Faced With the Rising Right, Spain’s Left Is Struggling to Build a Common Front

Sergio Pascual

Spanish deputy prime minister Yolanda Díaz has hailed a unity deal that will see the Left run together in July’s snap election. The deal hasn’t pleased everyone — but it could help keep the far right from power.

Yolanda Diaz, Spain's deputy prime minister and leader of Sumar, speaks at the presentation of a coalition party agreement in Madrid, Spain, on June 10, 2023. (Paul Hanna / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Interview by
Eoghan Gilmartin

“Sumar has reached a historic agreement made possible by the generosity and responsibility of all the political forces that have joined it,” tweeted Spain’s deputy prime minister Yolanda Díaz, as the country’s fragmented left reached a last-minute deal to run together in July’s snap general election. In total, her new Sumar [or “Unite”] platform has managed to integrate fifteen left and green formations into an unprecedented joint electoral slate, which could tip the balance in favor of the country’s progressive bloc in the general election on July 23.

Yet despite the historic nature of the agreement, the atmosphere on the Spanish left was far from triumphal as the fallout over Podemos deputy leader Irene Montero’s exclusion from the joint list dominated the discussion. She was not the only member of Podemos’s leadership who was vetoed, as Díaz sought to impose a clear-out of Pablo Iglesias’s old guard from the Left’s front bench, in the wake of the party’s disastrous local and regional election results in May.

On Friday afternoon, just hours before the midnight deadline to register the electoral coalition was set to pass, Podemos’s current leader Ione Belarra called a press conference in which she announced that her party would sign up to Sumar “without an [acceptable] agreement” because of “the threat” to otherwise be excluded from the joint lists. “I am saddened that Yolanda Díaz is proposing that the agreement between Sumar and Podemos be built on the exclusion of a colleague [Irene Montero] who has been the architect of a generation of feminist rights [in her role as equality minister],” Belarra added.

While Díaz and Montero had a poor working relationship and the Podemos number two made many enemies during recent years of splits and infighting on the Spanish left, her exclusion largely came down to a highly damaging controversy around the implementation of a new sexual consent law, which has seen hundreds of convicted rapists have their sentences reduced unintentionally. Though Montero had also advanced important legislation on abortion rights, menstrual pain leave, and trans rights over the last four years, from Díaz’s perspective, she had become a liability that would have distracted from a campaign she wants to center on her record as labor minister, as well as on Sumar’s program for a new social democratic project based on workers’ rights and social protection.

Under the joint electoral lists, Podemos has been reserved eight relatively safe seats, including fifth in the Madrid list for Belarra, fourth in Barcelona for its head of organization, Lilith Verstrynge, and first in Álava, Granada, Gipuzkoa, Las Palmas, Murcia, and Navarre. Díaz will top the symbolically important Madrid list, followed by Spain’s current United Nations ambassador, Agustín Santos Maraver, and two Más Madrid representatives in third and fourth place: the Spanish-Sahrawi activist Tesh Sidi and party founder Íñigo Errejón. The Communist-led Izquierda Unida, which has provided a significant part of the initial organizational muscle for Sumar, has received first place in the lists for the southern regions of Córdoba and Málaga, as well as in Tarragona, and second in Seville and third in Valencia.

“Spain wants us to talk about its problems, the rest is of little interest,” Díaz insisted on Monday morning as she moved to turn the page on the Montero controversy. An El País poll last week showed a united left slate as likely key to ensuring the Spanish right fails to reach an absolute majority, with Sumar on track to win between thirty-nine and forty-six seats compared to twenty-five and twenty-seven if the Left had run rival lists. A lifelong member of the Spanish Communist Party, Díaz is now betting that a united left slate centered on the material concerns of the social majority can get the vote out and ensure a second progressive coalition government with Pedro Sánchez’s center-left Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE).

Sergio Pascual, Podemos’s former head of organization, insists that the alternative is a hard-right, Popular Party (PP)–Vox government, which threatens democratic regression in Spain. Yet, speaking to Jacobin, Pascual maintains that faced with such a threat, the Left must also be able to offer a positive vision for a new Spain, based on social justice and a new state interventionism.

An Uneasy Unity

Eoghan Gilmartin

How do you rate Friday’s agreement between Sumar, Podemos, and more than a dozen other formations for a left-unity ticket? After the acrimonious tone of the negotiations, which were played out in the full glare of the media, does it represent a solid basis for a left coalition?

Sergio Pascual

Many of us had thought a deal would probably be reached, but yes, it is sad that this was only achieved after a very public disagreement. Your average voter does not understand that such disputes are natural in negotiations, particularly when you are looking to redefine the balance of power between various forces. They happen across the political spectrum but on the Spanish left we have increasingly resorted to playing out such conflicts in public and this turns off many voters, who just want a quick, painless deal.

But beyond this immediate fallout, the agreement institutes a new balance between the distinct sensibilities that coexist on the Spanish left. Within this political space you have various nationalist and regional left formations (such as [Coalició] Compromís in Valencia, Más Madrid in the capital, or Los Comunes in Catalonia), the Eurocommunist left of Izquierda Unida, with its trade union tradition and revindication of labor struggles; a postmaterialist left represented by Íñigo Errejón; and a combative, antiestablishment left represented by Podemos.

In 2015/16, when Podemos was at its peak, these multiple currents were united under the leadership of Pablo Iglesias but without clear rules for their continued coexistence. As Podemos’s initial head of organization, I participated in instituting this formula, which relied heavily on Pablo’s charismatic leadership, but in reality the homogeneity it achieved simply obscured the underlying differences that later flared up.

In contrast, this agreement explicitly recognizes the pluralism of these distinct currents. It also looks to better represent their competing weight in the current political moment, which is quite distinct to that of eight years ago when Podemos made its initial breakthrough. In 2015, its combative rhetoric chimed with the times, and its hegemony was universally accepted. But in the post-pandemic moment, people are demanding greater certainty and a politics that offer solutions to their material concerns — which Yolanda’s distinct leadership style much better embodies.

Yet, in reality, Sumar’s success as a new political actor will not only be measured by its electoral result next month but also by its ability to then construct solid institutional structures going forward. It remains to be seen if it can outlast the current electoral cycle or if this coalition will simply implode at the first major setback. That’s the wider task for those who are in charge of Sumar: to make sure that this electoral agreement is not just an electoral agreement but becomes the basis to build a left-wing organization that can survive the highs and lows of electoral pressures and can institute greater internal democracy.

Eoghan Gilmartin

In terms of negotiating a formula for this changed balance of forces on the Spanish left, is it fair to say that Podemos has been the major loser? Having already lost a lot of ground at a local and regional level to alternative political currents, its leadership has now had to accept a less central role at a national level, too.

Sergio Pascual

We have to avoid obsessing over whether this agreement has left one of the formations slightly better or worse off than its independent weight would warrant. Overall, it strikes a reasonable balance, particularly given the fact that the snap general election made holding primaries impossible. Though no longer hegemonic, it seems fair that Podemos should still represent close to 25 percent of this space but also that a further 25 percent would go to the Eurocommunist left and that the regional forces would gain a similar percentage. Furthermore certain seats also have had to be reserved for those close to Sumar and Yolanda. For me this is a reasonable balance — and we cannot now further test the public’s patience with more recriminations and infighting.

In the end, running separately was not an option. It would have been heavily penalized by Spain’s electoral system and would likely have guaranteed a right-wing majority. While the minimum thresholds are different at a local and regional level, Podemos’s spectacularly bad results in May’s local polls really hinged on a couple of tenths of a percentage point. Above that it would have surpassed the threshold and ensured it gained representation in many city halls and regions. Instead running alone and in competition with other left-wing lists meant its votes were not converted into seats.

Eoghan Gilmartin

Clearly, however, one of the most controversial elements of the negotiations has been Sumar’s refusal to allow several of Podemos’s leading figures to run as candidates, with the veto against equality minister Irene Montero’s participation being particularly divisive.

Why did Díaz consider her exclusion as a redline for any agreement? And what do you think of the argument coming from Podemos that allowing an embattled feminist leader to fall “sends a dangerous message” to the far right, which can only see this as a victory given its witch hunt against her.

Sergio Pascual

There are two major factors informing the veto. The first is the need for electoral pragmatism and when you look at the polling you are talking about a figure with a very low approval rating beyond Podemos’s core base. On whether Irene’s exclusion implies a failure to defend a figure who has been persecuted by the right-wing media — well, the problem is we lost the battle around the new “only yes is yes” sexual consent law a long time ago and it makes little sense to reopen it now just to smooth the way for an agreement on internal lists.

This would be a gift to the Right, who are determined to set the campaign’s agenda with a series of cultural wars. Over the last year, Yolanda has tried to keep the focus on economic questions but Podemos has repeatedly looked for greater protagonism by taking on the Right along such cultural lines. It has had little success, in this respect, and it clearly lost the battle for public opinion around the “only yes is yes” law, particularly after PSOE chose to side with the Right [around the need for a counterreform].

A second factor informing the veto is outstanding personal issues. While Podemos was hegemonic, let’s just say, it made its strength count and many people from other formations have felt that in imposing its own lists; the party failed to properly recognize them. These resentments have cost Podemos now that it is negotiating from a weaker position [after its losses in local and regional elections], with some of its former allies demanding Sumar take a tougher line in the unity talks.

Turning the Page

Eoghan Gilmartin

Comments from the Podemos leadership over the weekend suggest that they will continue pushing for Montero’s inclusion. Do you think the Left can now turn the page and focus on fighting the campaign? And how can it mobilize its vote?

Sergio Pascual

What is at stake now is the need to stop a PP–Vox coalition that would see far-right ministers enter government for the first time since Spain’s transition to democracy. Before this challenge, the Left needs to park its differences and throw itself into fighting a positive campaign. Díaz is a powerful electoral force and she is going to dominate the media component of the campaign, while on the ground at a local level, it will be the organizations who are strongest in each region that will take charge. So that means Izquierda Unida in Andalusia, [Coalició] Compromís in Valencia, and Podemos in the territories it still has more weight in.

But more broadly, Sumar’s campaign needs to focus on three major elements. First, both it and PSOE must be able to offer a much more active defense of the current coalition government’s record against the Right’s attacks. For Sumar the focus will be particularly on those areas around employment and labor rights in which Díaz herself has spearheaded policies.

In this respect, against the Right’s focus on a supposed wave of house squatting or on how many sex offenders have had their sentences reduced in the courts under the “only yes is yes” law, we need to make clear how many people have benefitted from the substantive raises in the minimum wage over the last five years and from the coalition’s new guaranteed minimum income scheme. These types of concrete gains, which have improved the lives of millions, are at risk from a right-wing government.

Second, while not making it a central plank in the campaign, the Left needs to be clear that it is the only force with a  workable model for the Spanish state that can avoid further confrontations on the national question. The Right wants to use our cooperation with Basque and Catalan independentists as a weapon against us and we cannot be afraid to offer a frontal defense of our position, which offers a more confederal vision for the state. We also need to spell out that a right-wing government will just reignite the Catalan conflict and could potentially see a loss of regional autonomy.

Third, Sumar must be able to offer a positive vision as a counterpoint to the threat of democratic regression under the Right. This could be framed in various ways but basically as a new Spain of labor protections and social rights, such as those around the right to housing, free time, or access to public services.

Eoghan Gilmartin

Yes, the last point seems key. The sociologist Paolo Gerbaudo said recently that “the [Spanish] left has implemented very good public policies but that you don’t win elections by simply saying how much you have raised the minimum wage by. Such figures and data also have to form part of a discourse that talks about desires, or about the enemy — otherwise people forget.”

At times Díaz has achieved this, particularly during her so-called “listening process” where she toured the country laying out plans for a ten-year program for a new country, but in other moments she has centered her appeal rather narrowly on her capacity for institutional management and social dialogue. Clearly her proven track record in government is a real benefit in reaching out to PSOE voters but what also marks her out from Sánchez is her ability to articulate a broader social democratic vision of a new post-pandemic era of state interventionism and social protection. This has to be front and center.

Sergio Pascual

I agree that her team has done important work in building this program. I say this from the point of view of someone who tried to do something similar during my time with Podemos. If we didn’t manage to do it, they, however, have succeeded in uniting an impressive group of experts to build a program for several decades, a program for a different Spain. We now just need the labels and slogans that allow you to connect with people and explain these proposals in a straightforward way. The question is how exactly she is going to communicate this vision to the electorate over the next six weeks.

I would also insist again that Yolanda’s profile as an institutional leader is a real asset in a moment when people are looking for concrete solutions to problems like the cost-of-living crisis. We are talking about a lifelong, left-wing activist who was brought up in a historic Communist family. Her father was a leader in the Comisiones Obreras union and her training as a labor lawyer and her work with the unions has ensured that she is used to institutional negotiations and managing differences.

She was my colleague when I was a member of the Spanish parliament and at that time, when the initial infighting began in Podemos, her political profile was characterized by two points: first a tireless capacity for work, and second her willingness to work with others and to cross such internal divides to achieve her political ends.

Eoghan Gilmartin

Clearly the Right have the momentum after their major gains in last month’s local and regional elections. But national projections based on these results also suggest that PP and Vox would fall just short of an absolute majority in a general election — not least because of their weakness in Catalonia and the Basque Country. So, is it fair to say we have a very open contest?

Sergio Pascual

I really believe so, even though right now the terrain is difficult for the Left. In particular, the media is a factor that still tilts the field against us. But after Sánchez’s surprise call for a summer election, people are once again talking about politics and suddenly reengaging with the issues — something that did not happen in the runup to the local polls in May. And, in turn, this will generate an undercurrent of opinion that may change many minds during the campaign — hopefully to the benefit of the Left and Sumar. Without fear or hesitation, we must take the battle to the Right and meet their challenge head on.