The Comeback Kid

Pedro Sánchez has overcome a palace coup against his leadership in Spain’s social-democratic party. But can he steer it in a left-wing direction?

Pedro Sánchez in 2015. FSA-PSOE

Eight months ago nobody would have expected it. After an internal coup forced him to resign as leader of Spain’s Socialist Party (PSOE), Pedro Sánchez seemed politically dead. Even his closet allies within the party had abandoned him. But after turning to the left in recent months, he secured a resounding victory in the party’s leadership race on May 21.

In the contest he defeated Susana Díaz, one of the key figures in the heave against him and a prominent right-winger with the backing of the powerful PRISA media group. The victory, by more than ten points, saw Sánchez secure an outright majority and win in all but two of Spain’s seventeen autonomous regions.

The story of the campaign was a rebellion by PSOE activists angered by the party’s decision to return their historic adversary, the Popular Party, to power. Unlike most of the PSOE hierarchy, Sánchez had refused to back a policy of abstention in the vote on Prime Minster Mariano Rajoy’s investiture. This stance, as well as his forced resignation, allowed him to position himself as the anti-establishment candidate defending social-democratic values against the party machine.

The parallels with the victories of Benoît Hamon and Jeremy Corbyn are evident. As Jaime Pastor has noted, Sánchez’s program was based around the promise of a renewed “social democracy that sought, through a harsh critique of neoliberal capitalism and a new set of Keynesian proposals, to tap into the popular outrage at austerity policies.”

This was a remarkable transformation for a politician who had secured his first leadership win as a moderate centrist backed by the party’s old guard and Díaz herself. Especially since he had spent his first term as leader of the PSOE looking to distance the party from Podemos.

Suspicions remain as to the credibility of this change of course. But could Sánchez provide a path into power for an anti-austerity left? And where would that path lead?

Changing the Narrative

Days after resigning from the Spanish parliament, Sánchez gave a now famous television interview to Jordi Evole in which he spoke about the strict limits placed on his power over the previous year. He admitted that after the disappointing elections in December 2015, he had “accepted a series of conditions” from the PSOE federal committee that in effect prohibited him from pursuing a coalition with Podemos.

Dominated by allies of Díaz, the committee required that in his attempts to form a government, Sánchez could neither seek the support of Catalan nationalists nor share office with any party who supported a referendum in Catalonia (as Podemos did).

This was a striking departure from the preceding six months, which Sánchez had spent blaming Podemos for his failure to form a government. Now, he shifted the focus onto the role played by the right wing of his own party and their corporate allies. He talked openly about the type of pressure the corporate sector had applied to force him to accept the PP’s return to power. In particular, the management of El País, whose parent company PRISA is owned by a number of major banks and multinationals, gave him an ultimatum: back Rajoy or it would withdraw its support.

With one eye on the primaries, Sánchez went on to claim that PSOE now had “to work side by side with Podemos,” with the two parties condemned to understand each other. This developed into one of his key arguments during the campaign as he spelled out the core dilemma facing the Socialists: the PSOE could either accept a subordinate position to the Spanish right as was implied in the Diaz-backed policy of abstention, or if it wished to lead a left-wing government again, it had to adapt to Spain’s new multiparty system.

A reference throughout the campaign was Portugal’s Socialist minority administration, which had come to power with the backing of radical left party Bloco de Esquerda and the Communists. For Sánchez, this type of arrangement offered PSOE an alternative to Pasokification and decline.

Beyond the question of Podemos, he also recognized that both his own political survival and that of the party depended on charting a left course that broke with the policies and discourse of the Third Way. He called for a re-foundation of social democracy around a robust defense of universal public services and a new set of social protections aimed at tackling inequality and precariousness.

His economic program called for the gradual introduction of a thirty-hour work week, a minimum wage in line with 60 percent of the medium salary, and the implementation in stages of a universal basic income. These ambitious measures were framed in terms of the strategic aim of advancing “towards a post-capitalist society.”

Sánchez also struck a more radical note on Catalonia, recognizing it as “a nation” and calling for a constitutional change to acknowledge the “plurinational” character of the Spanish state. Though not going as far as to support a referendum on independence, his language was largely indistinguishable from that used by Podemos.

What Next?

There is no doubt that the surge of popular support for Sánchez’s campaign was genuine, with PSOE activists responding to his new status as a political outsider pitted against the party hierarchy. Yet Sanchez himself is a more ambiguous figure. Thrown into this outsider role by circumstance, unlike lifelong leftist Jeremy Corbyn, he lacks any sort of background in progressive social struggles or dissident politics. In contrast to his radical economic program, his record over the past decade is an orthodox one: he supported the EU fiscal compact, TTIP, CETA, and Zapatero’s labor market reforms.

Given this pedigree, it is difficult to rule out Sánchez turning back towards the center. However, at least in the short term, such a move is complicated by the question of PSOE’s relationship with the minority PP government. This is the issue which fractured PSOE over the past year and Sánchez has staked his reputation on a clean break from the politics of abstention.

The current line from his camp is that they are aiming to cut Prime Minister Rajoy’s term in office as short as possible. They believe that, given the ongoing corruption scandals involving the PP, it is the PSOE, the largest opposition party, that can dictate the pace of events. In this context Sánchez’s advisers have talked about a more intransigent stance in the parliament. The hope is to take advantage of the PP’s weakness to push the government into a series of concessions before ultimately forcing early elections.

Another possibility being discussed is PSOE working with Unidos Podemos in the autumn to bring its own motion of censure against Rajoy, either leading to an alternative PSOE-led coalition from the current congress or fresh elections.

Whichever path the opposition follows, the current government’s days look numbered. The possibility of some kind of left coalition replacing them has grown with Sánchez’s election. But for the party’s right wing and their allies in the PRISA group, Podemos’s price for such a pact would be intolerable. The radical left formation is likely to demand a decisive break with austerity, the nationalization of rescued banks, and concessions on Catalonia. There is little doubt PSOE’s business caucus and media allies would use their considerable influence to resist any move in this direction.

But after his decisive victory in the primaries, it is Sánchez who has the momentum, with one preliminary poll suggesting PSOE could see a jump in support by 9 percent. Crucially Sánchez has also won a majority of delegates to the upcoming PSOE congress in June, which will choose a new national executive and Federal Committee, while also setting a new political strategy for the party.

Unlike 2014, when he was forced to accept a party leadership dominated by allies of Díaz, the congress should be an opportunity to further consolidate his internal position and ensure a loyal executive.

Podemos Crossroads

Sánchez’s victory has received a guarded welcome from Unidos Podemos. If Díaz had won, Podemos could have expected to become the dominant force on the Spanish left and the second party in Spain. Undoubtedly, given the party’s ambition to achieve a sorpasso of the PSOE, there is an element of disappointment that this outcome did not come to pass.

But a Díaz-led PSOE would also have meant prospects for a left-leaning government in Spain retreating some way beyond the horizon. This would have been a disaster for the country, which would have given the Spanish oligarchy the time it needed to further embed their preferred post-2008 model of curtailed social rights and low wages.

Sánchez’s victory complicates the struggle for hegemony over the Spanish left. It arrives shortly after Podemos had decided in its party congress to orient away from the PSOE and towards a more grassroots anti-austerity strategy. Vistalegre II was animated by skepticism of the PSOE given its history of support for austerity and neoliberal policies.

But it is now a party talking about breaking from these things. And it looks like it will pay a dividend — after months of close competition with Podemos for second place in the polls, initial polling data suggests PSOE could open up a comfortable lead over Unidos Podemos (28 percent to 19). If this initial surge were to hold up, this would leave Pablo Iglesias and his party facing the possibility of negotiations, once again, about a PSOE-led coalition.

If that happened the question would be, which Pedro Sánchez would turn up? The one who a year ago sought to divide and subordinate Podemos? Or the man who has promised a radical renewal of social democracy? The debate over that question is likely to consume the Spanish left for many months to come.