Spain: Radical left face new challenges as election looms

September 27, 2019
PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez and Unidas Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias during negotiations.

Spain’s acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and winner of the April 28 general election, informed King Philip on September 17 that he lacked the support to form a government. As a result, another general election will be held on November 10.

Talks with the radical force Unidas Podemos (UP), a coalition of the United Left (IU) and Podemos, had failed. As a result, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) would not support Sánchez’s investiture.

The reaction among the millions of voters who had ensured Sánchez’s victory in April — supporters of the PSOE, UP and Catalan, Basque and Valencian nationalist and regionalist forces — was dismay. Would this bloc be able to repeat its win over the Spanish-patriotic conservative bloc of the corrupt People’s Party (PP), the ultra-liberal Citizens and the ultra-right Vox?

Early polling is showing that many of the extra millions who turned out in April to stop a right-wing victory could well stay at home in November. A recent poll has participation falling to a rock-bottom 62.8% from 71.8% in April.

Blame game

The November contest will be dominated by warfare over responsibility for the failure to form a PSOE-UP government.

Sánchez fired his opening shots in a September 20 TV interview, saying had he yielded to UP leader Pablo Iglesias’s “impositions”̣ (treasury, energy transition, social security and industrial relations portfolios) “along with 95% of Spaniards — including some UP supporters — I wouldn’t have slept at night”.

Sánchez also said that accepting UPers in senior ministries would have been irresponsible, because of their “lack of political and managerial experience”. Also, any coalition with Iglesias would have been “two governments in one”.

These comments were spin. The negotiations failed because Sánchez only wanted a coalition agreement where UP was prepared to accept a humiliatingly subordinate role.

After July 25 (the failure of the first Congress investiture vote), it became clear that the PSOE did not want a coalition agreement at all.

Sánchez was encouraged by polls showing rising support for PSOE and by a growing crisis within Citizens, due to party leader Albert Rivera’s refusal to help PSOE form government by his party’s abstention.

The polls also showed that up to two million voters who had supported Citizens in April were re-considering their vote. This is an enticing prospect for PSOE, under pressure from big business to drop any idea of an alliance with UP.

Diary of a non-negotiation

The main phases in the failed negotiation were:

  • May 1–July 12: The PSOE first offers UP secondary positions but not ministries and then the power to propose independents as ministers. Sánchez finally accepts the idea of UP ministers, but only in “technical” portfolios;
  • July 13–19: After Iglesias describes this last offer as “idiocy” and the Podemos members reaffirm support for coalition government in a referendum, Sánchez says that Iglesias himself is the main obstacle to a deal: “I need a vice-president who defends Spanish democracy”, he says, scoring the UP leader’s supposed unreliability on the Catalan sovereignty challenge. Iglesias then steps aside, forcing the PSOE to negotiate;
  • July 20–25: The PSOE offers the UP a “social” deputy prime minister position and three other minor portfolios, which UP rejects as “wallflower” positions. Sánchez then rejects the UP request for the ministries of health, industrial relations and science. UP abstains in the first investiture vote;
  • August 29–September 12: Iglesias accepts the last PSOE offer, but with the addition of a UP-run ministry of job creation. Sánchez now rejects any coalition government with UP, proposing a “progressive programmatic pact” (developed after meetings with social movements) to be monitored by UP. Negotiations are suspended on September 11 and the following day Sánchez rejects a last-minute UP proposal for a one-year trial of coalition government.

Throughout these months Sánchez also tried to prise open the possibility of Citizens — or even the PP — allowing his investiture through abstention.

He had a small success: Rivera, who had refused to even meet during Sánchez’s talks with the UP “populists”, indicated Citizens would abstain if the PSOE suspended Catalan self-rule, dissolved the PSOE government of Navarra (formed with support from Basque nationalist parties), and committed to tax cuts for small business, but provided the PP also supported these proposals.

Sánchez rejected this “offer”, but it was an indication that Citizens, losing support in all polls, may be more available to the PSOE as a “moderate” partner after November 10.

Iglesias’s road to ruin?

There is fierce debate on social media over the failure of the PSOE–UP negotiations: blaming Sánchez’s and Iglesias’s “macho personalities”, the “political class” as a whole and “our Spanish lack of a culture of political compromise”.

This discussion assumes — as do the majority of UP supporters — that the only feasible formula for progressive administration is a PSOE-UP coalition: the collapse of negotiations was due either to UP asking for too much or the PSOE offering too little.

Only two forces within the broad UP milieu have a different perspective: Anticapitalists (which supports the “Portuguese model” of allowing a PSOE government to form in return for binding commitments on key issues) and IU (whose members voted not to participate in a PSOE-UP government but support it from without).

The UP leadership’s orientation was to do everything to achieve government with the PSOE: their thirst for office set them down the road of dumping their own policies, beginning with acceptance of PSOE leadership in foreign affairs and Spain’s “territorial” question.

This retreat ended in the lamentable spectacle of Iglesias admitting in a September 20 TV interview that UP would, if part of a future PSOE-UP administration, abide by any new suspension of Catalan self-rule decided by the PSOE.

That was too much, potentially torpedoing UP’s alliance with Together We Can (ECP), the radical coalition in Catalonia that UP participates in.

Such was the storm of outrage Iglesias was rapidly forced to tweet: “Applying 155 to confront the conflict in Catalonia has always been unacceptable for us. The conflict must be addressed with dialogue and democratic methods that put an end to the state of exception and repression.”

A splintering left

The failed negotiations might have one benefit: helping to spread understanding that it is impossible to have a progressive government with the PSOE as major partner.

The experience is opening up the existing fault lines amongst the non-PSOE left over how to orient to Spain’s social democrats. This debate will re-emerge because representatives of the different positions will be visible on separate tickets, even if these continue to be connected to UP.

The fact that the PSOE will campaign as the only guarantor of stability in an increasingly threatening political context will only intensify discussion.

The current that favours support to the PSOE on the easiest terms is Mas Madrid (More Madrid), led by former Podemos leader and Madrid region MP Iñigo Errejón. Errejón supported acceptance of the PSOE’s July final offer to UP.

Mas Madrid, which is presently collecting allies in the rest of the Spanish State under the banner Mas País (More Country), will try to defeat UP on the basis of being a “fresh alternative”. It will appeal to the feeling that the chance for progressive government was torpedoed by Iglesias’s ambition and arrogance.

By September 23, Mas Madrid had established an electoral alliance with the Valencian regionalist force Commitment, while opportunists across Spain were queuing up to run as Errejonist candidates.

At the other pole is Forward Andalusia, opposed to governing with the PSOE but supporting it against the right.

At the time of writing, the Andalusian IU and Podemos Andalusia coalition, led by Anticapitalists’ Teresa Rodríguez, is trying to negotiate, within the UP campaign, for an electoral ticket chosen in Andalusia rather than by a state-wide process centralised in Madrid, leading to an independent parliamentary group within the UP coalition.

UP must navigate between these two poles and confronts a tricky problem: how to continue to argue the case for PSOE-UP coalition given Sánchez’s “lying” and “deceit”?

UP might yet solve this problem and even increase its vote among the 25% of PSOE voters who believe, according to one poll, that it was responsible for the failure of negotiations.

The argument that the only guarantee of progressive government is a bigger vote for the UP will also have some resonance.

However, the biggest danger is that the failed negotiations will feed demoralisation in working-class and poor neighbourhoods, producing a Spain-wide repeat of the right’s recent victories in Andalusia and Madrid.

If the PP, Citizens and Vox get carried into office on the shoulders of popular abstention, the PSOE will lose government. But would it be completely unhappy if that defeat went along with the marginalisation of UP — its loathed rival for hegemony of the left?

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will soon appear on the web site of Links — International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Written with valuable help from Julian Coppens.]

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