Spain: Is this the end of the Socialists?

A ‘sense of duty’ may not be enough for Spain to overcome the crippling political impasse.

Pedro Sanchez, greets supporters upon his arrival to a election rally in Vilagarcia, Galicia, Spain [EPA]
Pedro Sanchez, greets supporters upon his arrival to a election rally in Galicia, Spain [EPA]

The tail was definitely wagging the dog on September 26 after regional elections in Galicia and the Basque Country resulted in improving chances for Spain’s acting Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, and his Conservative party to finally break nine months of political deadlock.

It’s not often that a regional election can hold the key to Spain’s top job. But in Spain’s first ever election with four political parties, small changes proved decisive.

The Conservatives’ strong showing in Galicia was not surprising. Rajoy is a native Galician, as was General Francisco Franco, Spain’s military dictator whose death in 1975 paved the way for Spain’s transition to democracy.

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That move to democracy gave birth to a two-party system: Conservatives and Socialists. And the past year with its two inconclusive elections have proved disastrous for the Socialists, which alternated in office for more than three decades.

Rise of Podemos

When Spain’s economic crisis hit in 2007, a competitor to the Socialists, Podemos, emerged. For years, Socialist policies had drifted to the centre, abandoning unions and other protectors of the working class.

With unemployment at record levels and poverty reaching new segments of the population, left-leaning Spaniards abandoned the Socialist leadership of Pedro Sanchez, a party man, for the charismatic Podemos leader, Pablo Iglesias, a young university professor able to channel the street anger into a new political force.

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When last December’s government elections were inconclusive, a second election was held in June. And while June’s election did not see Podemos take over the top left spot as had been predicted in the polls, its votes continued to split the left in two.

Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) leader Pedro Sanchez [EPA]
Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) leader Pedro Sanchez [EPA]

A new party also emerged on the right, Ciudadanos – with another young leader, Albert Rivera, who currently enjoys the highest popularity ratings of any Spanish politician. But Rivera’s popularity has not translated into votes: Spanish conservatives have overwhelmingly stayed with the traditional Conservative party of Rajoy.

Hence, a political impasse which has baffled – and worried – world leaders. Enough so that last week Spain’s King Felipe VI addressed the United Nations General Assembly to assure the western world that Spain’s prolonged lack of government would shortly be overcome through “dialogue” and a “sense of duty”.

Those comments earned more than a few chuckles – and curses – back home as Spanish citizens saw themselves working ever longer hours for ever smaller pay cheques while their elected leaders sit in Parliament, refusing to do what many Spaniards complain “they were elected to do”.

With the Socialists' weak showing in Galicia and the Basque Country, Rajoy can now force the Socialists' hand.


‘Cuts and more cuts’

For the past nine months, Rajoy has insisted on the need for the Socialists to let the Conservatives form a national government, either by voting for him or at least abstaining at the investiture vote for a new prime minister.

In June, a close aide of Rajoy first stated his willingness to “lead a minority government if he fails to secure support for a grand coalition with the Socialists, because there is no other alternative”. 

Rajoy has repeated this threat like a mantra. And with the Socialists’ weak showing in Galicia and the Basque Country, Rajoy can now force the Socialists’ hand.

To vote in favour of Rajoy’s Conservatives would mean the end of the Socialists – and no one knows that better that Sanchez. For months, Sanchez has argued that while Spain urgently needs a government, it doesn’t need a bad government.

Describing Rajoy’s leadership as being driven only by “cuts and more cuts”, Sanchez has played to the impact of heavy cuts to health and education, sacrosanct services for the Spaniard public.

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And Sanchez had hoped for Rajoy’s party to fall in popular support due to a series of major corruption cases – all involving Conservative party members – finding their way to court this autumn.

Spain's acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy [Reuters]
Spain’s acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy [Reuters]

The most famous case is that of Rita Barbera, now under indictment for money laundering offences allegedly committed during her 24 years as mayor of Valencia.

Spain’s top tribunal will investigate her supposed role as part of an illegal money network thought to have operated out of Valencia’s City Hall. Most of Barbera’s team has already been accused of corruption.

Perhaps most damning to public opinion is the close link between Rajoy and Barbera. They are close personal friends, making it difficult for many Spaniards to believe that Rajoy knew nothing.

Natural part of politics

Yet it seems that Spaniards accept corruption as a natural part of politics.

“Around 70 percent of politicians who have been arraigned for corruption were subsequently re-elected in the next elections,” wrote Jesus Lizcano, head of the Spanish division of Transparency International, back in 2013.


Rajoy and the Conservative party appear unaffected – at least for now.

The Socialists have not been so lucky. As party leader, Sanchez repeatedly refused to either join –  or abstain from preventing – a Conservative government coming to power.

That decision is now being openly questioned by leading figures within his own party. Six out of seven Socialist regional premiers oppose Sanchez´s calls for the formation of a left coalition, arguing that it’s better to be in the opposition than to struggle to form an alternative government with Podemos and regional separatists.

Watching the Socialists experience their worst ever results in Galicia and the Basque Country, Rajoy surely anticipated forcing Sanchez’s hand. But that pleasure was taken away from Rajoy by none other than Felipe Gonzalez, Spain’s longest-serving prime minister and the most powerful man inside the Socialist party, during an interview on SER radio.

Deceived and let down

Angered by the direction that Sanchez was taking the party, Gonzalez didn’t hold back.

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“I feel deceived and let down by Pedro Sanchez,” said Gonzalez. “He explained to me that he would go into the opposition and would not try to form an alternative government. I really feel tricked because he said one thing, and then it turned out to be another.”

Gonzalez brought the Socialists’ internal battles out into public view, and soon there was no turning back. By early evening, more than half of the Federal Executive Committee – representing Madrid, Catalonia, Valencia and Andalusia – had officially resigned.

Many expected Sanchez to respond to the resignations by stepping down.

A just published “El Pais” opinion piece by Ruben Amon describes Sanchez as isolated and self-absorbed, and blames him for refusing to see the conspiracy right under his nose.

There is no precedent for what has happened within the Socialist Party – it’s a first. So no one can predict with certainty what will happen next.

But if political progress is not made soon, Spaniards will have to go to the polls for the third time on December 25.

Sanchez is fighting a losing battle – and he knows it.

Gina Benevento is a former UN diplomat based in Jerusalem, now living and working in Madrid as a strategic communications consultant.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.