Spain: Storm clouds gather as PSOE-UP government formed

Image removed.

By Dick Nichols

January 13, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — By the narrowest of margins (167 votes to 165 with 18 abstentions), the 350-seat Spanish Congress invested Pedro Sánchez as prime minister of a coalition government of the social-democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the more radical Unidas Podemos on January 7. No Spanish prime minister has ever been elected by so low and so close a vote, with eight of the parliament’s eighteen parties in favour, eight against and two abstaining.

The January 4-7 investiture sessions of PSOE candidate Sánchez took place amid scenes of hysterical vituperation and attempted sabotage by the formerly governing People’s Party (PP), the ultra-right Vox and the neoliberal Citizens. The leaders and MPs of this triple-headed Spanish-patriotic bloc strove to outdo each other in their abuse of Sánchez and the “social-communist” PSOE-UP coalition. 

The PSOE candidate finally won office due to the 18 abstentions of what the right called the "secessionist coup-plotters" and the "terrorists” — the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the Basque left-independentist EH Bildu. Their vote guaranteed Sánchez the relative majority needed to win office after he failed to achieve an absolute majority in the first round  on January 5.

For PP leader Pablo Casado, Sánchez was an unprincipled, scheming fraud. He had "forced a repeat election [on November 10] with the solemn undertaking not to depend on the far left, the separatists and the Batasunas [reference to former outlawed Basque left-independence force Batasuna], but today brings them here as allies without giving a single explanation for this massive con of Spanish voters. […] He lied, knowing that if he told the truth he would lose the elections. That’s the stigma with which this government against Spain, the most radical in our history, is born."

In a similar vein, Vox leader Santiago Abascal, said the Sánchez government was "illegitimate", "born of lying and treachery", with "its insurance paid for by [now defunct Basque military-terrorist organisation] ETA". Citizens’ leader Inés Arrimades pretended concern for those Spaniards whom the new government had left "orphaned and mired in distress".

The right’s theatrics included: PP speakership panel member Adolfo Suárez Illana turning his back on EH Bildu speakers; Vox MPs abandoning the chamber while EH Bildu MP Oskar Matute was speaking; points of order against the speaker Meritxell Batet for allowing criticism of King Felipe; shouts of "traitors" against ERC, Together For Catalonia (JxCat) and People’s Unity List (CUP) MPs; and right orators ending their speeches with "Long Live the King!" and "Long Live Spain!" and being met with orchestrated standing ovations.

At times it felt as if 80 years of history, including the conversion of the PSOE into a reliable pillar of the status quo after the end of the Franco dictatorship, had vanished as Spain’s politics reverted to the days of the 1931-39 Second Republic. In this atmosphere, the PSOE-UP’s eleven-chapter agreement for a progressive government got hardly a mention: what was the point of discussing points of policy with people with a plan to “destroy Spain”?

Dirty tricks: success then failure

The right’s onslaught targeted all the weak links in the long chain of support the PSOE and UP had worked to forge so as to win the investiture vote from a position 21 seats short of an absolute majority (176). These links included middle-of-the-road regionalist forces like the Regionalist Party of Cantabria (PRC) and the Canary Islands parties New Canaries (NC) and Canary Coalition (CC), the centre-right Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), the Valencian force Commitment and the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG), as well as UP split Más País (More Country) and the new force Teruel Exists, voice of protest against central government neglect of southern Aragon.

However, even if all these groupings had voted in favour, the greatest conceivable level of support would only have been 170.  Critical to any chance of the PSOE and UP forming government was success in persuading the left and pro-sovereignty forces not to add their votes to the right’s 152.  Only if the chain of potential support did not break and the ERC (13 votes) and EH Bildu (five) abstained could Sánchez scrape across the line. The right’s campaign therefore focussed on making such abstention as politically painful as possible, especially for the ERC. 

On January 2, the Catalan party’s national council endorsed an accord with the PSOE that recognised the Spain-Catalonia dispute as a political conflict, set up a government-to-government dialogue table, and agreed to submit the result of any negotiations to a vote in Catalonia. The ERC was also favourably influenced by the decision of the Spanish solicitor-general’s office to argue in the Supreme Court for the release of ERC leader Junqueras after the December 19 ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) that had found he had enjoyed parliamentary immunity from the day he was declared elected as Member of the European Parliament (MEP). On that basis, the ERC committed to abstaining in the second round vote. At the same time, a binding consultation of the EH Bildu membership produced 81.4% support for abstention.

The right wing now turned up the heat on the weakest links in the PSOE-UP chain of support. First to crack was the PRC, which on January 2 withdrew its support on the grounds that no result of negotiations over Catalonia’s status could be voted on by Catalans alone. The next to go was Ana Oramos, MP for the Canary Coalition, who said she would defy the unanimous decision of the CC executive to abstain on Sánchez’s investiture and vote against “those who are  beginning the demolition of the State”.

These successes brought Tomás Guitarte, Teruel Exists one MP, into the right’s gunsights. If he could be forced to change his party’s support for Sánchez, the investiture would fail. Guitarte became the target of 8800 emails demanding a change in line, paint-ups in his home town denouncing him as a “separatist traitor” and this tweet from Abascal: “If I were an inhabitant of Teruel I would now be camped outside the Council until Mr Guitarte gives up betraying all Spaniards and acts so Teruel exists for Spain, and not so as to succumb to the separatists.” Guitarte, however, held firm, publicly denouncing the right’s crusade against him, which was menacing to the point of forcing him to sleep away from home and have police protection.

The main shot in the right’s war came on January 3, the day Spain's Central Electoral Board (JEC) voted to suspend Catalan premier Quim Torra as a member of the Catalan parliament. The goal was to provoke such outrage in Catalonia that it would force the ERC to break its deal with the PSOE, especially as the Catalan party was already coming under fire from JxCat and the CUP for signing an agreement that made no mention of the right to self-determination. The maneuver flopped when the pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament voted that it still recognised Torra as an MP and as premier. 

In the end all the operations of the right came to naught. An El Mundo editorial calling on PSOE MPs to break ranks, a special appeal by Inés Arrimades to the PSOE’s regional “barons” to call Sánchez to order and the Catholic Episcopal Conference’s publishing of its “Moral Orientations on the Present Situation in Spain” were all in vain. The decision of the six JxCat and two CUP MPs to join with Vox, PP and Citizens in voting against the investiture also had no effect, except, perhaps, to confuse their supporters as to what alternative they were proposing.

Lawfare unleashed

In this atmosphere, Sánchez moved in the days following his investiture to reassure Spain’s economic powers-that-be that his cabinet would be responsive to their concerns and would keep its five UP ministers on a tight rein. New ministerial appointments of impeccable technocrats and a memorandum of understanding with the UP on procedures for handling alliance differences sent out the message that loud corporate worrying about the “threat to economic orthodoxy from populism” (phrase of the Spanish Confederation of Employer Organisations, CEOE) had been heeded and the personnel and structures set in place to guarantee economic stability.

Next came an attack from another establishment—the senior judicial bodies responsible for the jailing of the Catalan political prisoners. On January 9, the Second Chamber of the Spanish Supreme Court, headed by chief judge Manuel Marchena, decided not to abide by the CJEU sentence that had found jailed ERC leader Oriol Junqueras had enjoyed parliamentary immunity. The CJEU had ruled that Junqueras should be released from preventive detention and allowed to attend the January 13 session of the parliament and that his immunity could only be lifted by a vote of the parliament itself. In ignoring the CJEU ruling—on the grounds that Junqueras when elected had not yet been found guilty of any charge but was now convicted—Marchena also “forgot” his court’s undertaking to abide by any CJEU ruling on the issue.

The Supreme Court also reserved its judgment on the appeal of Catalan president Quim Torra against the January 3 ruling of the JEC that he was no longer an MP in the Catalan parliament and hence disqualified from acting as premier. The JEC took this action seven votes to six on the basis of a sentence against Torra by the High Court of Justice of Catalonia (TSJC). That body had found the Catalan premier guilty of disobeying the JEC during the last Spanish general election campaign when he delayed removal from the central Catalan government building in Barcelona of a banner in support of the Catalan political prisoners and exiles. As a public space the building should have been “neutral” during election periods.

Even though Torra had already appealed this sentence to the Supreme Court, the JEC made use of its power to disqualify MPs before a final court decision is brought down. The blatantly partisan nature of this sentence was revealed by the split vote of the JEC’s seven conservatives to six progressives, but most of all by its announcement, not by the JEC itself, but by PP leader Casado.

The JEC’s operation against Torra and the refusal of the Supreme Court to strike it down met with the rejection of the Catalan government, the pro-independence parliamentary majority—the ERC, former premier Carles Puigdemont’s JxCat and the CUP—and speaker Roger Torrent (ERC). This reaction sets up a new phase of conflict between the Spanish judicial hierarchy, supported by the parties of the right, and the Catalan movement for self-determination, and turns up the heat under the fledgling PSOE-UP government. Will its spokespeople just keep intoning “separation of powers” in the face of the PP-driven “lawfare” against the Catalan movement for self-determination?

The judicial hierarchy’s offensive took a further step on January 10, when Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena, prosecuting magistrate in the case of the Catalan political and social leaders, appealed to the European Parliament to revoke the immunity of JxCat MEPs Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comín. This submission will now have to be considered by the parliament’s legal subcommittee, with its recommendation voted on by the chamber as a whole. The publicity generated by the procedure will guarantee that the Catalan right to self-determination—and the general  issue of national self-determination in Europe—becomes an even hotter political issue.

Catalonia still the critical question

The investiture session of the new PSOE-UP government and the days following provided a sharp foretaste of the likely shape of politics in the Spanish state in coming months. It will be marked most of all by how willing and able the PSOE-UP is to grapple with the Catalan issue, which the PSOE claims it is committed to taking out of the courts and returning to the sphere of politics. The one action that would cut this Gordian knot would be an amnesty for all Catalonia’s political prisoners and exiles: it would be welcomed by the vast majority of people in Catalonia (including many opponents of independence) and simultaneously cut the legs from under the crusade of Marchenas, Llarena and the right to “get” the Catalan movement.

Anyone watching the investiture session of Sánchez would have got a very sharp reminder of this reality from the final intervention of ERC MP Montserrat Bassa, sister of jailed former social services minister Dolors Bassa. Accusing the PSOE of being “hangmen” as much as the PP, Bassa said: “Personally, I don’t give a hoot about the governability of Spain.” Nonetheless, because her sister and the other ERC prisoners have been insisting that dialogue is the only way forward, the ERC would allow the PSOE-UP government to form. But the ball was now in the PSOE’s court.

The strategic goal of the PSOE, whose spokespeople have repeatedly denied the existence of a right to self-determination, is to open up the differences within the Catalan sovereignty movement to the point of split, differences which the unyieldingly hostile approach of the previous PP government of Mariano Rajoy only tended to reduce. The recent actions of the JEC and Supreme Court and the reactions to them from the Catalan independence parties have brought the umpteenth confirmation that this orientation only increases support for independence and pressure for unity among the forces favouring it.

Sánchez, by contrast, will try to show that his government is appreciative of things Catalan and attentive to Catalonia’s needs, increasing funding in long-neglected areas like infrastructure and devolving various areas of administration to the Catalan government. The message will be that the “good guys” have arrived in Madrid and that those Catalan parties who oppose a PSOE-UP budget that increases funding to Catalonia can’t really interested in improving life for ordinary Catalan people but only in independence for its own sake.

The PSOE dream is of provoking a split over such an issue between the ERC and JxCat (the governing coalition in Catalonia) and potentially opening the door to a “progressive coalition” winning the next Catalan elections. However, the force most openly promoting this dream is Catalona Together (CeC), the left coalition in which UP participates in Catalonia. CeC never stops pressuring ERC to shift partners from JxCat to the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC, Catalan franchise of the PSOE) and to CeC, thereby creating a governing coalition based on “social” as against “national” criteria.  That would leave JxCat and the CUP in opposition and hopefully drive the Catalan national struggle off the immediate political agenda and into the comfortable never-never land of speculation about Spanish constitutional reform.

In a January 9 radio interview Barcelona mayor and CeC leader Ada Colau said that “the new political stage of dialogue, dejudicialisation and advanced and progressive social policies has to be reflected in all administrations.” However, the burning question was left unanswered: dialogue to achieve what? The PSOE, as committed to the unity of the Spanish state as the parties of the right, will strive to make abandonment of the actual Catalan struggle for the right to self-determination—in deeds if not in words—the price of adoption of  its “advanced and progressive social policies”. Is CeC prepared just to accept that?

The PSOE role was made clear in a January 8 Europa Press interview by PSC MP and anti-independentist attack dog José Zaragoza, who commented that if the dialogue table to be set up between the PSOE-UP and Catalan governments fails this will not be the fault of the Spanish government but “due to internal fights within the independence movement”.

Also clear from Zaragoza’s interview was that he assumed that Unidas Podemos and the CeC would just accept a PSOE veto of any exercise of a Catalan right to self-determination, despite their support for it in principle (support that Sánchez once claimed caused him to “lose sleep” during the failed negotiations with UP after the April 28 election).

Keeping Unidas Podemos in line

Apparent nagging concern that UP and Pablo Iglesias might still have too much wriggle room led Sánchez immediately after his investiture to move to weaken UP’s position within his government. First came the agreement on how to resolve differences between the government partners, which almost turns the PSOE-UP alliance into a single party committed to voting together on all issues related to government policy and action and on “matters with significant impact on the political scene or in the sectoral areas of state policy”. Disagreements will be allowed in other areas—how many would be left?—so long as communicated beforehand to the other side of the alliance.

Next was Sánchez’s decision—perhaps provoked by Iglesias himself announcing the UP’s ministerial appointments—to add a fourth deputy prime ministerial position to the three envisaged in the original PSOE-UP agreement. This move, which turns Iglesias into just one of four deputies to Sánchez, intensified the process of dilution and subordination of the alliance’s more radical partner. 

It was further advanced by expanding the cabinet from 17 to 23 ministers (the biggest in Europe), only five of whom are UP nominees. These five have been given responsibilities that in past governments were the responsibility of deputy ministers or secretaries of state. For example, Alberto Garzón, United Left (IU) federal coordinator and member of the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), has been given the portfolio of consumer affairs, which originally came under the ministry of health. The portfolio of equality, which was also within health, has been created for UP parliamentary spokesperson Irene Montoro. The portfolio of universities has been hived off from that of science and universities, and will be occupied by well-known sociologist Manuel Castells. UP won the ministry of labour for IU and PCE member Yolanda Díaz, but at the cost of having social security and immigration removed to a new portfolio and put under a PSOE appointment.

Finally, some issues around which UP has gained profile have been assigned to PSOE portfolios. These include the ecological transition and the recovery of historical memory of the victims of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War: any advances in these areas will be recorded as won by the PSOE.

When added to the fact that the UP already agreed that the “portfolios of state” (treasury, foreign affairs, interior, defence and attorney-general), belong to the PSOE, the political cost of UP and its allies agreeing to become a fifth wheel on the PSOE wagon becomes increasingly clear.


Such, however, is not the general perception or mood among Spain’s “people of the left”, as shown by the overwhelming support received from both PSOE and UP members for the idea of a joint “progressive government”. As the Sánchez-UP government is sworn in, there is cautious hope that life for the majority could get better: the minimum wage could increase; the worst aspects of the casualised labour market could get repealed; rent gouging stopped; more job opportunities provided for young people; women’s rights defended and extended; education made cheaper; the PP’s gag law repealed; democratic rights like euthanasia introduced and a serious struggle against climate change begun.  Tax income to pay for it all could increase as Spain’s obscenely undertaxed rich and the big companies are finally made to pay their share.

It might seem that such a mood presages a sizeable honeymoon period for the Sánchez government, provided the next economic downturn holds off. If the main coming battle in Spanish politics were to be about the wealthy having to pay more tax in order to fund programs that many conservative voters would benefit from, the PP, Vox and Citizens would have their work cut out maintaining their support base. They would find themselves in the same situation as the Portuguese right, which has been reduced to only 40% support by years of steady improvements in the living conditions of the majority, introduced by a Socialist Party government supported, spurred and criticised from without by the Left Bloc and the Portuguese Communist Party.

However, Catalonia never goes away. The Sánchez government will have to have its first budget passed by the same alliance that won it government and that outcome will depend most of all on its making progress in addressing the demands of the Catalan movement. In turn, Sánchez will not be able to make any concessions acceptable to the ERC without further enraging a right that will, in the words of Abascal, “give you no quarter, but fight you in the parliament, fight you in the courts, fight you in the streets”.

The most immediate  prospect, then, is not of some return to the reasonableness and political give-and-take as called for by Sánchez, but of sharply increased conflict with the right and the Spanish establishment. In that context, the arrival of the PSOE-UP government makes sustained social mobilisation absolutely indispensable — to prevent the PSOE itself from backsliding on the modest but real reforms contained in the platform for government, to prevent UP itself from simply yielding to PSOE pressures, and to hold off the right that is a threat to everything progressive.

Dick Nichols in Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An initial version of this article has appeared on its web site.