The Spanish Left at War

Juan Carlos Monedero

Spain's Socialist premier Pedro Sánchez has refused to grant top cabinet jobs to the radical left party Podemos. And as Spain faces another general election, Podemos faces a tough battle against division and marginalization.

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias (L) hugs former party member Juan Carlos Monedero (R) during the final rally ahead of Spanish general elections on June 24, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty Images)

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Spain will head to the polls for the fourth time in four years on November 10 after Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Party (PSOE) turned its back on a left-wing coalition with radical Unidas Podemos.

Running on a platform of left-wing cooperation in last April’s general election, the PSOE secured a six-point victory over its nearest rivals. Yet unwilling to govern against the country’s economic elites or ruffle feathers among the European powers, Sánchez, the current acting prime minister, preferred fresh elections to seeking a deal with Unidas Podemos. 

As the election was called, Sánchez claimed “96 percent of Spaniards” would have felt anxious with Podemos ministers in the cabinet, adding: “Today I could be head of a [permanent] government but I would not be able to sleep at night.”

PSOE’s electoral strategy is now to position itself as the party of stability and moderation as Spain heads into an uncertain autumn. The verdict in the trial of Catalan independence leaders is expected in October, and the economy has begun to slow amidst growing fears of a recession internationally. 

In initial polling conducted since the election was called, PSOE looks set to be the largest party again with the Celeste-Tel poll for El Diario having the Socialists half a point up from its April result on 29.4 percent.  

For his part, Unidas Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias criticized Sánchez for having not understood the new multi-party reality of Spanish politics. He also insisted the acting PM had “made a historic error” by walking away from coalition talks in July. The two sides had seemed close to an agreement before Sánchez lost an initial vote on forming a government before the summer recess. 

Podemos now faces a complicated campaign after its former deputy leader, Íñigo Errejón, announced on Wednesday he would head a new electoral platform, Más País, which threatens to split the left vote further.

Positioning itself as a more moderate option closer to a party like the German Greens, Errejón maintains his platform can act as an antidote against the wave of expected abstention in the repeat elections.

To analyze Spain’s ongoing governability crisis and the growing division on the Spanish left, Eoghan Gilmartin sat down to talk to Juan Carlos Monedero, cofounder of Podemos and professor of political science at Madrid’s Complutense University. 

In July it looked like Spain would have its first left-wing coalition since the Second Republic in the 1930s. What went wrong?

Juan Carlos Monedero

A parliamentary majority in the Spanish congress requires the support of 176 MPs. In April’s election the PSOE won 123 seats, Unidas Podemos 42. With the backing of the Basque Nationalist Party and the Catalan Republican Left, we seemed to have a working majority. On election night there was a feeling that this was going to happen — that a coalition was in the air. 

Sánchez had stated during the campaign in an interview with El País that he would have no problem with Unidas Podemos members in his government. But the PSOE had never wanted a left-wing coalition — to govern with us would mean having to confront the economic powers and the European Central Bank.

If the PSOE had been serious about a coalition, it would have sat down straight after the elections and begun to negotiate in earnest. Instead they spent months delaying and insisting on discussing formulas that would have allowed them to govern alone as a minority administration.

Then a week before the vote on Sanchez’s premiership in July, the Socialists tried to detonate the talks by placing a veto on Pablo Iglesias’s presence in cabinet. In a major television interview, Sánchez claimed this was the only sticking point holding back a coalition deal. 

This is something unprecedented — that you would insist the leader of your potential coalition partner cannot have a cabinet seat. When Iglesias then agreed to the veto, the PSOE was left wrong-footed. Sánchez had never expected him to accept it but only hoped to use it as a tactic to frame him and Unidas Podemos as the ones holding back talks.

The Socialists then had no choice but to sit down to negotiate the details of a coalition with us. We had already accepted the PSOE’s veto on so-called ministries of state [foreign affairs, defense, interior, and justice] as well as on the treasury. Instead we concentrated on ministries where we would be able to administer social policies in line with our electoral program — looking to secure areas such as labour, the environment, housing, etc.

The difficulty was that these negotiations did not begin until forty-eight hours before the vote. How are you meant to reach a comprehensive coalition deal in that period? During the negotiations the PSOE kept stalling over the ministries. They never made any written offers to us but orally they would suggest various positions but never together as a comprehensive package. 

Then at a certain point they made a final offer which lacked any real substance. It consisted of the position of deputy prime minister but without a clear policy portfolio or budget, the ministry of health (which is a policy area run predominately at a regional level, as each autonomous community has its own health system), and then two new ministries — which had previously been sub-cabinet positions.

Unidas Podemos rejected the offer but expected the negotiations to continue through the night until right before the vote on a new government. Instead the PSOE walked away. After losing the vote in July, in which we abstained, Sánchez still had until the third week of September before new elections were called. Yet when he came back from holiday, he claimed his offer of a coalition was now “past its sell-by date” and again insisted on PSOE governing alone. 

In May the New York Times described Pedro Sánchez as “the unlikely standard-bearer” for European social democracy. Yet this is a man who has been the Spanish prime minister for nearly a year and a half without ever really governing. In that time he has not passed a budget or any major piece of legislation. Now he has chosen further elections instead of governing with Unidas Podemos. What is his endgame here?

Juan Carlos Monedero

Sánchez is someone without a coherent ideology. He has no project for the future of this country. Instead his only objective is to govern and to reduce the obstacles that would obstruct him in office. In opposition or during an election campaign, he knows a left-wing discourse will win him votes but when it comes to forming a government, he is not going to confront the economic powers or Brussels unless he is forced to. 

Much of the media explain the failure to reach a coalition agreement in terms of poor personal relationships and a lack of trust between Iglesias and Sánchez. But politics is not simply a question of personal dramas between major protagonists. It is also a question of interests and power relations. Ultimately, the PSOE preferred fresh elections because the CEOE [the Spanish Employers’ Association] and the major banks were against Podemos’s presence in government. 

In terms of where he goes from here, Sánchez won April’s election in large part because of the fear of a breakthrough for the extreme-right Vox party. His pitch was: “Vote for me so as to stop the Right.” In recent weeks, however, he has called on the two major right-wing parties, Ciudadanos and the Partido Popular, to facilitate a PSOE government through a “technical abstention” — as if forming a government was a technical matter and not a political one. 

The ground is now being prepared for an investiture along these lines after November’s election. With a new economic recession looking probable in the coming months, this is the elites’ clear preference.

In Europe there has been a move towards different types of grand coalitions as a means to manage neoliberalism’s crisis from above. The case of Germany is obvious but also Emmanuel Macron in France represents another type of expression of this. And so I think even if the PSOE and Unidas Podemos win an absolute majority in November, we will most probably see the Socialists governing with the Right in some form. In particular the pressure on Ciudadanos’s leader, Albert Rivera, has increased, and I think that after November’s elections it will be practically impossible for him to refuse to facilitate a PSOE government.

The responsibility for fresh elections in November lies primarily with Sánchez and the PSOE. Yet there have also been critical voices within Unidas Podemos, such as those of Teresa Rodríguez or Ramón Espinar, who believed the party was not in a position to secure a substantial coalition agreement from the PSOE — that any deal reached would leave it in a subordinated position. Would Podemos have been better off facilitating a minority PSOE government — via a programmatic pact — and then mounting a strict opposition from parliament?

Juan Carlos Monedero

No, I don’t think so. Unidas Podemos spent nearly a year supporting Sánchez’s minority government from the opposition benches before April’s elections. We reached various agreements with his administration on rent controls, repealing right-wing labor reforms, and on a progressive budget, but he did not keep his side of the bargain. The PSOE is great at making promises, but the only guarantee that such measures will be pushed through is a coalition with our presence in it.    

You also have to remember in 2015 the Left won an unprecedented six million votes — between Podemos and Izquierda Unida — but we were also blocked from entering government then. Sánchez later admitted in a television interview he had been explicitly threatened by business and media leaders over a possible deal with us at that time. 

This experience created disillusionment and a sense that voting for the Left is not useful. Our voters needed positive news — to be able to feel that their vote counted again and that casting it could serve to form a government. A transformative political force cannot simply be geared to protest but has to hold out the promise that you can change things electorally. We founded Podemos with a clear will to govern and as a means to construct alternatives — not simply to be an oppositional force. 

This is not to deny there are risks here. The institutional logic of governing could end up smothering our transformative spirit. In this respect it is essential that pursuing office is combined with reinforcing our extra-parliamentary structures.

In most polling done in the initial aftermath of November’s elections being called, Podemos’s numbers were up a little on its result in April’s general election. It also looked as if the party was on course to regain the third position from Ciudadanos. What is the significance then of Podemos’s former deputy leader, Íñigo Errejón, deciding to run a rival candidacy against you?

Juan Carlos Monedero

Towards the end of the 1980s, there was a moment in which the Communist-backed Izquierda Unida had the opportunity to enter government. Two things occurred then to block this from happening that are very similar to what is going on right now. First, the establishment fomented a split within Izquierda Unida, with a new breakaway party emerging called Nueva Izquierda — which was later incorporated into the PSOE. Second, the then-Socialist leader Felipe González chose to reach a pact with the Catalan right — Jordi Pujol’s Covergencia — rather than with the radical left. 

We are witnessing similar maneuvers right now. You can only understand the constant positive media coverage that Errejón’s candidacy is receiving as part of a pact aimed at ending Podemos and replacing it with a much more innocuous force. Suddenly he is not being asked about comments he made about Venezuela since leaving Podemos or receiving the type of attention we get over campaign financing. Errejón’s candidacy is part of a strategy whose only objective is to destroy us.

Many of his team are very young and have only ever worked in politics. Their first jobs were in Podemos. They approach politics like it’s a start-up — all you need is a garage and a smart group of professionals to start a party. But their decision to split from Podemos and run separately in the Madrid local and regional elections last May ended with the Left losing the City Hall and failing to remove the Partido Popular from the regional government.

If part of what secured the PSOE victory in April was the fear amongst progressive voters of a right-wing government backed by the extremist Vox party, is there now a renewed threat of a government of the Right in these repeat elections — particularly as abstention is expected to be high?

Juan Carlos Monedero

I don’t see a right-wing majority as very likely. It is much more probable a PSOE/Ciudadanos government or even some form of pact between PSOE and the PP that would allow Sánchez to govern. It looks like the PP will regain ground but at the expense of the other two right-wing parties, Vox and Ciudadanos. 

Vox in particular is losing momentum. Unlike the extreme-right elsewhere in Europe, it is a party that does not have a populist appeal. It positions itself in favor of the European Union’s neoliberalism as well as free trade and the international system of finance. It is too old-fashioned, too Francoist, to connect with the anger of disoriented middle-class voters in the way Donald Trump does. Trump addresses these people and their concerns, Vox does not.    

How should Unidas Podemos approach November’s election campaign?

Juan Carlos Monedero

Podemos cannot renounce the possibility of recuperating the six million votes that opted for an alternative to the injustices of neoliberalism in 2015. The importance of Podemos is not the party in itself but the political space it aims to represent — the six/seven million people who voted to challenge the system. We have to approach the elections believing this constituency still exists and fight for these votes.

With a new economic recession on the horizon, the potential for fresh mobilizations against the system — like the 15M or indignados movement in 2011 — remains very much alive.