Spanish general election: can a divided left keep out the right?

By Dick Nichols

September 30, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — On September 17, 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 that he didn’t have enough support to form government. If nothing changed by the September 23 deadline for a proposal for government, new elections would be held on November 10.

Talks with the radical force Unidas Podemos (UP), a coalition of the United Left (IU) and Podemos, had collapsed and consequently the other two sources of support promised the PSOE—the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV)—also withdrew their backing for Sánchez’s investiture. In over four months of languid negotiations, the acting prime minister had managed to add only one vote to the PSOE’s 124 in the 350-seat Spanish Congress—that of the Regionalist Party of Cantabria (PRC). 

The king then decided, in violation of article 99 of the Spanish constitution, that he wouldn’t submit Sánchez to the required procedure of losing a Congress vote to trigger a new election. The monarch took it upon himself to tell the speaker of the Congress, Michelle Batet, that he wasn’t proposing a candidate for prime minister. She now had no choice but to inform Congress that a new election could not be avoided.

The reaction among the millions of voters who had ensured Sánchez’s victory on April 28—supporters of the PSOE, UP and Catalan, Basque and Valencian nationalist and regionalist forces—was anger, disappointment and dismay. Would this alliance of “Spain 2” (the all-Spanish parties identified as left) and “Spain 3” (the nationalist and regionalist parties) again be able to hold off the Spanish-patriotic conservative bloc of “Spain 1”, the corrupt People’s Party (PP), the ultra-liberal Citizens and the ultra-right Vox?

Early polling was showing that many of the extra millions who mobilised on April 28 to stop a right-wing victory could well stay at home. The September 18-20 40dB poll had participation falling to a rock-bottom 62.8% (from 71.8% in April). Five days after the king’s declaration 150,000 Spanish citizens had already instructed the National Statistical Institute, which provides the competing parties with voters’ addresses for ballot paper mail-outs, to take their names off its list.

IU leader Alberto Garzón expressed his fears on September 11: “I think we’re going to pay for this. I think the people outside this place [Congress] don’t understand it. People have been telling me we have to reach an agreement. This failure could show up in a big increase in abstention that could produce surprises at the election.”

The Spanish political situation, however, is more volatile than ever, with what look like new trends rapidly disappearing with the changing mood swings of voters. For example, the announcement on September 20 of Mas País! (More Country!), led by former Podemos leader and Madrid regional MP Iñigo Errejón, is already raising the possibility of a repeat defeat of the “tripled-headed” right. 

According to the latest Sondaxe poll, published in the September 29 Voz de Galicia, this new force would enter the 350-seat Congress with 19 seats, while the PSOE would lose only four seats (down to 119) and UP one (down to 41). As a result the bloc that is conventionally termed left (PSOE-UP-Mas País!) would have an absolute majority (179) while the right bloc would lose 12 seats (down to 135), with the PP re-establishing dominance over Citizens and Vox within it. With this result a PSOE government would exchange its dependence on the vote of the Basque and Catalan nationalist parties for an increased dependence on UP and Mas País: the collapse of Citizens (from 57 to 27 seats) would eliminate these neo-liberal ultra-centralists and haters of Catalan sovereignty as possible support for a PSOE administration.

Blame game

The December 10 poll looks certain to be dominated by warfare over who was responsible for the failure to form a PSOE-UP government: present signs are that the “court of public opinion” is not accepting the PSOE’s attempts to have UP wear the blame. 

Sánchez fired his opening shots in a September 20 TV interview: had he yielded to UP leader Pablo Iglesias’s “impositions”̣ (that is, the request for the 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.” It would also have been irresponsible to accept UPers in such ministries because of their “lack of political and management experience” and because it was clear any coalition with the UP would have been “two governments in one”.

These comments were spin, and have increasingly been seen as such. The negotiations—in reality, a prolonged dialogue of the deaf—failed after UP had lost two-thirds of its seats in the May 26 elections for regional parliaments. At that point Sánchez and his circle of advisers, already reluctant about a PSOE-UP ministry, concluded that they had nothing to gain from governing with Iglesias, even if they had to pretend to keep negotiating.

At the victory celebration on the night of April 28, PSOE members had chanted “Not with [Citizens’ leader Albert] Rivera”, expressing the desire of the overwhelming majority of PSOE voters for a government alliance with UP. As a result, throughout the negotiations Sánchez kept publicly referring to UP as “our preferred partner”. However, an anonymous “member of the government” explained what the PSOE was really up to in an article by Carlos Cué in the September 19 El País:

A lot of people didn’t understand what we were doing. But it’s that the PSOE project is at stake. We’ve never had the right wing so cornered. With Podemos ministers we would have been helping the right recover and we would have been heading towards elections in a few months and in worse conditions. But in November we can consolidate and what’s more not depend on the [Catalan and Basque] independentists. It is a very difficult decision, but one taken for serious reasons, not on a whim.

The “serious reasons” for consolidating the PSOE were later spelled out in a September 20 letter to PSOE members from Sánchez: “We need a solid and stable government, able to respond to the threats that loom over our country: a hard Brexit that cuts into our finances, the international economic slowdown, managing the sentence in the [Catalan independence] process and its impact on social harmony...”

Of these, the most important—the one that will dominate the election campaign—is the ongoing Catalan conflict, whose latest phase has seen Civil Guard raids on activists in Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), culminating in seven of them being charged with “terrorism” by a National High Court judge. The competition between the parties of the right over who can be toughest on “the secessionists” is intensifying, with all demanding immediate suspension of Catalan self-rule under article 155 of the Spanish constitution: at the same time the Sánchez government, while impugning Catalan parliament resolutions in the Constitutional Court, ramps up the threat of 155 “if the conditions justify it”.

Diary of a non-negotiation

The two halves of the “negotiations” between the PSOE and UP straddled the first attempt by Sánchez to win investiture, which failed on July 25 when UP abstained in the Congress vote. From early June up until this vote Sánchez offered UP a completely subordinate role in government: afterwards he made it clear that he didn’t want a coalition agreement at all, removing the previous offer from the negotiating table and replacing it with that of a “progressive programmatic pact” that the UP could monitor but in no way administer. Sánchez was encouraged by opinion polls showing rising support for the PSOE and a growing crisis within Citizens due to the refusal of Rivera to consider the formation of a PSOE government through abstention.

The polls also showed that up to two million voters who had supported Citizens in April were re-considering their choice, an enticing prospect for a PSOE leadership that was under pressure from big business to drop any idea of an alliance with UP. On July 4, Antonio Garamendi, head of the Confederation of Spanish Business Organisations (CEOE), had said: “Spain needs a stable, moderate government, even if this means repeating elections.”

The main phases in the failed negotiation were:

April 29-May 26: Iglesias agrees with Sánchez that the central “portfolios of State”—defence, foreign affairs, attorney-general’s and interior—belong to the PSOE, but lays claim to industrial relations. Sánchez says that this is impossible, but both agree to await the results of the May 26 European, municipal and regional elections before negotiating;

May 27-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: Iglesias describes this last offer as “idiocy” and Podemos members reaffirm support for coalition government in a referendum. Sánchez replies 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 last-minute negotiations before the July 25 deadline for the first investiture session;

July 20-25: The PSOE offers the UP a “social” deputy prime ministership and three other minor portfolios, which UP rejects as “wallflower” positions, despite being urged to accept the offer by IU and Together We Can (ECP), the radical coalition in which UP participates in Catalonia. Iglesias believes that if UP holds out it will get a better offer. Sánchez then rejects the UP request for the ministries of health, industrial relations and science. UP abstains in first investiture vote;

August 29-September 12: Iglesias now accepts the last PSOE offer, but with the addition of a UP-run ministry of job creation while Sánchez rejects any coalition government with UP. The PSOE proposes its “progressive programmatic pact” (developed after meetings with social movements), to be monitored by UP. Negotiations are suspended on September 11 after two meetings in which it becomes clear that positions are irreconcilable. The day after Sánchez rejects a last-minute proposal by Iglesias for a one-year trial of coalition government dissolvable by the PSOE if unsatisfied with its performance. 

Throughout this time Sánchez also tried to prise open the possibility of Citizens—or even the PP—allowing his investiture through abstention. In the dying moments of the negotiations with UP he registered a small success: Citizens’ leader Rivera, who had refused to even meet with Sánchez while he was still talking with the “populists”, indicated that his party would abstain on four conditions: preparation of a new suspension of Catalan self-rule under article 155 of the constitution, dissolution of the PSOE government of Navarra (made possible by the support of Basque nationalist parties), PSOE commitment to tax cuts for small business, and PP support for these three proposals.

Sánchez naturally rejected this “offer”, but it was an indication that Citizens, losing support in all polls, will prove more available to the PSOE as a possible alternative to UP after November 10.

UP road to ruin?

Social media has been boiling with debate over responsibility for the failure of the UP-PSOE negotiations: the favourite culprits are 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 just 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 therefore due to UP asking for too much or the PSOE offering too little.

The only one force within the broad UP milieu that has a different perspective is Anticapitalists, which supports the “Portuguese model” of allowing a PSOE government to form in return for binding commitments on key issues. For its part, IU backed the effort to achieve IU-PSOE coalition, but would only have supported it from without after IU members voted against participation in government. 

The approach of the central UP leadership group was to do everything possible to achieve government with the PSOE. Their thirst for office at almost any price set the UP down the road of increasing sacrifice of its own policies, beginning with acceptance of PSOE leadership in foreign affairs and on Spain’s “territorial question”.

Next, after the failure of the first investiture session, the Iglesias leadership had to look on in impotence while the PSOE engaged in a parody of UP’s own strong suit—“consulting the social movements”. This performance produced a 370-point “progressive programmatic platform”, a grab-bag which ignored the fact that most of the social movements—including the two main trade union confederations— wanted a PSOE-UP coalition. It also omitted the more “impossible” demands of the environmental and feminist movements and the trade unions’ demand for the repeal of labour market “reform”. The platform was launched by Sánchez on September 3 for an election the PSOE had already decided would be happening.

The UP’s sad retreat ended in the lamentable spectacle of Pablo Iglesias admitting in a September 20 Antena 3 interview that UP would, as part of any future PSOE-UP administration, abide by a new suspension of Catalan self-rule under article 155: “Although we have a position with respect to the Catalan conflict that is committed to dialogue, we will always respect the law and accept the leadership of the Socialist Party.”

That was too much. It was one thing to concede PSOE hegemony on foreign policy—which would mean, for example, swallowing its support for Juan Guaidó as “legitimate president” of Venezuela—but this statement potentially torpedoed UP’s key alliance with ECP. Such was the storm of protest his statement produced that in a couple of hours Iglesias was 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.”

The day after Ada Colau, Barcelona mayor and leader of the “commons” current, represented in the Spanish congress by ECP, made the line absolutely clear: “We will never be part of any 155 operation.”

Errejon launches Mas País! bid

The failed PSOE-UP negotiations might have one benefit: that of helping spread understanding of the impossibility of having a progressive government of the Spanish state whose dominant partner is the PSOE—slave to big capital, unquestioningly European-imperialist and viscerally Spanish-unionist. 

The experience of the failure of negotiations is opening up the faultlines that have always existed in the non-PSOE left over how to relate to Spain’s social democracy. This debate will feature in the coming election campaign because representatives of the different positions will be visible on separate tickets, even if these continue in some way to be connected to UP. It may also become more heated as the PSOE intensifies its campaign to win over wavering Citizens’ voters by posing as the only guarantor of stability in an increasingly threatening political context dominated by the “Catalan secessionist threat”. 

By September 27, Sánchez was already referring to his UP “preferred partner” as “the extreme left” and the PSOE as “the only alternative to paralysis”. On September 29 he told the crowd at a festival of the PSOE’s Catalan affiliate, the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), that "if the independence movement again violates the Statute of Autonomy and puts Catalonia’s self-government at risk, the government of Spain will respond with calm firmness to guarantee social cohesion, territorial integrity and the national sovereignty of our country.”

The current that favours support to the PSOE on the least exacting terms is Mas Madrid (More Madrid), led by former Podemos founder and leader and Madrid region MP Iñigo Errejón. Errejón, who jumped ship from Unidas Podemos to form Mas Madrid with outgoing Madrid mayor Manuela Carmena for the May 28 regional and municipal elections, also supported acceptance of the PSOE’s July final offer to the UP. 

Mas Madrid, which is presently looking for allies in the rest of the Spanish State under the banner Mas País (More Country), is trying to win support on the ground of being a fresh alternative, appealing to the rather widespread sentiment that Spain’s chance for progressive government coalition was torpedoed by the combination of PSOE intransigence and the ambition and arrogance of Iglesias. The main message of the Mas País campaign will be that disappointed left voters now have an alternative to abstention because “a vote for Más País is a vote for a progressive government”. Mas País also says it will only stand in those constituencies where any gains will “add seats to the progressive bloc”.

 In a September 27 interview with el diario Errejon said:

“I start from a central idea: for different things to happen we have to vote differently. It’s hard to imagine that with the same ingredients we’ll get a meal this time that’s different from a sum total of arrogance and party calculation. The atmosphere is one of full-scale mobilisation of the right, which sees a second chance. And of demobilisation, tiredness and fedupness on the part of progressive voters, who in general fulfilled what was asked of them on April 28 […] The voters did their duty but the parties didn’t because they weren’t able to form government.”

Errejón holds out the hope that a change in Spain’s macho winner-take-all political culture will yield a progressive government:

“You can’t go into a negotiation as if it were a gunfight at the OK Corral, like in a Clint Eastwood movie where what’s at stake is who is the toughest, the most inflexible. Well, we have no problem is saying that we’re not going to be the hardest and the most inflexible, because if everyone hauls on the rope in the end it breaks. And when the rope breaks the parties don’t pay, the Spanish people pay.”

Is a vote for Mas País really then just a vote of unconditional support for the PSOE? Errejón says no, requiring from Spain’s social democracy an end to flirtation with Citizens and the PP and “a decisive, unambiguous and unwavering commitment to social justice, the ecological transition and the advances in the rights and gains for women that feminism represents”.

While standing for dialogue and an end to repression in Catalonia, Mas País has so far not made it clear if it would have a difference stance to UP’s of conceding that the “territorial question” would wholly belong to the PSOE in any future left coalition government.

By September 29, Mas País had established an electoral alliance with the Valencian regionalist force Commitment. The Aragon left regionalist party, the Chunta Aragonesista (Aragonesist Union) also seemed likely to move across to an alliance with Mas País but the left-nationalist Galician group En Marea (In Tide) rejected the option, claiming that Mas País would not adopt “a Galician agenda”.

Mas País! also won majority support from the ranks of the all-Spanish green party Equo and from most but not all of its regional branches: the Equo majority sees in this coalition their last chance to have a “normal” green party in the Spanish state and not one subordinated to an existing left force. Equo founder and UP MP Juan López de Uralde and other Equo leaders then split from Equo, with López de Uralde claiming that “it is a mistake to form another party that could end up weakening us all.” 

Mas País has also won the support of the remaining Errejonist UP leaders in Murcia (who have launched Más Murcia!). Sensing their moment, opportunists across Spain have been queuing up to be anointed as Más País candidates, with proposals having already been launched for a Mas Canarias! (More Canary Islands!) and a Mas Asturias! (More Asturias!). It remains to be seen whether Mas País can develop viable tickets in key centres like Catalonia, where ECP has already reaffirmed its alliance with UP, or the Basque Country.

Adelante Andalucía: unity proposal ignored

At the opposite pole to Mas País is Adelante Andalucía (Forward Andalusia), opposed to governing with the PSOE but supporting it against the parties of the right. This coalition between the Andalusian IU and Podemos Andalusia, led by Anticapitalista Teresa Rodríguez, tried to negotiate with the Iglesias leadership the same relation to the central UP campaign that ECP has: 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.It also proposed that all forces of the left, including Mas País, campaign under the Adelante Andalucía banner. 

However, neither UP, nor Más País!, nor even the Andalucian federation of IU—whose support was essential—replied to the proposal, leaving Podemos Andalusia with little choice but to repeat its participation in the UP campaign on the same terms as in April. 

UP, with Iglesias again as lead candidate, will navigate between these two poles and confronts a tricky campaigning problem: how to continue to argue the case for a PSOE-UP government coalition given Sánchez’s “lying” and “deceit”? Too hard a line against the PSOE—succumbing to the temptation to bash Sánchez in the public TV debates and remind audiences that the PSOE is a “pillar of the 1978 regime”—could feed support for the more accomodating orientation of Errejón and Mas País. 

The Iglesias leadership may yet find the formula for squaring this circle and even increasing the UP’s vote among the 25% of PSOE voters that believe, according to one poll, that Sánchez was responsible for the failure of negotiations and the 40% who, according to another, don’t really trust him as prime minister. The line that the only guarantee of a progressive government in Spain is a bigger vote for the UP and a smaller vote for the PSOE could certainly have resonance. 

The combination of a strong UP campaign with a surge of disappointed PSOE voters to Mas País! cannot be excluded, especially now that absolutely nothing remains of the Sánchez who in 2016 mobilised the PSOE rank-and-file members to rewin leadership of the party on a platform of never voting for a PP government, recognising Spain’s plurinationality and giving the PSOE back to the members. The September 29 Sondaxe poll cited at the beginning of this article points in that direction.

However, the biggest danger still remains that the division produced by the Iglesias leadership’s failed hunt for office 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 would lose government but it wouldn’t be completely unhappy if that defeat went with the marginalisation of UP—its loathed rival for hegemony of the left.

Catalonia remains key

One key to the result on November 10 will be how UP and Mas País! respond to the inevitable wave of protest that will accompany the verdict in the case of the Catalan political and social leaders charged with rebellion, sedition and embezzlement. If both forces respond in the standard fashion of the all-Spanish left—with platitudes about the right to self-determination but trying to change the subject for fear of aggravating anti-Catalanism among potential voters—it will only be an incentive for Spain’s anti-democratic parties to increase their aggression.

The absolute minimum that is needed from UP and Mas País! in the atmosphere of Catalonia-bashing already being stirred up by the Spanish political and media establishment is a positive commitment to end all legal proceedings against Catalan prisoners and exiles and the beginning of negotiations with the Catalan government, that is, putting an end once and for all to the judicialisation of the Spain-Catalonia conflict.

Also needed is a campaign that ties support for the democratic struggle for the right of self-determination to the democratic struggle in the rest of the Spanish state, including the repeal of all repressive legislation and a referendum on the monarchy. A confident fight for this perspective can put the PSOE on the defensive: dodging it can only help the right.

The critical importance of this election for the future of the Catalan struggle for self-determination is so obvious that it has finally shifted the Catalan left-independentist People’s Unity List (CUP) from its traditional stance of not standing in Spanish elections. A September 28 CUP declaration said:

“This decision is the result of a debate undertaken by the bulk of the membership so as to respond to the exceptional context marked by repression, the criminalisation of the independence movement and the repeated violation of civil and social rights by the Spanish state.

“In no case will the objective of this candidacy be to normalise institutional political activity in the Spanish state, but to challenge the consolidation of the 1978 regime from the bottom up and to block governability in the state until it recognises the right to self-determination.”

The CUP campaign will thus contrast with that of the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), which would have voted for the formation of a PSOE-UP government without conditions. It effectively adopts the position presented by the Republican Front ticket on April 28 in a last-minute campaign that nearly won a Congress seat.

The best result that can reasonably be hoped for November 10 is a fall in support for the anti-democratic parties of the Spanish state—PP, PSOE, Citizens and Vox—coupled with an increase in the vote for the non-PSOE left and all forces supporting the national right to self-determination. That would open the door to deepening the crisis of the Spanish establishment and its neo-Francoist institutions—a valuable outcome for the working people of Spain and Europe as a whole.

Dick Nichols is the European correspondent of Links and Green Left Weekly, based in Barcelona. An initial version of this article has appeared on the Green Left Weekly web site. Written with valuable help from Julian Coppens.