- Interview by
- Eoghan Gilmartin
“I know that many people are worried, but Spain is much greater [than Vox],” insisted the country’s left-wing deputy prime minister Yolanda Díaz at the end of the final debate before today’s general election. She came away from Thursday’s contest as the unanimous winner, forcefully confronting Vox’s far-right leader Santiago Abascal on workers’ rights and gender violence while calling out her coalition partner, the center-left prime minister Pedro Sánchez, for his reticence to tackle the country’s housing crisis. “We are defending a public housing stock, not tax breaks [for developers],” Díaz told him.
Yet while her new left-unity Sumar platform has gained real traction during the final stretch of the campaign, the prospect of the far right entering government for the first time since the country’s transition to democracy in the 1970s remains present. Final polling last weekend showed the gap between the right and left blocs tightening, but a coalition between the conservative Popular Party and Vox still looks the most likely government — though with an increasingly high chance of a hung parliament.
In El Pais’s final poll from last Monday, the right bloc is three seats short, with the Partido Popular (PP) leading Sánchez’s Socialists (PSOE) 32.9 percent to 28.7 percent (or 135 seats to 110) while Vox and Sumar are tied at 13.5 percent and between 36 to 38 seats each. In such an outcome, the right bloc would probably be able to count on the support of a small number of regional MPs to secure a wafer-thin majority, but a late left-wing mobilization could turn the tables. In particular, Vox and Sumar are currently in a battle for the last seat in fourteen small- or medium-sized provinces; whoever finishes third will likely take the prize.
If this battle is one priority for Sumar, the other has been ensuring that it gets out the vote in the major urban areas. Its campaign has been fought on two fronts: the first, confrontation with the Spanish right; the second, appeals to popular social democratic policies. Sumar’s ambitious program would guarantee a series of tangible new rights in work, housing, and health care — including an expansion of public services to include free dental and eye care; a gradual reduction of the working week to thirty-two hours over the course of the next legislature; a massive program of public housing construction; and a groundbreaking universal inheritance scheme, which would see all twenty-three-year-olds in Spain receive €20,000 to “kickstart a life project” of their choosing.
The PP’s leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo had gone into the election campaign believing that his victory was assured, not least because of the constant demonization of the PSOE–Unidas Podemos coalition by a right wing–dominated press over the last three years. Divisions on the radical left also have been an issue, as Díaz and Podemos struggled to reach a left-unity deal after early elections were called, with the final agreement creating further internal tensions as Díaz imposed a clear-out of Pablo Iglesias’s old guard from the Left’s front bench.
Yet now, with polls narrowing, Sumar’s Txema Guijarro, a member of the Congress of Deputies, thinks that the new left-wing platform can play a decisive role in the outcome of today’s vote. Topping Sumar’s list in Alicante, Guijarro says that Díaz’s appeal as a candidate rests not only in the ability to take on the far right but also in articulating an alternative future horizon.
It has been a short election campaign that only really came to life in the last week. What has been Sumar’s focus, and what have you tried to communicate to voters?
Among left-wing voters, the fear that the barbarians are now at the gates has been front and center. The victory for the Right in May’s local and regional elections was a wake-up call for many people, and Sánchez sought to harness this shock by calling an early general election. Also, such fear is no longer abstract, as we can see concrete examples of what a PP-Vox government would mean through the various coalition pacts they have signed in city halls and regional administrations over the last month, and the type of reactionary policies they are pursuing in these places.
But while this fear is going to mobilize a lot of progressive voters, for us, it is not enough. You also have to be able to convey a certain level of hope, with a clear project that people will want to fight for. Some on the Left have criticized Yolanda [Díaz, second deputy prime minister and minister of labor and social economy] for focusing heavily on our program, claiming that in a campaign defined by very basic emotions, you cannot talk about something as serious as a program. But simply sounding the anti-fascist alarm is not enough to mobilize all of our electorate. Furthermore, it is also going to primarily benefit the PSOE. If the dominant issue is fear of the far right, well, the PSOE is going to gain a large tactical vote.
Instead, we have focused on engaging our voters around questions that matter to them in their daily lives. What has most resonated among our proposals are probably those related to the world of work and labor. In her role as labor minister, Yolanda has advanced new social agreements on workers’ rights, seeing the guarantee of decent, stable employment as the main axis around which to articulate a broader agenda of new rights, social commitments, and a more solid welfare state. And so the measures I’ve talked most about with voters are our proposals to reduce the working week to thirty-two hours, as well as our plans to further increase the minimum wage [which has already increased 47 percent since 2018] and around protecting pensions. Ultimately, Sumar is the only guarantee that this country will continue to advance in workers’ rights and social justice.
The left-wing coalition government parties have consistently trailed a highly mobilized right wing in the polls and, as you mentioned, suffered heavy losses in May’s local and regional elections. How do you explain this?
Part of the issue has been the government’s failure to effectively counter the Right’s relentless media campaign against it. This has had an impact, particularly on the PP’s ability to win over many of the swing voters that move between it and the PSOE. We are only talking about a small group of eight hundred thousand to one million that are at play, but without clear ideological or party alignment, they are easily swayed by changing political currents. And for the last three years, we have had this narrative portraying us as a democratically illegitimate government that is in an alliance with Basque terrorists. When you have this day after day, it has an effect on such voters.
Beyond that, a part of our electorate was clearly demobilized during May’s local and regional elections. The Right’s electorate in Spain is always much more disciplined in coming out to vote, particularly in local polls, whereas, in contrast, the Left suffers from much greater fluctuations in its turnout. In May, part of our base seemed caught in a melancholic state, looking backward toward an earlier political moment around the 15-M movement wave when everything seemed possible. In one sense, this is understandable, given that we currently face a much more complicated scenario, marked by the war in Ukraine, the cost-of-living crisis, and a conservative wave sweeping across Europe.
But our electorate is now clearly responding to our campaign and becoming more mobilized. Particularly in the last week, we have seen polls tightening as predicted participation levels have increased. Furthermore, unlike in May, when we had rival left-wing lists running against each other, with Sumar there is now a united left candidacy. Working with [the regional left-wing party] Compromís here in Alicante has made our campaign much more effective, not least because this party has such a strong ground organization.
It has also helped that we are seeing certain figures in Podemos coming out to actively support Sumar, such as [party cofounder] Juan Carlos Monedero. I would have liked to have seen more support from some of the other Podemos leaders, but in the end, the party has now more fully entered the campaign on our behalf.
To what extent does this demobilization on the Left also reflect attitudes toward the coalition government’s record in office? It has clearly gone further than most of its European counterparts in protecting citizens during the cost-of-living crisis. Spain currently has the lowest inflation rate in the EU (1.6 percent) after the coalition has increased a series of progressive anti-inflationary measures, and Díaz has advanced important progressive legislation around strengthening collective bargaining rights and cracking down on the abuse of bogus self-employment and temporary work contracts. Yet in other areas, such as housing, the government has not delivered on promised structural reforms. In this respect, how do you see the coalition’s balance sheet after three and a half years in office?
One thing I have been repeating during the campaign is that this has been a very good government of resistance in the face of a series of historical crises, or, to put it another way, a strong tactical government. Prime Minister Sánchez is a brilliant tactician and moves very well over short distances. That is why he is a political survivor.
We took office in January 2020, two months before the pandemic hit, and this has meant that much of our energies have gone into crisis management and trying to protect people and their living standards from these shocks. At the same time, many of the more ambitious reforms, which imply more profound legislative changes, have been driven by us rather than the PSOE. I am thinking of Yolanda’s reform of Spanish labor law or the new LGBTQ and feminist rights that have been secured.
In contrast, with the PSOE, we have had a partner that has accepted some of our proposals in terms of responding to the cost-of-living crisis, and before that with the pandemic, but, at the same time, it has been a constant brake when it has come to instituting longer-term reforms. For example, in response to runaway profits in the last year, we pushed it into accepting an emergency wealth tax as well as windfall taxes on the banks and energy companies. But all this has been labeled as provisional, whereas we are also demanding a more permanent tax reform so that these companies always pay what they should.
The PSOE now seems to believe that it can fight this election by promising that things can continue as they have been. There is also a certain triumphalism in its discourse as it plays up Spain’s headline economic figures. But many people have lost purchasing power over the last eighteen months, despite the good inflation figures, and now want change. This does not have to mean, however, electing a government that will seek to return us to forty years ago. We have shown that we can govern, and what we are saying now is, “Make us stronger and we will redouble the pace of change.” A more favorable correlation of forces at cabinet will allow us to manage major economic ministries or a ministry of state and, from there, launch more ambitious reforms.
Are there expectations of such a changed balance of forces within the progressive bloc in these elections? Sumar looks set to probably repeat Unidas Podemos’s result from 2019 of 36 seats or gain a couple more, which for any junior coalition partner is no mean feat — given the tendency for the smaller forces to get burnt after entering office. But is there much margin for an improved result beyond that?
If we get over 40 seats, we can begin to demand more. Here in Alicante, for example, we lost out on a second seat to Vox in 2019, but I would put us as close favorites to flip that last seat the way things stand right now. There are various tight races involving Sumar, which could tip the balance away from the Right and toward the Left.
Of course, there are also a lot of unknowns — above all, what effect holding a general election for the first time in July will have. It is a bank holiday weekend in many parts of Spain, and so this could affect turnout, but it is very hard to know among which collectives.
Combatting the Reactionary Wave
If there is no late left-wing surge or if it is not sufficiently strong, Spain could see a coalition government that includes an extreme-right party for the first time since the transition to democracy in the 1970s. How do you explain Vox’s rise, and how has Sumar sought to combat its impact on the campaign?
The major electoral opening for the far right in Europe has generally been through its weaponizing of the immigration issue. But in Spain, despite Vox’s use of anti-immigrant talking points, the far right’s breakthrough came in the context of the Catalan independence conflict, and its momentum has been sustained, in turn, through its targeting of feminist advances. Fascism always needs an enemy to purge, and as the tensions in Catalonia have reduced over the last few years, Vox has positioned feminism as the primary threat — seeking to harness the resistance to recent advances among certain sectors of the population.
Another important campaign message in this sense is that we have to react in the face of such reaction. The Left has to show our pride in what we have achieved, and to say: not one step backward. We are going to keep moving forward, right? Because in the face of the discourse that the PSOE has often put forward about the need for gradualism and not to alienate men of a certain age, etc., the reaction from the Left should be precisely the opposite. It should be to strengthen and redouble our efforts and to continue moving forward precisely because popular disaffection comes when people feel that you have not fulfilled the commitments you have made. They have to see that the government is for them, that it defends their interests.
You fight reaction by guaranteeing rights — by being able to guarantee decent public pensions, the right to housing and public health; that is, by securing the material basis for a stable and secure life for all.
What would it mean for Vox to enter government as a junior coalition partner?
The first thing is that it will be able to implement the type of retrograde policies that it has been announcing in the regional governments where it is governing — from forms of censorship to stripping women, immigrants, and LGBTQ people of their hard-won rights. Nearly worse, however, is that such a coalition government would further whitewash and normalize fascism as a legitimate political alternative. We have people who are openly questioning people’s rights and threatening to revoke them, and this generates no reaction among the PP ranks. They have no issues with governing with these people.
Instead, you have this cynical argument that our cooperation with [the Basque] EH Bildu and other pro-independence parties in parliament is somehow equivalent or worse than their enabling of the far right.
In the context of a snap election, constructing Sumar as a left unity coalition was a very rushed affair. There was no time to articulate a solid organizational basis, and questions of how it is going to operate took a backseat to negotiating over electoral lists and the question of Podemos’s participation or not. How do you see Sumar as a longer-term project going forward?
If you had told me a year ago that we were going to reach an agreement with the entire Spanish alternative left in ten days, I would have said that you were mad. And yet we have achieved it, with an agreement that brings together fifteen formations. That is an important milestone, a very important milestone. But from July 24 onward, the challenge is precisely to establish the organizational means to allow for a certain unity of action in our very plural political space. We need to ensure an internal methodology that can allow a collaborative and cooperative spirit to prevail. This will be a lot easier if we get a good result on Sunday, but clearly it is going to be one of our priorities in the coming months.