Spain: Socialist Party leader’s shock rebirth unnerves establishment

June 12, 2017
Pedro Sanchez.

The plan had seemed so well organised.

Its first stage was executed on October 1 last year when the ruling elite of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) got the party’s Federal Political Committee (FPC) to force the resignation of general secretary Pedro Sanchez.

Sanchez’s crime had been his refusal, after the inconclusive June 26 Spanish general election, to agree to allow the formation of a minority government of the right-wing People’s Party (PP) through PSOE abstention. He also proposed to have this refusal put to members for endorsement, and to have a new primary for the position of general secretary.

However, the PSOE powers-that-be, led by Andalusian premier Susana Diaz and former prime minister Felipe Gonzalez, blocked this move. They used their majority on the FPC to force Sanchez, the first PSOE general secretary elected by members, to resign.

After also forcing Sanchez to surrender his parliamentary seat, one move remained: to have Diaz win the election for general secretary, announced for May 21.

But on that day, the schemes of all the PSOE grandees backing Diaz — including four former general secretaries, two previous Spanish prime ministers and all but one of seven regional premiers — went up in smoke.

Sanchez easily won the primary, by 50.3% to Diaz’s 39.9%. Third candidate Patxi Lopez came last with 9.8%.

Anti-apparatus uprising

The former general secretary’s win was bigger than all predictions. He triumphed in 15 out of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities (states) and 36 of its 50 provinces, with Diaz and Lopez only winning in their homelands.

In all six autonomous communities where PSOE premiers (“barons”) had backed Diaz, most of “their” membership supported Sanchez. Asturian premier Javier Fernandez, the chair of the party’s interim management committee, had to wear a 53.4% to 39.6% win to Sanchez on his home turf.

Sanchez’s campaign amounted to an anti-apparatus uprising in which an amazing 79.8% of PSOE members took part. This was 12.8% more than in the 2014 primary that Sanchez — then the apparatus’s favourite — had won.

Sanchez’s resurrection and the humiliation of the PSOE establishment and its media backers (led by a rabid El Pais that described his win as “the PSOE’s Brexit”) were fundamentally due to a very simple message: the PSOE belongs to its members and not the “notables” who pretend to rule in their name.

The intensity of the PSOE ranks’ shame, and rage at their leaders’ connivance in the return of the most corrupt party in Europe was clear from Sanchez’s first campaign meetings. These easily outnumbered those of Diaz and Lopez, at times overflowed the halls where he spoke and often boiled over with enthusiasm. They always ended with the singing of “The Internationale”.

Bamboozled PSOE apparatchiks either tried to ignore this rising tide of revolt or claimed, in the word of one official, “it is the usual crowd that goes from one place to the next”.

The barons, however, were in no doubt about the stakes. The March 19 El Espanol said one of the PSOE’s seven premiers spoke for all when he said that “if this bloke wins, we’re gone”.

The barons’ fears were partly due to the thought of what the “Sanchezistas” in their territories might do to them at the regional congresses that follow the PSOE’s federal congress.

The counter-offensive of the PSOE machine came with the message “either Pedro or the PSOE’s hopes of winning government” being broadcast through every regional organisation they controlled (14 of 19). Its aim was to collect every last endorsement for Diaz.

The PSOE statutes require aspirants to general secretary to provide endorsements from at least 5% of the membership (about 9500). The number achieved viewed both as an indicator of the likely final winner but also as an incentive for the undecided to “get with the strength”. The machine’s target was at least 20,000 more endorsements for Diaz than Sanchez.

Yet the result of the endorsement campaign confirmed just how much trouble Diaz was in. When her endorsements were verified they totalled a huge 60,231, a third of the PSOE membership and the result of a vast apparatus effort. Normally it would have delivered a knock-out psychological blow to any contender.

However, Sanchez’s campaign, run with barely any institutional support, still delivered 53,692 endorsements, with Lopez a distant third on 10,866. The 70% of PSOE members that signed an endorsement was more than had voted in 2014, confirming how polarised the fight had become.

Moreover, the endorsements were public whereas the actual vote would be secret. When it took place, Sanchez won 20,500 votes more than his endorsements, Lopez 3900 more and Diaz a shameful 1200 less. Even PSOE members who had felt compelled to endorse the Andalusian premier ended up supporting Sanchez in the privacy of the voting booth.

Sanchez’s campaign

Sanchez’s win dealt a numbing blow to the PSOE establishment, wresting all credibility from its tribe of “notables” who became political has-beens at a stroke.

Its fuel was membership fury at their leaders’ connivance in the return of the hyper-corrupt PP, but Sanchez’s win was about much more.

In a context where the PSOE has lost the support of five million voters since 2008, the youth vote is monopolised by anti-austerity party Podemos and its allies, and sister social-democratic parties in Greece, Holland and France have crashed to near-oblivion, the Sanchez campaign needed some credible vision of the way forward. Otherwise, it would lose the battle for left hegemony with the Podemos forces.

The alternative that most inspired Sanchez was Portugal, where Prime Minister Antonio Costa had organised a revolt against the Socialist Party old guard, then won national elections and governs with the support of the Left Bloc and the Portuguese Communist Party.

The Sanchez campaign started with a draft proposal called “We Are Socialists — For a New Social Democracy” — targeting neoliberal capitalism and the PP as the principal enemies. It identified the main challenges for economic, social and environmental policy, outlined some proposals to meet them (like a guaranteed minimum income) and advocated a new, “bottom-up” model of PSOE.

The document said: “The PSOE is living through a period of tension that at bottom derives from the crisis of the socialist project and its present lack of definition. There is only one way for the social democracy to overcome this moment of crisis — to revisit with clear ideas the definition of its project.”

At the heart of the proposal lay the intuition that there was the chance for a membership revolt to produce more than just a change of general secretary.

It could let the PSOE redefine its political space and language, change its method of functioning and break with its recent past, in particular the PSOE government in 2010 agreeing to the austerity dictates of the European Commission.

That would change the perception among the indignado generation that the PSOE and the PP are the same (the “PPSOE”) and boost its attractiveness vis-a-vis Podemos, which the PSOE calls “unfit to govern”.

At the June 17-19 PSOE congress (slogan: “We are the Left”), the new Sanchez majority will seek to acknowledge that allowing the PP to return was a mistake, criticise the Zapatero government’s handling of the crisis and characterise Spain as “plurinational” in a concession to the national aspirations of various peoples within the Spanish state.

Left reactions

Commentary from the non-PSOE left has been wrestling with the contradiction between Sanchez as creature of the PSOE machine and Sanchez as leader of a democratic revolt — with something in common with Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn.

Sanchez is certainly no Corbyn. Josep Maria Antentas, sociology professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, said: “Sanchez is at bottom an impostor who knew how to transform himself so as not to lose”.

What Sanchez is at any point in time is largely determined by the forces acting on him. On May 25, long-time left PSOE activist Enrique del Olmo told the web TV program En Clave Tuerka: “A new Socialist Party is being born. There are many forces pushing in that direction and many forces fighting to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

How the PSOE now evolves will also be influenced by the approach of Unidos Podemos (Podemos plus the United Left). In a May 26 analysis of the Spanish political conjuncture, analysts for Podemos, which now faces a democratic revolt beyond its own immediate sphere of influence, wrote: “If Sanchez abides by his new ‘narrative’ and really tries to get closer to an alternative for change with Unidos Podemos, the media of the regime and his own internal opposition won’t stand for it.

“If he doesn’t, we’ll be the ones to punish him, along with his own rank and file and ‘reinspired’ voters who will feel betrayed.

“The PSOE, because of its central position, is not going to have a moment’s peace and will be in permanent tension between two different poles.”

That prediction is already coming true. Since Sanchez’s win, the “new” PSOE has already supported PP Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s declaration of war on the pro-independence Catalan government’s unilateral referendum on independence. It has also decided to abstain on a Podemos censure motion against Rajoy.

If it continues much further along that path, the claim that “We are the Left” will look pretty hollow.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A longer version of this article can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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