoy. After patiently implementing his motto that “all things come to he who waits”, the leader of the conservative People’s Party (PP) was that day confirmed as Spain’s prime minister for a second four-year term.

Normal operations were apparently resumed in the institutions of the Spanish state after 10 months of turmoil arising from the inconclusive general election results of December 20 and June 26.

These elections had converted the traditional two-party system in the Spanish state into a four-party system. Newcomers Podemos (on the left) and Citizens (on the right) drew millions of voters away from the PP and the other traditional “party of government”, the social democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE).

Acting prime minister since December 20, Rajoy won the support of only 170 deputies in the 350-seat parliament. However, because 68 PSOE MPs abstained in the final investiture vote — following the line decided by their party’s October 23 Federal Political Committee — the vote against the PP leader was only 111. Rajoy’s 170 were enough to win.

Only 349 MPs voted overall. The missing vote belonged to ex-PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez, who was deposed by the party’s Federal Political Committee on October 1 (by 132 votes to 109), when he proposed that the decision on whether to allow a PP government should be taken by the PSOE membership in a special congress.

Rather than obey the PSOE decision to abstain to allow the PP to form government, Sanchez gave up his parliamentary seat on the morning of the vote.

In his resignation letter, the ex-leader wrote: “I remain at the service of the membership and of its legitimate representatives in each and every institutional arena.

“Anyone wanting to struggle to recover an autonomous PSOE distinguishable from the PP ... anyone wanting to consolidate a PSOE where the membership decides will find me by their side.”

Rebellion in the PSOE

Sanchez resigned his seat so as not to give the interim PSOE management committee installed after his removal a reason to expel him. Nonetheless, 15 members of the PSOE caucus voted “No” to allowing Rajoy to form government.

They included all seven MPs from the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), the PSOE’s Catalan sister organisation, whose National Council decided unanimously to oppose allowing Rajoy to govern. Two independents elected on the PSOE ticket voted “No” as did well-known PSOE figures such as Odon Olorza, former mayor of San Sebastian, former army commander Zaida Cantera and industry inspector Rocio de Frutos.

Explaining her vote, De Frutos said: “We were telling the people during two campaigns that we were the alternative to a government that had created poverty and casualisation for workers, that had destroyed health and education and other basic pillars of our welfare state and that had cut back our rights and freedoms unjustifiably with the gag law … That’s the saddest thing.

“I voted the way I had to vote. I don’t understand how an organisation, be it political party or NGO, can take positions without consulting the membership. I hope that’s going to change.”

The other issue that De Frutos said puzzled her was “why we didn’t form an alternative government. In December I could feel it was at our fingertips. Nobody gave us an explanation as to why we weren’t able to reach the necessary agreements.”

In addition to the rebellion of the 15 came statements from other PSOE MPs who toed the line, but made it clear they were doing so under duress. When added to the 15 rebels, they made up between 35% and 40% of the PSOE parliamentary caucus.

The rebellious MPs have revealed that they have received overwhelming support from PSOE members and voters. They indicated that if Sanchez were to stand again for federal secretary, he would enjoy huge support. De Frutos said: “Here in Galicia I believe he would get extraordinary support if he stood.”

Sanchez has already launched his campaign to regain the PSOE leadership. He is careful not to state outright that he will be standing in the leadership primary, but all his actions since standing down as an MP point in that direction.

His first moves were to launch a website and to have himself interviewed on the most-watched current affairs program on Spanish television, Salvados. The website declares: “Let’s work together to recover and rebuild the PSOE.”

In the Salvados interview Sanchez, who never attacked the Spanish powers-that-be while still PSOE leader, blamed the Prisa media group together with the former head of communications giant Telefonica for having conspired with former PSOE prime ministers and present-day regional leaders (“barons”) to produce his downfall.

Their goal was to stop the former PSOE secretary from negotiating with Podemos and Basque and Catalan nationalist forces to seek to form an alternative government to one led by the PP.

Bureaucrats on the back foot

The rebellion in the PSOE parliamentary group and Sanchez’s attack on the barons has put those who organised his removal on the defensive. Early signs are already visible of splits between hardliners and conciliationists.

Such is the anger in the PSOE membership that claims by former PSOE minister Jose Blanco that “in eight months all this will be forgotten” look very hopeful indeed.

For the hardliners, the dissident MPs should be expelled and relations with the PSC reworked to ensure that PSC members are ineligible to vote in PSOE primaries. The plan would involve removing about 15,000 PSC members from PSOE membership lists to hopefully torpedo the formation of a pro-Sanchez majority at the next PSOE federal congress.

The danger is that this sort of illegitimate manoeuvre would backfire, especially if the interim management committee is seen to exceed its brief of preparing the next congress. Already bureaucratic hardliners who were calling for the expulsion of the rebel MPs have had to pull their heads in. Instead, they have taken to suggesting that these MPs stand down of their own accord.

At the same time, the verbal attacks on Sanchez intensify. According to PSOE European MP and former assistant secretary Elena Valenzuela, Sanchez “placed himself outside PSOE boundaries”. Jose Maria Barreda, former premier of Castilla-La Mancha, said of Sanchez that “it is one thing to recognise Podemos, another to feel fascination for them”.

Valenzuela said that Sanchez had “shifted his positions towards those of Podemos so as to maintain within the PSOE a leftist movement that is out of place”.

The parliamentary caucus leadership has backed off expelling MPs, instead levying a fine of between €200 and €600. At the same time, the interim management committee is yet to make up its mind whether to remove the dissidents from the various positions they hold, such as heads of various parliamentary commissions.


In his address to the parliament on October 29, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias described the installation of Rajoy as “a turning point in the political history of our country”. Never before, he said, had a PP government been installed in power through the support of the PSOE.

Iglesias said: “The situation of political blockage that our country has gone through is related to the problem of the Socialist Party, but is a problem that goes much further than that party, because to speak of the problem of the Socialist Party is to speak of the crisis of the Spanish political system.

“You have been the most important party of the past 35 years; the party of modernisation; the party that was associated with the hope of progress for a good part of the middle classes; the party that most resembled Spain.

“That’s why your crisis is the crisis of a political system.”

The PSOE now faces a future of permanent blackmail by the new PP government. Having agreed to let Rajoy rule, on what grounds could they reject the PP’s next budget, which is required to include cuts demanded by the European Commission? Having been congratulated by all the powers-that-be for showing “a sense of state”, how will they be able to carry out serious opposition?

In its battle for leadership of the left, the PSOE is now in a subordinate position to Podemos and various alliances in which it takes part in Catalonia, Valencia and Galicia. This is shown by opinion polls taken since the PSOE’s decision to allow the PP to rule, which show the party sinking below 18% and Podemos rising as high as 26%.

More importantly, the PSOE is now destroyed as a believable opposition to the PP. As Rajoy has insisted, his government does not intend to repeal any of the pro-austerity legislation that marked its past four years.

The PP won’t be granting Podemos the official title of lead opposition party. But for growing numbers of working people, that’s exactly what the PSOE barons’ beheading of Sanchez and acceptance of Rajoy has definitively demonstrated.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

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