Every week it seems there is a fresh report of an electoral catastrophe for Europe’s centre-Left. Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD) – the oldest social democratic party in Europe – lost more than 1.7 million votes at the country’s 2017 election. In the Bavarian elections this month, fringe parties won a huge boost, with the SPD losing their second place spot to the Greens and slipping to just 9.7% of the vote. In France, no centre-Left candidate made it through to the second round of the country’s 2017 presidential election. And the centre-Left vote in Italy and the Netherlands has collapsed.
Bucking that trend is Spain, where in June a young Left-leaning leader took over as Prime Minsiter. Pedro Sánchez, the leader of Spain’s centre-left Socialist Party (PSOE), ruthlessly deposed Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP) minority government in a vote of no confidence. The motion won the backing of 180 MPs – including those of the radical left-wing party Podemos, and the largest Catalan pro-independence parties – and came after Spain’s highest criminal court found that the PP had profited from illegal kickbacks from government contracts.
Like Jeremy Corbyn in Britain (though more soft than hard Left), Sánchez has been consistently underestimated by his country’s political elite. First elected as PSOE leader in 2014 on a promise to take the party “as far to the left as its grassroots voters”, Sánchez resigned the leadership in 2016 after a party mutiny over his refusal to facilitate the re-election of Rajoy as prime minister following an inconclusive election. At the time Sánchez was derided as a “fool without scruples” by Spanish newspaper EL PAÍS.
Down but not out, Sánchez subsequently toured the country in his beaten-up Peugeot, meeting with grassroots PSOE members and drumming up support. Like Corbyn – and in contrast to figures from the political centre – Sánchez draws his support predominantly from the grassroots. As a result of reaching out to Socialist Party activists he was easily re-elected as party leader in June 2017. A year later he became the first politician in Spain’s history to unseat a prime minister through a no-confidence motion.
Sánchez’s ousting of Mariano Rajoy was a calculated manoeuvre that shocked the Spanish political establishment. Yet it was hardly representative of a sea change in the public mood in Spain. Indeed, at the time of Rajoy’s deposal it was Albert Rivera’s centre-Right Ciudadanos that was riding high in the polls, ahead of rivals PP and PSOE – largely a result of Ciudadanos’s hard-line stance over Catalan independence.
Sánchez’s ruthlessness in deposing the stale and corrupt Rajoy government changed that. A poll taken shortly after Rajoy’s departure had the PSOE on 28.8% of the vote, ahead of the PP on 25.6% and Ciudadanos on 21.1%. Support for the PSOE’s Left-wing rivals Podemos also fell, slipping to 13.1% – less than half of what the insurgent party were polling three years earlier.
In other words, on the surface at least Sánchez has bucked the continent-wide trend of social democracy in precipitous decline. It seems strange, then, that the European centre-Left is not making more noise about events in Spain. But then coming from the Left-wing of the PSOE, Sánchez invariably prompts suspicion among the continent’s social democratic establishment, who see France’s Emmanuel Macron as a politician more worthy of emulation than Jeremy Corbyn.
Moreover, while Sánchez may be in office, he has little power to implement his policies: the PSOE holds just 84 seats in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies, Spain’s lower house, while its upper house, the Senate, is still controlled by the PP.
Sánchez is therefore under huge pressure to call an election. He had initially promised to do so – a move calculated to win support from other parties during the no confidence vote against Rajoy. Yet since becoming Prime Minister he has done a swift about-turn, announcing recently that he would stay on until his mandate expires in 2020 so as to “normalise” the country.
The Sánchez government has, to be clear, made several striking announcements since coming to office in June. In July the Prime Minister proposed that the remains of Spain’s former dictator General Franco would be exhumed. Nearly half a century after the end of the dictatorship the Franco era remains a controversial topic.
Spain has also adopted a more open stance toward refugees, accepting the stranded migrants on board the Aquarius rescue ship after Italy and Malta refused to let the ship dock. In stark contrast to populist governments elsewhere in Europe, Sanchez said it was Spain’s “obligation to help avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and offer a safe port to these people”.
Yet the prospects of the Sánchez government sticking to a Left-wing agenda in the face of strong opposition are not overly promising. Indeed, reneging on his pledge to call an election is not the only U-turn Sánchez has made since coming to power. Most notably he dropped his party’s opposition to an arms deal with Saudi Arabia. It is thought the cancellation of the deal would have jeopardised a larger agreement with the Saudis to build five corvette warships worth $2.1 billion in Spain’s Navantia shipyard.
The biggest sticking point for the new government, however, will be in delivering a budget that moves Spain firmly away from austerity. This week Sánchez agreed a deal with Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos. The deal proposes a raft of Left-wing measures for next year’s budget, including a 22% increase in the minimum wage, heavy investment in education, longer paternity leave and higher spening on benefit payments. The deal seeks to avoid an early general election, which benefits both men: if one were held, Podemos would likely do poorly and there is no guarantee the PSOE would win a majority.
Additionally, the agreement between the two parties may precipitate a more promising formal alliance during next year’s regional and local elections. Iglesias himself told EL PAÍS last week that the agreement marked the “starting point for a new period in Spanish economic policy, which we think will result in a coalition government”.
But while Sánchez’s proposed budget would represent a sea change in Spanish economic policy, which has been characterised by austerity since the financial crash of 2008, it will require tough negotiations with Brussels, which has already raised concerns about wage increases in a country with 15% unemployment.
It will also be a challenge to get the Budget through parliament when they vote in November: even with the support of Podemos, Sánchez remains more than 50 MPs short of an overall majority. The PP and Ciudadanos – both of whom will vote against the plan – hold 166 seats, meaning Sánchez may try to win the backing of separatists by making concessions on regional autonomy.
The most probable outcome during budget negotiations is the PSOE accepting the budget deficit targets set out by the PP before it was ousted from office. The PP would thus be unable to block the plans. However that budget would mean a raft of tax increases to fund Sánchez’s ambitious spending commitments. Sánchez would then have the additional headache of needing to win the support of Podemos for any additional increase in taxes.
This helps explain why Spain is not being held up as an example of European social democratic resurgence. If support for Sánchez begins to dip on the back of tax increases and an unwillingness to call an election, the coup against Rajoy may represent no more than a pyrrhic victory for Spain’s Socialists. Spain’s government is not the consolation that Europe’s centre-Left are desperately searching for. At least not yet it isn’t.