Spain's interim socialist government could offer a hopeful break within European politics

The new prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, is coming in at a time of exhaustion and political apathy – altogether different from the political moment in 2015-16 when a left coalition government last appeared on the cards. The down-but-not-out Spanish right smells blood

Tommy Greene
Saturday 02 June 2018 13:15 BST
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It may be tempting, after similarly catastrophic throws of the centre-left dice, to argue that Pedro Sánchez offers more of the same
It may be tempting, after similarly catastrophic throws of the centre-left dice, to argue that Pedro Sánchez offers more of the same (AFP/Getty)

Mariano Rajoy is finally out. In a historic day, the seemingly immovable survivor of the Spanish political right was ousted on Friday from office by the Socialist Party’s (PSOE) no-confidence motion, the first successful one in 40 years of democracy.

Coming on the back of last week’s judgment in the Gürtel case – which saw the Partido Popular (PP) and one of its former treasurers sentenced in Spain’s largest ever probe into political corruption – the prospects of success for Pedro Sánchez’s tabled motion looked unlikely up until only two days ago. Now the reinvented Sánchez – despite not being an MP and with only 84 seats behind him – heads an interim government for a possible two years. This at once presents a potential car crash scenario, as well as an immense opportunity for the left.

It may be tempting, after similarly catastrophic throws of the centre-left dice, to argue that Sánchez offers more of the same – a slick, centrist career politician making a final lunge at power while presiding over a moribund 20th-century social-democratic party. But this would be a mistake – the dynamics currently at play are a good deal more open than that.

For a start, it overlooks the past year in Spanish politics. Sánchez’s comeback in the PSOE primaries last year, against the odds and against the establishment within his party, was no small feat. Although Sánchez has had an afflicted relationship with the more radical new left Podemos party, the question of whether they could ever work together in national institutions in some way is now being put to the test.

Who is Pedro Sánchez? It’s true that he’s no firebrand like Pablo Iglesias – whose manoeuvrings in the background were instrumental in forcing this vote to a head – nor is he a Jeremy Corbyn (although his challenge may be to drive the PSOE in the direction that Corbynism has taken the UK Labour Party). But the composition of the parties supporting his motion – who are condemned to understand each other – as well as the moment Sánchez finds himself in office, means his ascension to the Palace of Moncloa could sketch out a path towards a more transformative programme in years to come.

Much of the week’s political focus in Europe has been centred on Italy, which itself saw a new coalition government finally sworn in on Friday. But, for all the uncertainty in Rome over the past few days and the profoundly corrupt political class Italy shares with Spain, the more ambitious elements of the left-leaning provisional government will be looking to their Iberian neighbour Portugal, as much as to the Italians.

Portugal’s little discussed left coalition has demonstrated since 2015 that fiscally expansive policies without cuts can produce both economic results at the same time as social and environmental accomplishments. The Portuguese government does not have to navigate the territorial conflicts any Spanish administration does – resolving the Catalan crisis will surely be at the top of Sánchez’s priority list. But, as another nation that suffered heavily under austerity measures implemented post-2008, along with Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain, it does provide a kind of blueprint for the Eurozone’s fourth economy.

Of course, it would be foolish to jump the gun. The challenges and obstacles that lie ahead of this motley and makeshift government are great – not least because of the conflicting ideological positions of those propping it up. Basque nationalist (PNV) spokesperson Aitor Esteban warned Sánchez as his party agreed to back the motion on Thursday, “Your government will be very complicated, weak and difficult.”

Spanish government collapses as vote of no confidence is passed for Mariano Rajoy

Anyone following the experiences of Spain’s municipal administrations – who were elected to the country’s major cities in 2015 – will be well aware of the challenges that lie ahead for any progressive governing force in Spain, as the Madrid council still grapples with swingeing cuts imposed from above in December. Sánchez is also coming in at a time of exhaustion and political apathy – altogether different from the political moment in 2015-16, when a left coalition government last appeared on the cards. The down-but-not-out Spanish right smells blood. A hostile media campaign will be redoubled against this government while the PP regroups and the high-polling centre-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) push for general elections.

Although the incoming government has accepted the outgoing one’s budget – which obviously limits any significant alterations in political economy, but wards off a confrontation with the EU at a weak point – they do have the means to effect some change. Deactivating direct rule and rescinding Spain’s notorious gag law would be the first steps towards restoring some of its ruptured national and civic unity.

This change brings with it many more question marks than anything else for now. But it is undoubtedly an opening of some kind. Although necessarily restricted and short-lived, it has the opportunity to demonstrate that another form of governance is possible. Spain could yet offer a hopeful break within European politics.

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