At the June 8 ceremonial handing over of portfolio briefcases from outgoing conservative People’s Party (PP) ministers to their incoming Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) replacements, the contrasts were dramatic.
A bunch of reactionary lifetime political operators and religious obscurantists were replaced by what new Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez boasted was the “progressive”, “feminist” and “Europeanist” alternative.
Sánchez replaced outgoing prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s 15-member team of 10 men and five women with an 18-member cabinet of 11 women and seven men — easily the most “feminist” in Europe.
It also featured two gay ministers — former National High Court senior judge Fernando Grande-Marlaska as interior minister, and TV presenter, novelist and journalist Màxim Huerta Hernández as culture minister (though Huerta resigned a week later when it was revealed that he had used a tax-evasion strategy in a previous job).
As part of the change over, defence minister Dolores de Cospedal, who at Easter ordered the Spanish flag fly at half-mast on military installations to mourn the crucifixion of Jesus, was replaced by former senior judge Margarita Robles, who as secretary of state for the interior in the mid-1990s was responsible for pursuing the Armed Liberation Groups (GAL), an anti-Basque paramilitary terrorist organisation run by senior figures in the same ministry.
Out went attorney-general Rafael Catalá, executor of the Rajoy government’s strategy of having its mates in senior levels of the Spanish judiciary persecute the Catalan independence process. In came Dolores Delgado, responsible for the successful prosecution for crimes against humanity of the Argentine naval officer Adolfo Scilingo and for the Spanish court’s rejection of a Swiss extradition request for whistleblower Hervé Falciani.
Out from the portfolio of education, culture and sport went blue blood Iñigo Méndez de Vigo, the Ninth Baron of Claret, who until June 1 was the Rajoy government’s oily and condescending spokesperson.
His replacement for education and as government spokesperson is Isabel Celaá, education minister in the 2009-12 government of the Socialist Party of Euskadi and promoter of trilingual education in the Basque Autonomous Community.
The new women ministers are not only concentrated in the usual “spending” ministries — social welfare, health, education, housing and environment — they also have responsibility for economy and business, treasury and industry.
The government’s most difficult challenge — managing relations with the pro-independence Catalan government of president Quim Torra — has also been entrusted to a woman minister, Meritxell Batet of the PSOE’s Catalan affiliate, the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC).
The shape of Sánchez’s women-strong ministry is mainly the result of one overwhelming factor — the extraordinary five million-strong outpouring of women on International Women’s Day this year.
It is also the result of the fact that Sánchez owed no favours to any of the PSOE’s internal interest groups, not even his own, and certainly not to the party’s regional premiers who have opposed him at every turn.
In the words of Juan Luís Sánchez in the June 7 edition of eldiario.es: “No prime minister has ever had the opportunity to dream up a government so rapidly that it allowed hardly any time for factional conspiracies, pressurings or filterings out.”
What, however, will this technically competent, professionally prepared cabinet do given that it was not elected on any sort of detailed platform but installed as the result of a successful no-confidence motion against its corrupt PP predecessor?
And how progressive is it really — not compared to the very low bar set by its predecessor but in terms of the policies that need to be set in place to start hauling Spain out of its vast sewer of problems?
Maybe the best way to tackle these questions is to begin with what the Sanchez cabinet will not do. In economic policy it will continue to abide by European Commission directives as far as public sector deficit reduction targets are concerned.
Its economy and enterprise minister Nadia Calviño will be moving back to Spain from her position as director-general of the European Union budget.
This ministerial choice — more neoliberal than the PSOE’s own economic program — will constrain any serious advance on the country’s main social afflictions: youth unemployment, poverty-wage levels for newly created jobs, gender wage inequality, misery-level social welfare payments and a “critical situation in terms of income inequality”, according to the European Commission.
Since 2014, the Rajoy government has boasted about Spain’s growth rate (higher than the European Union average). However, the Sánchez government confronts a lot of accumulated expectations from those sections of Spanish society to whom Rajoy’s recovery has given nothing.
Spain’s recent growth has been largely due to cutting labour costs in export-oriented sectors through two rounds of labour market “reform” that received strong support from the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. The result has been to create a new class of workers — full-time workers living in poverty.
The expectation is that PSOE will repeal or, at the very least, severely amend the reforms. Yet, on June 13, labour minister Magdalena Valeria Cordero and Sánchez met with the heads of Spain’s main business umbrella groups and the leaders of the two main union confederations. Afterwards, the union leaders expressed their concern that “repeal” of the reforms looked like turning into amendments at the margin.
Catalonia and the Basque Country
Nor can this government solve Spain’s most chronic problem: the troubled relationship between the central Spanish state and its component nationalities — most immediately the pro-independence Catalan government.
Batet offered on June 8 to reopen discussion on 45 of the 46 points contained in a Catalan log of claims first presented by former premier Artur Mas.
The 46th point — a negotiated referendum on Catalonia’s relation with the Spanish state — was rejected. Given this starting point, the PSOE will have to provide an awful lot — probably an impossible amount — of benefits under the other 45 points if it is to persuade enough of the 75-80% of Catalans who support the country’s right to self-determination to give up that right.
Not that Catalonia is to be handled by Batet alone. Her polite approach will be backed up with the intellectual and political thuggery of new foreign minister Josep Borrell. A former speaker of the European parliament, Borrell is a sworn enemy of the Catalan independence movement.
Borrell’s main job as foreign minister will be to recover the political ground that the Spanish state has lost among European countries and within European institutions due to its handling of the Catalan crisis.
Borrell will also be the bearer of a more enthusiastically “pro-European” line — one more inclined to fall into the camp of French president Emanuel Macron as an unquestioning supporter of a Europe made up of its existing states rather than one shaped by application of the right to self-determination. Denying the Catalans a referendum on their future is a precondition for such a Europe, just as Macron has denied one to the Corsicans.
Sánchez’s other main “hawk” against the right to self-determination will be interior minister Grande-Marlaska, twice responsible for jailing Basque left nationalist leader Arnaldo Otegi. Grande-Marlaska also presided in six of the nine cases in which the European Court of Human Rights subsequently condemned the Spanish state for not investigating torture claims against Basque detainees.
Interviewed on June 8 by the PP-aligned Madrid daily La Razón, Grande-Marlaska named the Catalan independence movement “along with ETA’s terrorism and corruption as the rule of law’s three biggest challenges.”
Notwithstanding these points, the backwardness of the Spanish state, establishment and PP government has been so great that it will not be hard for Sánchez’s administration to win gains in some important areas. These include:
* Refugees: Spain offered on June 12 to accept the Doctors Without Borders vessel Aquarius with its 629 rescued refugees, previously rejected by Italy and Malta;
* Environment: Teresa Rivera, the new minister for ecological transition, announced on June 11 that “Spain will no longer be a drag” in the struggle against climate change, stating that backward PP policies such as a solar energy tax and the elimination of subsidies to its world-leading solar thermal industry would be dropped;
* Public health: The new minister Carmen Montón comes to the position from the Valencian Country, where she restored universal access to public health, eliminated the surcharge on pharmaceuticals and prosthetics, waged war on pseudo medicine like homeopathy and reversed PP hospital privatisation;
* Historical memory: The work of locating and identifying the 129,000 disappeared on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) can be properly funded and sped up (combined with the closure of dictator Francisco Franco’s mausoleum in the “Valley of the Fallen”).
Given the PSOE’s weak position in the congress — with only 84 seats compared to 71 for the radical Unidos Podemos (UP) and its allies in a 350-seat parliament — how it governs in practice will be greatly influenced by the strategic and tactical skills of the UP leadership.
Key to getting these right is understanding that Sánchez’s is also an anti-UP government — not in the sense of opposing anything it proposes, but in that of being determined to prove the PSOE is the natural leader and guide of the broad left in the Spanish state.
The answer for UP lies in abandoning any thought of joining the PSOE in government; ungrudgingly supporting any progressive move Sánchez makes while pointing out every piece of backsliding; and helping to build the movements for democratic and social rights so that the political price of ignoring them will be as high as possible for the PSOE.
[Dick Nichols in Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will appear on the web site of Links—International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]