Spain: Socialist Party bosses behead leader to allow conservatives to rule
Pedro Sanchez announces his resignation as PSOE national secretary on October 1.
In late September and early October, two big political explosions shook the already unstable foundations of the Spanish state.
On September 25, Carles Puigdemont, premier of Catalonia and head of the pro-independence Together For The Yes (JPS) regional government, told the Catalan parliament that the country would decide its political status by September next year through “a referendum or a referendum”.
That is, Catalonia would try one last time (the 18th attempt) to have the negotiated Scottish-style plebiscite that is possible under section 92 of the Spanish constitution: if denied, the referendum would be held under Catalan law.
Then on October 1, the 250-member Federal Political Committee of the main opposition party, the social democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), rejected by 132 votes to 107 national secretary Pedro Sanchez’s proposal to hold a new election for party leader and convene an emergency party congress.
An emergency congress would allow members to decide whether the PSOE should continue blocking the formation of a conservative Popular Party (PP) government in the Spanish state. Sanchez supports this veto, knowing it is backed by most of the ranks of Spanish social democracy, even though Spain has had a caretaker PP government for more than nine months.
If it did maintain the veto, the next choice for the PSOE (with only 85 out of 350 seats)would be either to try to form an alternative government or send Spain to its third general election in a year — after the last two failed to produce a clear majority.
An alternative government would involve negotiations with radical force Podemos and the left coalitions of which it is part, and with Basque and Catalan nationalist parties, whose aspirations for self-determination the PSOE has traditionally opposed.
Ahead of October 1, various regional PSOE leaders (the “barons”) and former prime ministers became alarmed at the prospect of negotiations with Podemos and “those opposed to the unity of Spain”. Organising against Sanchez, these forces enjoyed the support of the entire Spanish establishment — the monarchy and the country’s economic, judicial, media and religious powers-that-be.
These anti-Sanchez forces conspired for 17 members of the PSOE’s 35-member Federal Executive Committee to resign. They claimed this meant the body no longer existed constitutionally and therefore Sanchez — the first-ever PSOE national secretary to be elected by direct vote of party members — also ceased to be national secretary.
In response, Sanchez’s supporters continued to meet as the PSOE executive committee and organised for the Federal Political Committee, the party’s highest body between congresses, to support his proposal.
The October 1 meeting of this body lasted 13 hours and was picketed by hundreds of Sanchez supporters waving “No Means No” placards. They called anti-Sanchez committee members “shameless oligarchs” and “putschists”.
But Sanchez did not have the numbers. When the meeting finally rejected his position, he had no choice but to resign. In place of the Federal Executive Committee, there now sits an 11-person interim management committee with an anti-Sanchez majority headed by Asturias Premier Javier Fernandez.
Why did Sanchez, who had begun his brief life as PSOE national secretary as the poster-boy of the barons and the PSOE-aligned wing of the establishment, end up being knifed by those very people?
The story starts with the June 26 Spanish general election result. This returned a slightly strengthened PP but no clear governing majority. It left the PSOE with three painful options.
First, it could continue to block the PP without trying to form an alternative government. But this tactic had already worn thin. All sides of politics had been demanding Sanchez come clean on his alternative government formula after the failure of his initial impossible scheme of a “progressive” government including both Podemos and neoliberal party Citizens.
This first option could only lead to the second — of having a third Spanish general election in one year — or the third, of trying to negotiate a government with those to PSOE’s left.
Also, a third election would take place while all recent polls show the PSOE vote stagnating at around 20% and probably losing its thin advantage over the forces grouped around Podemos.
The results of the September 25 regional elections in Galicia and the Basque Country could only have heightened PSOE reluctance to face the voters.
In Galicia, the PSOE-aligned Party of Socialists of Galicia (PSdeG) lost four of its 18 seats, ending up on the same score as the radical left En Marea. With only 17.9% of the vote compared to En Marea’s 19.1%, the more radical force is now the official opposition in the Galician parliament.
The Galician election also saw the successful continuation of the PP’s “either us or chaos” campaign, which had produced gains in the June 26 Spanish election. The PP kept its 41 seats in the 75-seat parliament and increased its share of the vote from 45.8% to 47.5%.
The PP’s success came through a campaign in which its logo almost vanished. PP Premier Alberto Nunez Feijoo was projected as a competent manager and Galicia’s guarantee against the threat of an “alphabet soup” government of “the reds” (En Marea), the PSdeG and the centre-left nationalist Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG).
The PSOE’s sad Basque and Galician election results provided ammunition for Sanchez’s critics, despite Sanchez posing the question: “Can anyone explain how allowing the PP to govern would have improved our vote?”
However, his crime in the eyes of the powers-that-be was not these fiascos. It was his conclusion that the PSOE’s chances of winning the struggle for left hegemony with Podemos depended on not allowing the hated Rajoy government to return to power.
This decision dictated a change of course. After a year of savage attacks on Podemos, Sanchez had to make some attempt to work out the conditions on which the forces to the PSOE’s left might support or even join a PSOE minority administration. Sanchez even began to qualify his previous outright veto of negotiating with “the nationalists”.
The alarm bells then went off in the halls of the establishment and its boy wonder was turned into an “unscrupulous fool”, in the words of an El Pais editorial.
Towards a split?
Sanchez’s beheading does not even begin to solve the PSOE bureaucracy’s problems. It now has less than a month to decide whether to end its opposition to having a PP government, an issue on which it is completely divided. Even opponents of Sanchez oppose allowing Rajoy to continue in power.
The fight could even split the party, starting with a revolt in the Spanish parliament by the PSOE MPs most opposed to Rajoy. They could be led by the MPs from the PSOE-aligned Party of Catalan Socialists (PSC). Its leaders know that backing Rajoy would annihilate this waning force already struggling to survive against the radical left Together We Can coalition.
On the other side, interim manager Fernandez told radio station SER on October 3 that under Sanchez, the PSOE had started to experience “Podemosisation”. Fernandez said the PSOE “cannot reach an agreement for government with those who want to break up the country”.
Moreover, “there is one thing worse than a Rajoy minority government — a Rajoy majority government”. In other words, better a weaker PP government now than the stronger PP government that a third election would probably deliver.
And Fernandez argued: “Those whom we have elected should take decisions, we shouldn’t send them back to the rank-and-file.”
For the barons, having the PP in government could free the PSOE to rebuild itself in opposition. This is a point Fernandez hammered in an October 4 meeting of the PSOE parliamentary caucus.
Except that it would not. If the PSOE allows the PP to remain at the helm, it will be forever marked by the decision. It would give a permanent free kick to Podemos and its allies.
This is especially so now the trials have started of various PP luminaries for involvement in corruption, influence-peddling and other crimes. These will dominate the Spanish media in the same weeks as the PSOE makes its decision.
And the Catalan connection? The PP leadership judges that unyielding war on the Puigdemont government is not only the way to thwart Catalan national aspirations. It also helps it draw anti-Catalan votes away from an ever-weaker PSOE in the rest of the Spanish state.
The tactic also deepens the divide within the PSOE between those federations (mostly pro-Sanchez) operating in regions where the national question is real (especially Catalonia), and those where nationalism is regarded as a threat to the unity of the Spanish state and a vote-loser (especially Andalusia and Extremadura).
So the campaign against the Catalan government will continue. In recent days, the Spanish legal system has ruled that the Catalan ban on bull-fighting must be lifted; that former premier Artur Mas should stand trial for allowing Catalans to vote in the November 2014 consultation on the region’s future; and that Catalan parliamentary speaker Carme Forcadell must be investigated by the Spanish prosecutor for allowing a vote on the regional government’s road map to independence.
This polarised context of an emboldened PP, a Catalan government determined to fulfil its pro-independence mandate and a crippled PSOE must make the interventions of those to the PSOE’s left an increasingly critical factor in the political struggle in the Spanish state.
[Dick Nichols is the Green Left Weekly European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will be published at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]
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