Podemos and Post-Rajoy Centrism

Tommy Greene reports from Madrid on the challenges ahead for Pedro Sánchez’s party and the movement for change in Spain.

At the start of this month, an unexpected vote of no confidence put a swift end to 7 years of Rajoy-led Partido Popular (PP) rule in Spain. These successive terms were characterised largely by a brutal austerity programme, a cascade of scandals and corruption cases going right to the top, as well as a rolling back of civil liberties and most recently the bitter stand-off with Catalonia over the region’s latest independence drive.

But, if this month’s unforeseen change in central government issued a damning indictment on the tenure of the previous incumbent, it also brought with it many questions and uncertainties about the incoming outfit. Was this a cause for optimism, if not exactly hope? What would this newly-opened scenario in Spain look like? And how will it shape the key final political cycles going into next year’s regional and European elections, and a general election that can be 2 years away at most?

The party that sprang out of the 15-M movement, a response to the global financial crash and the bipartisan system the PP and PSOE had previously overseen, have welcomed this change in central government. When the motion of confidence passed in the Spanish Congress, chants of ‘¡Sí se puede!’ (‘Yes, we can!’) broke out in the chamber. The party’s leader, Pablo Iglesias, said in an interview following the vote that the PSOE had rounded off the script Podemos began when they brought their own motion of no confidence against the government of Rajoy the previous summer. In the second day of the motion debate, Iglesias began by telling Pedro Sánchez: “better late than never”.

Despite the instrumental role Podemos played in the motion to topple Rajoy, many (including Bella Caledonia’s last Spain contributor) predict the fellow feeling is not likely to last long. Referring to the example of the overlooked (in northern Europe, at least) Portuguese government, Unidos Podemos are looking to “build on the first step” of Rajoy’s removal and shape a new left bloc that could govern Spain in the coming years. There are major questions over the ‘Portuguese model’ – particularly in how it can revitalise a social-democratic party of the old mould at the expense of a more radical ‘new left’ one – but given the political moment now it is probably the best course of action open to the group.

The material conditions in Spain may lead onlookers to wonder why, in the current climate, an anti-establishment force like those seen across Southern Europe has not yet managed to make a breakthrough into national government. Spain did of course see an initial phase of rupture with consensus and a re-drawing of the political map – Podemos broke the two-party system but never managed to achieve the much-talked-about ‘sorpasso’ that would have seen them overtake the PSOE – followed later, after two stalemate elections and a lack of shared will, acceptance and apathy.

Economically and constitutionally, the country is still in crisis. But the difference in public feeling between then – when the environment generated by the ‘indignados’ was palpable on city streets almost weekly – and now is considerable. On top of that, the current government has no mandate to address economic or constitutional issues, which makes any significant structural change in Spain impossible for now.

For Podemos’ part, the group have been consumed with questions of direction and representation which, if at first perhaps appearing a virtue of internal democracy, have lately devolved into little more than stymieing power struggles and leadership crises. At its Vistalegre II congress last January – where ‘Errejónista’, ‘Pablista’ and ‘Anticapitalista’ factions contested the future direction of the party – a strategy based in social movements and grassroots activism was agreed on. Since then, and a considerable degree of flip-flopping, there have been rumours of Errejón‘s contingent leaking to the press, and more recently a leaked memo from Carolina Bescansa, one of Podemos’ co-founders who left the leadership after Vistalegre II, outlining a plot with Errejón to depose Iglesias. It appears that Errejón is waiting for his moment, while the political chessboard moves further to the Right and away from more progressive possibilities.

After holding up surprisingly well in the polls after the Catalan crisis – which saw a surge of right-wing nationalism across Spain – Podemos’ internal struggles have frustrated many of the voters they managed to mobilise in 2015. The most recent instance of this phenomenon came with the leadership vote Pablo Iglesias called after the reaction to news he and the party’s Parliamentary Spokeswoman Irene Montero had bought a €600,000 home in Galapagar, the outskirts of Madrid.

The current scenario, with its necessary co-operation with the PSOE, plays more than anything into Errejón’s technocratic scheme of demonstrating the Left’s ability to govern and assuaging voter fears along that line – which the Madrid mayoral candidate saw as being achieved mostly through Podemos’ affiliated municipal groups. But, especially after the imposition of cuts on the Madrid council and their passing of the several-billion-euros ‘Operation Chamartin’ urban development project for the north of the city, many are inevitably left asking if this is really what the radical Left should aim or exist for. Many have stressed the importance of winning state power – but there is demonstrably a need for strategy around how to resist the limits placed down sharply once there.

Iglesias recently met with Sánchez at the Moncloa Palace, one of the latter’s first presidential meetings which was reported with some degree of speculation in the Spanish media. The following day the Unidos Podemos leader announced a set of 20 legislative proposals he aims to pass during the 2-year term with the combined vote of his party’s lawmakers and those of Sánchez’s party, urging the latter to “look to his left” to Podemos as their “principal partner in [this] government”.

The proposals are ambitious for anything but a Left-majority and go well beyond the simple “clean-up” operation many have set as the target for this interim administration. The next 2 years will reveal a lot about the previously-tortured relationship between Spain’s old and new Left parties: does Sánchez really intend to push his parliamentary group in the leftwards direction that he built his remarkable comeback in last year’s PSOE primaries on? Or has this clever manoeuvring been the latest tactical triumph from a politician who has come out on top against the odds more than once in recent months? If it is the latter, this chapter in Spanish politics could be little more than a restating of the political centre, a nebulous space which – in discursive terms, at least – has been increasingly deserted even by parties defining themselves as such over the last year especially, as the Catalan question has increasingly intensified and polarised public discourse along identitarian lines.

Since Sánchez is difficult to figure out and has been underestimated by many – being little more than a creation of the PSOE party machine before the past year’s events – what do his government’s immediate decisions in office suggest? There have been positive measures, praised by many quarters, such as taking in the Aquarius migrant shiplegislating euthanasia, and repealing key parts of Spain’s notorious gag law, as well as proposed reform of the Historical Memory Law which would see the removal of Franco’s remains from the Valley of the Fallen and a broader recognition of the 1936-1939 Civil War’s victims. Sánchez’s cabinet has also been praised for its majority-female composition and its commitment to playing a greater role in Europe. But the selections are telling in terms of this government’s electoral-machine design.

The Euro-centric nature of Sánchez’s cabinet choices – selecting, for instance, ex-EC Director-General Nadia Calviño instead of tipped left-wing economist Manu Escudero, the man thought to have been behind Sánchez’s leftwards re-invention last year – signals the PSOE’s intention to hoover up the Ciudadanos vote, which has risen considerably since the outbreak of the crisis in Catalonia last autumn.

A common European policy on migration, including sanctions for EU member states who refuse migrants, discussed during his weekend meeting with Macron in Paris, is expected to be developed at this week’s European Council meeting. Their proposal of closed detention centres across the continent may relegate Aquarius to little more than a PR stunt, as pressure mounts on European leaders while almost 800 migrants were reported to have been rescued by the Spanish coastguard on Saturday. Spain was already running well below its target refugee intake and has much ground to make up before its migration policy could be considered in any way progressive. Sánchez’s suggestions of migrant screening centres in North Africa and greater enforcement of borders are at odds with his calls for “solidarity” and “empathy” with their plight. In contrast with the press he has received for his handling of migration, some news Sánchez will want to put behind him is the resignation of Culture Minister Maxim Huerta over evading upwards of €200,000 in tax through a shell company a week after being sworn in.

Arguably the biggest loser coming out of the motion of no confidence was the party previously defining itself as most ‘European’ (and unitarily Spanish ad nauseam), Albert Rivera’s centre-right Ciudadanos party. Rivera was a picture of male frustration throughout the debate, expecting perhaps to hold more leverage – as Spain’s highest-polling national party – than he ended up doing in parliamentary proceedings. The motion to oust Rajoy’s minority government in the end did not play out like the recent Cifuentes fake Masters scandal did for Ciudadanos, during which they were looked to as the key decision-making party, given that their support for the PP government (as well as a PSOE abstention) is what allowed both the regional and national administrations to go forward after the electoral deadlock of 2016.

Rivera’s party – which defines itself as ‘centrist’, “neither red nor blue” – have increasingly turned up the dial on a Spanish nationalist rhetoric which has benefited them especially since the outbreak of the Catalonia crisis last autumn. Their language in recent months has become increasingly demagogic and some, have argued, has bordered on soft fascism in certain moments.

Rivera made a point of stressing how keenly he would be watching for any concessions granted to Catalonia following Spain’s most serious constitutional crisis since the Transition. Along with increased anti-immigrant sentiment – an option which has been left relatively untouched since much xenophobic ire has been directed towards the ‘internal other’ of independentism – Catalonia is likely to be a central target for the Spanish Right, as indicated by newspaper headlines like “Spain’s future in the hands of [Basque] separatists” during the week of the no-confidence motion.

A betrayal narrative is already being spun as talk of a “Frankenstein government” and a coalition of chaos (sound familiar?) began to circulate during the tabling of Sánchez’s motion. These critics will have more ammunition this week with Sánchez’s announcement that the government will alter its policy on ETA prisoners, moving the incarcerated closer to their home in the Basque Country. Given the damage incurred by former PSOE Prime Minister Zapatero over his attempts at negotiations with ETA, the Right clearly view this as an area where considerable political capital can be won.

Catalonia looks like it is going to prove a sticking point for this government, whatever happens. Sánchez’s vocal criticism of recently-elected Catalan President Quim Torra’s political language was essentially the first thing the Socialist Party leader had said in months. He was a ghost figure throughout the outbreak and highpoint of the Catalan crisis, saying almost nothing publicly on October 1st or the weeks following it, and eventually backing a unionist line – by extension, a Right-monarchical bloc – as well as the application of direct rule in the region. Since Sánchez has ascended to the Moncloa, his party’s actions in Catalonia – particularly the PSC’s siding with Ciudadanos and the PP to remove the radical left group Guanyem from the city hall in Badalona – have been questionable to say least. Sanchez told El País earlier this week that the Catalonia issue will take years to resolve, while Torra has called for another October-1st-style referendum as a means of establishing an independent republic. The obstacles and contradictions of the Catalan question will no doubt become more visible before long.

The challenge facing the Spanish Right now is one-part regeneration, another part reformation. Former PP head José María Aznar – remembered as a ‘modernising’ figure – offered himself up publicly 2 weeks ago to unite the Right, but his calls were met with silence by both the PP and Ciudadanos. At that point it appeared Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the current regional president of Galicia, would emerge as the frontrunner to succeed Rajoy. Now it looks like it could be Pablo Casado – the party’s Deputy Communications Chief who is currently being investigated as part of the fake degree scandal. The two other main candidates could provide the PP with its first ever female premier in the form of María de Cospedal or the late Deputy Prime Minister María Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría. Once this race – which is technically split 6 ways, with José García-Margallo, José García-Hernandez and Elio Cabanes also in the running – is done, it will be interesting to see how the renewed battle for the Right plays out and how the wounded party responds.

Something that will surely worry the PP is that only around 7% of its 869, 535 membership are currently eligible to cast their ballot in the upcoming primaries, with a thinly-spread voting base having the biggest representation by far in Madrid. This compares with 150,000 votes in the PSOE primaries last year and the 180,000 who participated in Podemos’ recent leadership ballot. As the editor of The Spain Report points out, the PP face something of an existential crisis at the moment, given that they have “trashed the[ir] brand[…with]the slow political purge[…] first of the liberal right and then of Spain’s religious right, leaving a kind of centre-right nothingness”.  Low participation levels and a poor selection of the party’s new leader could see Ciudadanos further mobilise the more moderate and liberal elements of the Right who have stuck with the PP, as well as potentially yielding a first seat or seats in the Spanish Congress for the far-Right party Vox.

Despite all the ‘weaknesses’ and contingencies of this provisional government, its limitations may turn out to be a blessing for the interests of the PSOE – in a way, there could almost be no more perfect moment for them to enter government in the post-2008 and post-15-M political landscape. The PSOE have the opportunity to appear competent and forward-thinking, with few real battles for this, while positioning themselves as the party of compromise and civic unity in a country where disillusionment has set the bar strikingly low for incoming governments. They can also technically call elections whenever it best suits them – they are already climbing to the top, according to a recent aggregated poll – although Sánchez has said he intends to see out his term’s 2-year maximum duration.

The first few weeks of this interim government’s term appear to have passed as a somewhat inevitable honeymoon period – in part due to widespread relief at Rajoy’s removal. Indeed a number of the announcements or actions up to this point could fairly be described as low-hanging fruit. Greater challenges lie ahead over a potentially-regenerative, lifeline 2 years for Sánchez’s party.

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Comments (2)

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  1. Robert says:

    Bueno, and does none of the tireless below the line commentators on Bella have anything at all to say about Spanish politics? Not even Redgauntlet?

    Guess I’ll start the ball rolling then with a little anecdote about the fall of Mariano Rajoy.

    I was at a marvellous little festival in Palencia two weekends ago, the Festival de la Tierra, in a small village called Tabanera de Cerrato which is the home of a very lovely radical organisation called the Universidad Rural Paolo Freire. Basically a group of friends who have moved there in order to bring the village back to life through different art projects. A few of them have an “Iberian roots” band called El Naan (nothing to do with Indian bread) which performed on the Saturday night.

    On stage, they told a story about touring in Portugal and finding a place that sold voodoo dolls of politicians, and buying one of Mariano Rajoy — which they proceeded to stick pins into. On the way back over the border they were stopped by the Guardia Civil and searched for drugs. Finding the doll, the Guardias said “So, you’re doing voodoo on Mariano Rajoy??” To which the band members replied, “But that’s not illegal, is it?” GC response: “Well, let’s hope it works and does us all some good…”

    Two days later Rajoy was out of power.

    So, given that the UK government and PM are clearly 100% zombie, obviously dead and stinking and yet nobody seems to have noticed, I would just throw the question out there: isn’t it high time for some voodoo?

    Or perhaps we just need to slip some salt into Teresa May’s lunch so she will awaken and hurry back to her grave.

  2. Redgauntlet says:

    OK, Robert, I’ll take the bait, the PP are in the process of choosing a new leader and the voting process within Rajoy’s party is reminiscent of this famous scene:

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