Pedro Sanchez has reversed the narrative of centre-left decline in Spain – this is how he did it

Sanchez used the far right threat to galvanise support for his party, bucking a continent-wide trend. But can the leader now offer a positive vision for socialist change?

Tommy Greene
Monday 29 April 2019 14:37 BST
Prime minister Pedro Sánchez welcomes Socialists' win in election

Spain’s third general election in less than four years delivered some big surprises if not exactly shocks, as the centre-left Socialist Party (PSOE) – which saw its vote share almost halved in 2015 – stormed to victory in yesterday’s national contest.

A shrewdly-timed snap election campaign, framed largely around the fear of a radicalised right, paid dividends for Pedro Sanchez’s formation, returning a 12-point margin aided by high voter participation. The fragmentation of the Spanish right, on the other hand, has led to the collapse of the fortress it created after the country’s transition to democracy, the demise of the Popular Party (PP), and a significant breakthrough for the far-right Vox on the national scene.

Although Vox had been expected to make greater gains – finally bringing Spain in line with Europe’s wider lurch to the populist right – Sanchez’s broad progressive bloc decisively won out. For a country still coming to terms with Franco’s legacy, and in a contest that saw opponents frame one another as existential threats to the post-Transition settlement, a choice between moderate progressive reform (although posing challenges to Spain’s territorial unity) and potential regression to the darkest chapter of its recent history was in the end clear.

The open-ended nature of this election – with surveys indicating record levels of voters undecided before yesterday’s ballot – reflects in some ways the wild swings in the country’s national polls over the course of the past 5 years. At various points, each of the four biggest parties have surged into the lead ever since the then-insurgent left-wing group Podemos smashed open a two-party system that had largely defined Spain’s post-Transition regime. The right’s result put paid to any notion of a potential comeback opportunity for Spanish bipartisanship last night.

Hoping to replicate the gains made in December’s Andalusian regional election, a tripartite right-wing bloc promised to re-apply direct rule in Catalonia and to roll back freedoms in a neoconservative turn on hard-won rights like abortion. Vox itself went further, suggesting it might outlaw left-wing and independence parties, as well as shut down liberal media outlets. In particular, the right’s promise of renewed confrontation around the question of Catalan independence ultimately failed to chime with an electorate exhausted by years of protracted conflict and upheaval.

The PP, not unlike the PSOE a few years ago, now faces a profound identity crisis as leader of centre-right Ciudadanos (Citizens), Albert Rivera, appeared last night to reject the notion of a centrist coalition with Sanchez. Sensing further collapse of his conservative rivals, Rivera’s bid to be the hegemon of the right bloc will not have ended there.

An important discursive shift has taken place between the “post-ideological” language of “above vs below” and “neither red nor blue” that marked the historic national elections of 2015 and 2016, compared to the renewed confrontation between left and right identity shaping this one. Beyond the heightening of such symbolic conflicts, a seemingly decisive battle took place between the far right and Spain’s ascendant feminist movement. Podemos MP Pablo Echenique argued before the elections that the female vote was “one of the few things that can save this country” from a radical right government.

The political comeback of Pedro Sanchez may well be studied for years to come. Expelled from his party in a 2016 internal coup, he regained the leadership in dramatic fashion a year later at the end of a primaries campaign that saw him reposition himself leftwards. Last summer, he ousted Mariano Rajoy’s PP government in a motion of censure and has now pulled off an emphatic win that will consolidate his position both within and outside of his party.

Sanchez’s PSOE, after barely 9 months of a difficult interim term, now stands among Portugal’s Socialist Party and Britain’s Labour Party as anomalies to the trend of post-2008 decline devouring social-democratic formations across the continent. His tactical decision to place Vox at the centre of a campaign which brought it mainstream was viewed as both risky and irresponsible by some critics. His bet has, however, paid off and Spain’s electoral map now increasingly resembles that of its Iberian neighbour.

Doubts remain over a Portuguese-style coalition, though. Amid a broad sense of relief, it is important to note the ambiguities and fundamental negativity of Sanchez’s campaign – defined more by what he is not than what he is. Abandoning the fight for the progressive 2019 budget – which promised a restoration of slashed pensions, rent controls and tax increases on multinationals, among other measures – meant he went into this election without a clear programme. Although he has read the priorities of the Spanish electorate astutely, a volatile political climate and the outcome of the Catalan trial signal slippery ground ahead.

His base made clear its opposition to a centrist pact last night. In typical style, however, Sanchez kept his cards close to his chest, noting Rivera’s statement and declaring “we do not lay down cordons sanitaires, as they do”.

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