Faced With Electoral Wipeout, Spain’s Left Has to Unite

After gains for the Right in Sunday’s local and regional contests, Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sánchez has called a snap general election. Yolanda Díaz’s left-wing Sumar project can get a good result — but only if the Left can overcome its damaging splits.

Yolanda Diaz speaking at a campaign event at the Alcazaba Cultural Center on May 21, 2023, in Merida, Spain. (Europa Press via Getty Images)

It’s been described by Spanish media as both political suicide and a stroke of tactical brilliance. Just hours after suffering heavy losses in Sunday’s local and regional polls, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called a surprise general election for July 23.

This may seem counterintuitive. Sánchez’s ruling center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) had just lost six of the nine regional governments it controlled. Still worse were results for his junior coalition partner, the left-wing Unidas Podemos. It suffered a devastating collapse, in three regions (Madrid, the Canary Islands, and Valencia) falling short of the 5 percent threshold for representation.

Yet with the conservative Popular Party (PP) celebrating a sweeping victory, including in city halls across the former PSOE stronghold of Andalusia, Sánchez swiftly moved to upend the narrative. Rather than wait until December for the scheduled national poll, he announced surprise elections for this summer. He hopes to silence criticism within his party while also ensuring the national campaign will coincide with tricky coalition negotiations between PP and the far-right Vox in multiple regions.

Sánchez thus aims to define the snap general election as a binary choice between a potential hard-right national coalition, which would include Vox leader Santiago Abascal as interior minister, and his own brand of moderate social democracy. “He is searching for a reaction to the reaction — harnessing the fear that these results have generated among progressive voters so as to pull them out of abstention in July,” Unidas Podemos MP Txema Guijarro tells Jacobin.

But Sánchez is also seeking to reinforce PSOE’s hegemony at the head of a wider left-wing bloc — both by positioning himself as the only option for tactical voters aiming to stop the Right’s advance and pushing a fragmented radical left to club together. If his announcement wrong-footed his Unidas Podemos coalition allies, it also imposed new deadlines on a divided left that had expected to spend this summer negotiating its reorganization around labor minister Yolanda Díaz’s new unity platform Sumar. Now the various factions, both within and outside Unidas Podemos, are up against the clock, having until June 9 to register such a coalition before the electoral deadline passes.

The alternative to such unity is likely to mean further marginalization in what will be a blitzkrieg campaign. But Díaz, a lifelong member of the Spanish Communist Party and currently polling as Spain’s most popular political leader, has the potential to reverse the Left’s fortunes if she can swiftly end its internal civil war.

A Divided Left

This will not be easy. The open conflict between Díaz and the Podemos leadership over her plans to overhaul the left-wing space has been going on for more than a year and created a toxic atmosphere in the run-up to Sunday’s local elections. Indeed, such internal tensions have seen a series of routine tactical disputes over the last year turn into near-existential crises, for instance in last fall’s row over judicial appointments.

Given current levels of mistrust, it is easy to forget that Podemos founder Pablo Iglesias himself named Díaz as his successor as deputy prime minister in 2021, on the back of her growing prominence as labor minister. At that time, Iglesias bet that with Díaz at the helm, Podemos could remain central to the Left even after his own withdrawal from frontline politics. This partly owed to the pair’s long-standing working relationship, but also to Díaz’s lack of an organizational base of her own. Even though she is not a Podemos member, it seemed she would be dependent on it.

Yet not wanting to be a continuity “Pablista” figure (as Iglesias’s firmest supporters are called) and believing a much broader process of renewal was necessary on the Left, from her appointment as deputy premier, Díaz quickly sought greater independence. Rolling out unity platform Sumar over the last year, she looked to balance Podemos’s influence with alliances with other left-wing forces and trade unions while insisting that the existing Unidas Podemos structure was no longer fit for purpose.

As one of her senior advisors told Jacobin in January, “[Sumar] is not just about ensuring [Díaz] can exercise authority over the Left, which as an objective would be legitimate in itself for any new leader, but also stems from the need to construct a new project centered on a fresh set of ideological coordinates. [The left has] to once again be capable of widening its electoral base — as the early Podemos did in 2015.”

Sunday’s election results would seem to confirm such an analysis, again pointing to the exhaustion of Podemos’s brand of left populism, particularly within a post-pandemic atmosphere marked by deep anti-political sentiment and demobilization after a decade of intense political upheavals and ideological debates on the Left. Its campaign, which was largely subject to a media blackout, sought to generate controversy around right-wing corruption and the party’s unfair treatment in the press but never gained momentum.

But even still, the sheer scale of the losses came as a devastating blow. The alliance went from forty-seven regional MPs across all Spanish territory to just fifteen as it lost votes to a mix of alternative local left-wing platforms, the PSOE, and abstention. In the capital, Unidas Podemos was wiped out; its former ally Más Madrid, led by Íñigo Errejón, also dropped votes, but ultimately maintained its position as the main opposition force there, winning twenty-seven seats at a regional level (with 18.35 percent of the vote) and twelve city councillors.

Díaz is also far from blameless in this regard, having chosen to largely sit out the campaign. She was surely put in a difficult position by the multiple left-wing electoral lists with different identities in various regions, such as Más Madrid, Drago, and Compromís. She had hoped to incorporate all of them into Sumar before a general election, which was expected in December. Often, these alternative regional forces have indeed been more receptive than Podemos’s leadership to the idea of Sumar as an umbrella platform. Yet for Unidas Podemos, not able to count on significant participation from its highest-ranking minister clearly added to its campaign troubles.

Furthermore, having such rival lists also ensured hundreds of thousands of left-wing votes were not converted into seats as one or both left-wing factions failed to make the minimum threshold. Huesca City Hall was the most extreme example. Together, forces to the left of the Socialists won close to 18 percent of the vote. But this was divided between four lists (Unidas Podemos, a local municipalist platform, the regionalist Chunta Aragonesista, and the Más Madrid-allied Equo), none of which managed to reach the minimum 5 percent — thus leaving the Left entirely without representation.

Unity How?

Such fragmentation has accelerated in recent years as critics of Podemos’s national-level leadership turned to build alternatives at the local and regional levels. The months leading up to last Sunday’s elections had been dominated by the question of how to put them back together and above all, how to prepare a primary election process that would be acceptable for both regionally and nationally focused formations. Sumar, meaning “Bring Together” was meant to provide the banner for this process. Yet Sánchez’s shock snap election announcement has made such questions moot: there is now no time to hold primaries, and the makeup of the lists and the distribution of subsequent state funding will have to be negotiated by party leaders behind closed doors within just days.

“If someone said to me [before the election was called] that we only had ten days to reach an agreement, I would have laughed at them,” Guijarro, a close ally of Díaz, tells Jacobin. “Impossible! Diplomacy requires time and that’s precisely what we don’t have but let’s see how Yolanda handles it.”

The fifteen forces Díaz is now trying to integrate below her leadership are already jockeying for position. Compromís, based in Valencia, has been most vocal in publicly insisting that it top the list in each of the three constituencies in this region and also have its name appear on the ballot in these races. Others have sought a lower profile. Más Madrid’s Mónica García asserted that though her formation would not impose any red lines, other formations should “be conscious” of their recent election results — an apparent reference to Podemos and its potential weight within any unity deal.

Podemos’s current leader, Ione Belarra, has toned down her party’s criticisms of Díaz since the beginning of the local election campaign — and after Sunday’s results has dropped public calls for a bilateral “pact of equals” between Sumar and her formation. Iglesias has even acknowledged that “it is our turn to be humble.” Yet according to journalist Antonio Maestre, the two sides remain far from a deal, not least because of the degree of autonomy Podemos is demanding in its campaigning. A further sticking point is whether to include Podemos’s number two and current equality minister, Irene Montero. Not only has she become a hate-figure for the Right, but she has suffered serious reputational damage over the implementation of a new sexual-consent law, which has seen hundreds of convicted rapists have their sentenced reduced unintentionally.

But beyond the negotiations is the question of on what basis a still hypothetical unity candidacy can fight the elections, with Sumar’s “program for a new country” still a work in progress. Díaz has repeatedly insisted that Sumar’s focus had to be less on vanguardist ideological struggle than on a hopeful material politics that can offer the social majority a tangible alternative to discredited neoliberal formulas. In her public interventions, this has seen Díaz attempt a balancing act: both pointing to the incremental gains of the last three years as proof that the Left can govern effectively and positioning Sumar as a deeper reformist project, stretching beyond what is possible within the current administration.

At the unveiling of Sumar’s initial programmatic outline in January, Díaz insisted that in a period of “epochal change comparable to the 1940s,” a progressive decade could be won in Spain with a politics based on social protection in the face of growing uncertainty and an expansion of labor and social rights. A core pillar of this new project is the promise of a “renewed” or “democratic” laborism, building on her progressive reforms as labor minister — including a 46 percent increase in the minimum wage, legislation cracking down on precarious short-term contracts, and strengthening union rights.

The enthusiasm with which this form of substantive social democratic discourse was received as Díaz toured the country over the last year, packing out venues during her so-called “listening process,” points to its potential to mobilize in a moment dominated by the cost-of-living crisis. But without a unity agreement and order in her ranks, the campaign will most likely be swamped by internal questions and never get off the ground. This is one of the principal arguments against taking the so-called “Melénchon road” of going it alone without Podemos and trusting that the vote will cohere as the campaign heats up.

A Rightward Drift

Furthermore, all the polling suggests that separate lists in the general election would substantially reduce the Left’s overall seat tally. This would be criminal in an election whose ultimate outcome is likely to be decided by who finishes in third place behind PSOE and the PP — i.e., either Sumar or the far-right Vox. Indeed the gap between the two major parties is not as large as might be suggested by the sheer scale of PSOE’s loss of local institutional power. The party’s overall vote share was 28 percent, just 3 points below PP, while national projections based on these figures suggest that PP and Vox will fall just short of an absolute majority in a general election — not least because of the Spanish right’s weakness in Catalonia and the Basque Country.

All is not lost” has been PSOE’s message — but the momentum is with the Right. As political scientist Pablo Simon notes, the PP did not simply get out its vote but was also able “to expand the right bloc,” in what is a further confirmation of a rightward drift among certain elements of Spanish society. Indeed, the campaign demonstrated PP’s ability to use a reactionary, and at times authoritarian, discourse to mobilize not just long-standing right-wing constituencies but also to tap into wider shifts in public opinion across much of Spain’s interior and southern heartland. Its campaign centered on a series of manufactured controversies playing on the growing anger of more socially conservative PSOE voters toward Sánchez’s alliances with Podemos and pro-independence Basque and Catalan forces — as well as on their discomfort around feminist and trans rights.

The conservative PP’s hard-line campaign, heavily focused on accusing Sánchez of being in bed with Spain’s “internal enemies,” also succeeded in keeping Vox to just 7 percent of the local vote (though these Francisco Franco nostalgists tend to perform better in national polls). Now against such Trumpian reaction, Sánchez is reverting to a defense of democracy strategy to mobilize progressives. The Left and Yolanda Díaz must be able to offer something more — a hopeful horizon for the future that can connect with people’s material concerns around the cost-of-living crisis and offer a credible collective exit from neoliberalism.