Spanish Socialists: From Crisis to Crisis

We are witnessing the start of a new election cycle in Spain, an aggravation of the internal political conflict and a rather pessimistic scenario for the PSOE’s results at the upcoming general parliamentary elections, Valdai Club expert Irina Prokhorenko writes.

Spain can hold extraordinary general parliamentary elections as soon as April 28, this year, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said after the national parliament voted against the draft state budget. The “technical” socialist government has not worked even nine months, having taken over in June 2018, not through a PSOE victory in the elections, but after a vote of no confidence for the conservative People’s Party cabinet due to the National Court verdict on the political corruption scandal, known as the Gurtel case, implicating right-wing officials.

The socialists’ position in the current Cortes Generales, the country’s legislative body, is relatively weak: the PSOE parliamentary group accounts for 84 of 350 members. However, Sanchez smartly used the situation by initiating a vote of no confidence, increasing the risk of instability and uncontrollability just when Spain seemed to be gradually emerging from the acute phase of the Catalonia constitutional crisis. Immediately, suspicions arose that the ambitious socialist leader was conspiring with regional nationalists and separatists who had supported his election as Prime Minister along with the Unidos Podemos alliance and a number of small left-wing and radical left political groups.

The issues that the socialist team had to address immediately were critical for the country’s development and became a serious test of the new cabinet: implementing the 2018 budget and drafting the budget for 2019, the future status of Gibraltar in the context of the UK’s exit from the European Union, and the ongoing constitutional crisis in Catalonia.

Sanchez was forced to make concessions to Unidos Podemos when drawing up the budget. The government’s future macroeconomic strategy raised concerns not only among the opposition, but also among investors. On October 15, 2018, on the day Sanchez signed the draft budget agreement with the Podemos party leader, the country’s stock market had a record meltdown. The growing budget deficit, unjustifiably high social spending, increased tax burden on businesses, fraught with future job cuts and policies to contain rental prices, which have already proved ineffective in neighboring countries – all this predetermined the fate of the bill.

The Catalan separatists supported Sanchez’s election, but have not stopped their confrontation with the government: they continued fighting for the release of Catalan politicians and the restoration of full self-government in the region after the termination of Article 155 of the Constitution; they are not planning to abandon their best-case scenario to achieve independence either. Unlike the rightists, the socialists are ready to reform a “state of autonomies” based on the principles of federalism. The PSOE leadership recognized the civil nation that has emerged in Catalonia, and proposed the idea of ​​a “nation of nations” in Spain.

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Many in Spain are not happy with the format of interaction between Pedro Sanchez and President of the Government of Catalonia Quim Torra. The considerable financial assistance granted to the region to relieve its debt burden is seen as a concession to the separatists, which still fails to convince them to abandon their secessionist plans. The Catalan regional nationalists refused to vote in the national parliament for the draft budget proposed by the government, pressing the socialists to fulfill a preliminary condition – the release of the imprisoned Catalan politicians.

In an effort to underscore the contrast with the central authorities, Torra imposes solutions to various problems on Madrid, which are particularly painful for Spain. One of them was to accommodate the illegal migrants from the Aquarius that were rejected by Italy, Malta and Belgium in June 2018. Only after the Catalan authorities announced they would accommodate some migrants in the region, the central government agreed to accept them.

The instability of the Sanchez government was confirmed by the December 2018 parliamentary election results in Andalusia, the traditional home of the PSOE, where socialists have formed regional governments for almost four decades. But last year, they lost a significant percent of the mandate in the autonomous parliament. The right lost seats, too. The Citizens–Party of the Citizenry party is celebrating triumph; the radical right-wing Vox (Voice) party surprised everyone with its first success in regional elections.

Established in 2013, the party is strongly opposed to immigration, especially from foreign cultures, and to abortions. It advocates traditional values and a return to a unitary state. Supporting Spanish ultra-nationalism, the party opposes Catalan secessionism and insists on recognizing any political party or association opposing the unity of the state as illegal. According to experts, Vox took 15 percent of the vote from the leftist parties.

Until recently, Spain was considered a country that had no influential right-wing parties for historical reasons (long periods of authoritarian rule in the 20th century). However, the country’s political party system is changing again, after being transformed by the negative consequences of the global crisis, and is becoming increasingly fragmented and even less stable. It is safe to say we are witnessing the start of a new election cycle in Spain, an aggravation of the internal political conflict and a rather pessimistic scenario for the PSOE’s results at the upcoming general parliamentary elections.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.