- Interview by
- Eoghan Gilmartin
“I want to be this country’s first female prime minister,” Spanish left-wing leader Yolanda Díaz announced on April 2 as she launched her candidacy for the new left unity platform Sumar. Since taking over from Podemos founder Pablo Iglesias as Spain’s deputy prime minister in April 2021, Díaz has repeatedly polled as the country’s most popular political leader — even outperforming prime minister Pedro Sánchez, of the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE).
A labor lawyer from Galicia and a rank-and-file member of the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), Díaz did not enjoy a high profile nationally before she took up her ministerial role in January 2020. But she quickly gained prominence for her negotiation of the Spanish state’s COVID-19 furlough scheme, which guaranteed the wages of 3.5 million workers. Since then, her labor ministry has continued to spearhead some of the PSOE–Unidas Podemos coalition’s most impactful policies, such as the landmark 2022 progressive reform of Spain’s labor laws.
Polling now suggests that a reorganized and united left under her leadership could make important gains in this December’s general election — with Sumar currently projected to secure between 15 and 16.5 percent of the vote (compared to Unidas Podemos’s 13 percent and former ally Màs País’s 2.3 percent in 2019). This would translate into between forty-five and fifty-three MPs.
If the Left did come out in a stronger position, after its four-year term as PSOE’s junior partner, this would be an impressive achievement — not least because it looked a somewhat exhausted force when Iglesias stood down in 2021. But internal divisions are now placing such advances in doubt. Relations have deteriorated between Díaz and the Podemos leadership over the last year as the former has sought great autonomy of action from the latter.
No representatives of Podemos attended Díaz’s candidacy launch, as party leader Ione Belarra insisted a bilateral agreement between Sumar and her formation on left primaries and the internal distribution of funds would be needed to secure her presence. In the wake of this public display of disunity, both sides have gone on the attack in the media ratcheting up tensions further.
Yet in an interview with Jacobin’s Eoghan Gilmartin, PCE leader and Izquierda Unida MP Enrique Santiago argues that the Left is ultimately “condemned to work together.” For his party, Sumar represents an opportunity for a broader reorganization and renewal of the Spanish left ahead of December’s general election. Santiago believes that if the Left manages to bury its differences, it is capable, under Díaz’s leadership, of fundamentally altering the balance of power in the country’s politics.
Reorganizing the Spanish Left
Over the last three and a half years, Spain has had its first left-wing coalition since the civil war of 1936–39 — an administration that includes two members of the Communist Party, Yolanda Díaz and Consumer Affairs Minister Alberto Garzón. In terms of the positives, Unidas Podemos has advanced a series of important gains around workers’ rights, increases in the minimum wage, and state pensions, as well as implementing historic feminist legislation. But at the same time, you have had to swallow various reactionary policies from core ministries of state controlled by PSOE, such as those around immigration and defense, and Sánchez’s recognition of the Moroccan occupation regime in Spain’s former colony Western Sahara. How do you assess the Left’s balance sheet in office?
In 2019, we had a major debate about whether we should enter government as a junior partner, and across all the organizations that make up the Unidas Podemos alliance, there were distinct positions over this question. Within Podemos, there was a large majority in favor, but it was not unanimous. In Izqueirda Unida and the Communist left, there was a majority in favor of a parliamentary pact with PSOE but not formally entering government, while within Catalunya en Comú, there was a 50-50 split. But right now, nobody even within the Communist Party regrets having entered the government coalition.
We are proud of our record. Particularly within the context of having to govern in the face of a global pandemic and the war in Ukraine — a situation of near-permanent exception. We have overseen a raft of social protection measures that have clearly distinguished our response to the current crises from that implemented in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Back then, you saw billions of euros transferred to the banks, whereas during the pandemic, the coalition guaranteed the wages of 3.5 million workers through the furlough scheme as well as introducing various new welfare schemes and new workers’ and women’s rights.
The current Spanish government has also been instrumental in shifting the consensus, however modestly, within the European Union away from a strict austerity agenda and opening up a certain space within which to question neoliberal dogmas. For example, the 2022 labor law reform, which cracks down on short-term precarious work contracts and secures new trade union protections, was not vetoed by the EU. Or after the European Commission repeatedly told us that we could not intervene in the energy markets, it ultimately had to accept the so-called “Iberian Exception” [under which Spain and Portugal passed a partial cap on the cost of electricity production].
For us, these are social democratic and Keynesian policies, many of which are designed primarily to stimulate the economy. They are very far from the policies that we would defend in strategic terms. We aim for a society in which the means of production are socialized and that is organized free from exploitation. But we are also aware of the world in which we live and the existing balance of power in which we operate.
So, with the limited power at our disposal, we have concentrated on protecting the incomes of working people and expanding their rights. You have to remember that we only had 10 percent of the MPs in Parliament in 2019 and had to accept PSOE’s red line in the coalition negotiations around not demanding posts in the four ministries of state: foreign affairs, defense, interior, and finance. Our major criticisms of government policy have been in the first three of these areas.
In these ministries, we have seen the least change in government policy, and this reflects deeper issues around the democratic nature of the state. Freely elected governments do not have sufficient capacity to implement policy changes because of permanent state structures. Spain is one of the oldest states in the EU, with five hundred years of history, and one that also underwent a very particular transition to democracy in the 1970s. This has meant that very powerful institutional and administrative apparatuses, which operate beyond democratic control, are able to reproduce and protect themselves.
It is clear that PSOE does not have the courage to confront such undemocratic structures. And this has been proven time and again in the last three years. Among Western European states, Spain is probably the most pro-NATO, and our lack of strategic autonomy on defense was decisive in terms of PSOE’s ill-judged move on Western Sahara. It is also impeding Spain from pushing for a different approach within the European Union on the war in Ukraine.
We have to clearly distance ourselves from such policies while also trying to ensure PSOE meets its commitments in other areas where we are better placed to enforce the coalition’s program.
The polls are very tight, but any renewed progressive majority after December’s elections will likely have a more favorable balance of power, and so we will be in a much stronger position to negotiate joint ministerial teams in these portfolios.
Yolanda Díaz is a lifelong member of PCE, though she holds no formal position within the party leadership. What is her particular political trajectory?
Yolanda grew up in the labor movement. Her father was a leading figure in the Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) trade union, and she became involved in social and political activism from an early age, before going on to work as a labor lawyer. This background means she not only has a clear sense of working-class identity but also has extensive professional experience of working with the unions and understands the fundamental role they can play in society.
Her long involvement in labor struggles also means she has honed her skills as a negotiator and, above all, is able to distinguish what is fundamental in politics from secondary issues. In government, she has centered her efforts on material issues impacting people’s lives, and it is around such an agenda that a new majoritarian consensus can be built in the current moment.
When Pablo Iglesias resigned as deputy prime minister in 2021, after years of intense pressure and dirty-tricks campaigns against him, the leadership of the Left naturally fell to Yolanda. She was not only the person who could attract the most support within Unidas Podemos, but is also capable of reaching out to other progressive parties that have broken away in recent years and, most important, of attracting new voters and wider layers of society to our project.
Is it fair to say her broad popularity, even among center-left voters, is tied to her strong institutional profile as a minister and a certain moderation of discourse? In this respect, Sumar seems a somewhat unusual left-wing platform in that it is being built from government — in contrast to Podemos, which was the electoral expression of a new wave of popular mobilization around the 15M movement.
Sumar as a political project is not about moderating political discourse or renouncing principles but rather widening the Left’s limits to form a majoritarian project capable of changing the political balance of forces in this country. We want to win the votes not only of those who explicitly question the current system but also those who have been hurt by neoliberal policies or realize we need well-funded public services and a strong welfare state.
At the rally to launch Díaz’s candidacy earlier this month, there were representatives of fifteen parties, as well as the leaders of both the Party of the European Left (PEL) and the European Greens. The key to uniting this broad political spectrum will be the platform’s program. Sumar is fundamentally about articulating a project for a new country, with a series of proposals coming from parties, unions, and social movements, and which will reflect and build on our experience in office.
But while we are in government, Sumar is not a project being built from government. We are trying to build on the popularity of Díaz so as to open up new spaces of citizen participation beyond the existing party structures. In this sense, Sumar is an electoral alliance between left-wing formations but one that is also seeking to open up a new cycle of popular mobilization. In contemporary societies, which are ever more complex, parties alone only have a certain social reach; but new processes of political aggregation require opening up participatory mechanisms beyond internal party structures.
We are also responding to a certain contradiction here. For us, social and labor mobilization is a strategic component of our politics and necessary for tilting the balance of forces in our favor. But one consequence of the current coalition government having dealt with social issues in a progressive manner has been a drop off in mobilization. Unlike in France, no one here is going to take to the streets around pensions, when our recent pension reform protects existing retirement rights and when we passed an increase in public pensions of 8.5 percent this year. To offset such demobilization, Sumar must constitute itself as a participatory movement capable of engaging people around a new political proposal for the country.
How do you see the role of the trade unions here? The two major unions, CCOO and the General Union of Workers (UGT), have gained a renewed centrality in Spanish politics since the pandemic, above all as key social allies of the coalition government, and in particular they have offered strong support to Díaz’s legislative agenda. Many prominent trade unionists from CCOO also seem to be playing a role in Sumar’s launch. But as you said, at the same time, we have not seen the type of strike waves that have taken place in France and the UK, even as salaries in the private sector are stagnating and real wages are being badly hit by inflation.
We view the two major class-based unions as strategic allies, who have played an essential role in advancing the government’s social and labor agenda. Above all, we in Unidas Podemos would not have been able to advance a series of key measures, such as the Rider Law [regulating false self-employment in the gig economy] or the labor law reform without their clear backing.
The coalition has also worked with the unions to secure a public sector wage agreement and historic increases in the minimum wage, while also implementing anti-inflationary measures that have seen Spain register the lowest inflation rates in the EU. The latter include major reductions in the cost of public transport, even making commuter trains free of charge. But yes, it is also true that employers’ representatives have taken a political stance ahead of the elections, aligning with the Right so as to block a national pay agreement. We have, however, seen the unions secure various collective bargaining agreements at the regional level that have resulted, at least partially, in a recovery in the real value of wages.
We have seen a reduction in social conflict because people know that this government is working to advance the welfare of the social majority. Only recently we have passed a new housing law [which will see the introduction of rent controls and offer new protections around evictions].
According to the polls, the Left has the chance to emerge in a stronger position electorally from its term as PSOE’s junior partner, potentially winning up to between fifteen and twenty more seats with a unity Sumar ticket. This will be vital if the wider progressive bloc is to secure victory over a highly mobilized right. But such a result is being placed in doubt by internal divisions and a power struggle between Díaz and the Podemos leadership.
You mentioned the fifteen formations that attended Díaz’s candidacy launch, many of which are smaller regional forces, but the major party of the Spanish left, Podemos, did not attend and has so far resisted being integrated into the Sumar platform. What has happened over the last year and a half to produce this conflict, which could hand the elections to the Right?
The Spanish left is in a period of transition. Does this mean that Podemos has lost its hegemony [on the Left]? Not necessarily. Rather, we are in a situation of greater shared hegemony in which existing political organizations have ceded certain of their weight to new cadres coming from the unions and other social movements. In PCE, we view this reorganization not in terms of starting from zero but building on the existing Unidas Podemos alliances and expect that all those that form a part of this grouping will remain close allies and form a part of Sumar.
We are condemned to work together and to reach an agreement. There is no other option. One Podemos leader told me the other day, as we were negotiating coalition for May’s local and regional elections, that “we don’t like that you are sitting down with splinter groups that broke off from us [such as Íñigo Errejón’s Más País].” My response was, “You were formed as a splinter group from us, and we are constantly working with you.” And if we go back far enough, we are all splinter groups from the Socialist International!
The real issue is that we are in a transitional phase. It is the Gramscian dilemma: the old has yet to die and the new has yet to be born, and this is resulting in internal turmoil and conflicts [on the Left]. But I am convinced this will be solved, and we can come out of this with a stronger project.
I presume part of the issue here is also the lack of collective institutional structures that could act as shared rules of the game. In this respect, one of the sticking points for Podemos is that it wants assurances on holding open primaries. Can you expect the party to sign up to Sumar without meaningful guarantees that its weight will translate into proportional representation?
This whole debate around primaries being a red line for Podemos has really surprised me, because everyone is in favor of open primaries. How else are we going to work out electoral lists with so many groups involved? The real issue is that there is one sector that wants to concentrate on the makeup of electoral lists nine months out from the poll and on securing its internal status within the platform while another wants to put the emphasis on our collective project and the hopeful vision we can offer the social majority.
These tensions always exist in political movements, but it is interesting that this is the inverse of what happened in 2015. Then Izquierda Unida wanted guarantees around its status, while Podemos’s focus was on trying to make a qualitative leap and redraw the Spanish electoral map. Eight years later, Podemos is now in a more institutionalized position and its nervousness around losing its standing is understandable in that sense.
One of Podemos’s other grievances is Yolanda Díaz’s unwillingness to use her political capital to push for unity lists in May’s local and regional elections. Was it not possible to roll out Sumar for these elections, or some equivalent, and avoid damaging rival lists in certain regions?
Spain has a particular state model that has to do with the fact it is a multinational territory. This creates further differences and divisions, which have historically been used by the Right and the country’s oligarchy to take advantage of a divided left bloc to govern against the interests of the social majority. Across these national and cultural differences, we are all exploited by the same oligarchy, and our only path to governing is reaching agreements among a plurality of left identities so as to work together.
I am sure you would agree that municipal elections are not the best place to begin such a unity project when you are faced with working across so many local differences. It is a much easier objective to achieve in the general elections.
That is certainly true in places like Valencia, where there are distinct regional dynamics; but for example in Madrid, the only reason for Más Madrid to go it alone against Izquierda Unida and Podemos is furthering its own particular interests. There are no meaningful differences beyond discursive tactics.
Totally. I am very critical of Más Madrid in this respect — and you cannot place all the responsibility for the difficulties that have arisen on Podemos. There are many political formations that are not acting as they should when faced with the need to defend our people from a potential right-wing government that would include Vox. But you don’t get to choose your allies. You have to work with what there is.
In this respect, throughout its history, PCE has always assumed its responsibility when confronted with the rise of the extreme right. During the Francoist uprising against the Second Republic, when Spain was faced with international aggression from European fascist powers, we were willing to place the struggle for democracy above the struggle for socialism. This is because when faced with the fascist threat, we knew how to distinguish what was fundamental in that moment from what was secondary.
We’re having this conversation on April 14, the ninety-second anniversary of the Second Republic. What does it mean to be a republican in Spain in 2023?
Republicanism is imperative for the democratic health of Spain. As I mentioned at the beginning, the existing state structures in this country are highly conservative. We have seen throughout the last four years that in moments of crisis, particularly during the pandemic, state bodies such as the police, and their unions, along with the judiciary and diplomatic corps, have been the real opposition to a democratically elected government.
Republicanism means creating another state. It means a democratic renovation of Spain, in which the oligarchies that have plagued the country for centuries disappear, and where we generate a new set of democratic institutions that are much more open to transparency and equal treatment for all. Other European countries managed to undertake such a renovation after World War II, but we had the terrible luck to be the only state that did not have this opportunity, and this has left us with major structural problems around institutional corruption.
So the republic is about modernization, ethics, equality, and a deepening of democracy. It is also about memory and ensuring that, against the Right’s anti-communism, nobody is able to erase the role countless PCE activists played in the struggle for democracy.
And right now, a right-wing Popular Party–Vox coalition risks a serious democratic regression.
Yes. You have to remember Vox tabled two laws during this parliamentary term to outlaw [pro-independence Basque and Catalan] parties it did not agree with. This is the threat we are up against, and behind that a whole network of economic, media and religious institutions with deep roots in Spanish society that back this extreme-right agenda. The struggle for democracy in Spain is not simply a historic one. For a party like ours, which during our hundred-year history has suffered decades of repression, this threat is not an issue to be taken lightly.