Spain’s Left-Wing Government Faces Internal Splits — and a Trumpian Opposition

Pedro Sánchez has been reelected as Spain’s prime minister, but his broad-left majority depends on unstable allies. The far right is making wild allegations of an undemocratic coup — and is now urging judges and police to defy the government.

Pedro Sanchez speaks in Oroso, A Coruña, Galicia, Spain, on September 17, 2023. (Alvaro Ballesteros / Europa Press via Getty Images)

Early this summer, no one would have bet a single euro that Pedro Sánchez would still today be Spain’s prime minister. After May’s local elections, in which the opposition right-wing parties won handsomely, many thought that the Socialist Party (PSOE) leader Sánchez belonged to the politically walking dead. Polls ahead of the general election held on July 23 suggested no hope of a reprieve.

Madrid looked like another European capital about to be conquered by conservatives and their far-right allies, just like Rome, Stockholm, Helsinki and Athens. But things turned out differently. Spain’s broad-left coalition held on — showing that such parties’ only proven weapon to defeat the local emulators of Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, and Jair Bolsonaro is to do something to mobilize their own electorate.

Still, July’s election results, which denied the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and Spanish nationalist Vox the majority that they had widely been expected to conquer, left Sánchez little room for maneuver. There was no clear left-wing majority either, and this time around — unlike in the previous legislature — forming another government required the votes of essentially every force in parliament except the PP-Vox duo. Securing one supporter looked especially fantastical: that is, Carles Puigdemont, leader of Junts per Catalunya (JxCAT), a right-wing Catalan-independentist force that consistently voted against the 2020–23 government formed by Sánchez’s PSOE and left-wing Unidas Podemos.

Given the difficulties of such a pact, even after July’s election outcome many observers considered the PSOE leader finished, with Spain instead looking set for a repeat election to resolve the deadlock. Once again, however, they were wrong. Sánchez succeeded in building a majority — and, after an investiture vote last Thursday, Spain today again has a left-wing coalition government. With the resignation of António Costa in Portugal the previous week, Spain is left as one of few progressive strongholds in the European Union.

Resilience and Political Flair

There is no doubt that Spain’s Socialist leader has real political resilience. His autobiography published in 2019 is, after all, entitled Manual de resistencia. He seems to find strength in adversity. Ideologically flexible, he has learned like few others to make a virtue out of necessity, as he told the Spanish Parliament last week.

It already happened four years ago: while he had persistently opposed a government agreement with Unidas Podemos, after the repeat election in November 2019 he embraced Pablo Iglesias’s formation. Without hesitation, they formed the first left-wing coalition government since Spain’s return to democracy. For over three years, this government has pursued a bold agenda that became a model across the continent.

Now, with patience and tenacity, Sánchez has again made a virtue of necessity. He reached an agreement with a party that had till just days ago asserted Catalonia’s unilateral secession from Spain and denied any interest in helping a government in Madrid hold together. JxCAT’s seven votes proved crucial in ensuring the PSOE leader’s reelection as premier, in a fragmented parliament.

This does not mean that the Catalan-independentist party will join the cabinet. Rather, as in the last legislature, this will be a minority government formed by the PSOE (121 seats) and Sumar (31 seats), the radical-left coalition led by Labor Minister Yolanda Díaz. Yet this executive will also depend for its survival on the votes of so-called peripheral Spain, i.e., the various regionalist and nationalist parties from Catalonia (Junts per Catalunya and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), who hold seven seats each), the Basque Country (Partido Nacionalista Vasco, five seats, and EH Bildu, six), Galicia (Bloque Nacionalista Galego, one seat) and the Canary Islands (Coalición Canaria, one seat).

Winning all these forces’ support has not been easy. But the PSOE, and especially Sánchez himself, have shown that they alone were able to forge alliances with multiple parties representing distinct interests. The conservative PP, which actually came in first place in the July 23 election, achieved only a pyrrhic victory that highlighted its isolation in Parliament and in the country.

In September, when PP candidate Alberto Núñez Feijóo was granted the opportunity to form a government, he failed miserably, as he won only the far-right Vox’s backing. The PP’s pact with Santiago Abascal’s Vox is a deadly embrace that prevents agreements even with right-wing Catalan and Basque nationalists with whom it has made alliances in the past. Vox, after all, seeks a recentralization of Spain, crushing regional autonomy. These Basque and Catalan forces preferred to support a left-wing executive rather than turn to those on the Right who deny Spain’s plurinationalism.

Uphill Struggle

Still, the road ahead is not easy. With such a broad and composite majority, every vote in parliament may turn into a quagmire, with a real risk that Sánchez’s new cabinet may not last. The parties that backed Sánchez know that letting this government fail would mean handing Spain over to the Right. Yet goodwill often isn’t enough. How will it be possible to reconcile radical-left Sumar’s agenda on social policies, progressive taxation, or housing, with right-wingers in the Partido Nacionalista Vasco, Junts per Catalunya, or Coalición Canaria?

What’s more, the international conjuncture is not the best, to put it mildly, with the wars in Ukraine and Gaza (and their economic fallout), inflation, the energy crisis, and new and more restrictive European Central Bank (ECB) monetary policies.

For now, the Spanish economy is one of Europe’s best-performing: the International Monetary Fund has confirmed growth forecasts for Spain of 2.5 percent for 2023 and 1.7 percent for 2024. But the post-pandemic NextGenerationEU recovery funds are largely already accounted for, and next January the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact, which limits state borrowing, is expected to come back into force. In short, Spain’s government will have less margins for maneuver than before.

Politically, however, there are three main factors for instability. The first is internal and concerns Podemos, the radical-left force that had been one of the main components of Sumar. After months of deep tensions and low blows, the formation founded by Iglesias, who is still its undisputed leader (although officially retired from politics) has decided to abandon Sumar, criticizing Díaz as too moderate. Podemos complains of not being given due consideration in Díaz’s team and of being marginalized from key positions. In recent months, Iglesias has made it a condition that Irene Montero, who is also his partner, should continue as equality minister.

It is worth mentioning that Montero, who has suffered extremely harsh attacks from the Right, is credited with the Law of the Full Guarantee of Sexual Freedom, known as the Only Yes Means Yes law, and the Law for the Equality of Trans People and the Guarantee of LGTBI Rights.

Not only have both laws been hotly contested by conservatives, but they have created a deep crisis in the government. This is both because of the courts’ eclectic application of the Only Yes Means Yes law — which has resulted in the release or reduction of the sentences of several dozen rapists — and because of the split in the feminist movement, between sectors tied to Podemos and those closer to the PSOE over the so-called trans law.

Aware of the deep distance between the PSOE and Podemos, Sumar thus offered Podemos a different ministry for Nacho Álvarez. But Iglesias’s formation contemptuously refused, in turn prompting the resignation of Álvarez, who was secretary of state for social rights and a key figure in the the parliamentary arrangements of the previous legislature.  Mistakes have surely been made on both sides. But Podemos’s attitude is self-destructive, as well as excessive in its many complaints of being victimized.

This stance also risks jeopardizing the government’s survival. Podemos is today a mere shadow of what it was in years gone by, but given Sánchez’s thin majority, its five remaining MPs remain decisive. Podemos will most likely stand alone (separately from Sumar) in June’s EU elections, causing a split on the Left that means likely electoral suicide. Indeed, this also largely explains the Right’s victory in May’s local elections, when Sumar failed to forge an alliance with all actors on the radical left. In many municipalities and regions, each of the individual formations standing separately missed the 5 percent threshold for representation.

Infighting Over Catalan Independence

Still, on paper the weakest link in Sánchez’s majority is its reliance on Catalan pro-independence parties. The PSOE’s agreements with JxCAT and ERC guarantee the stability of the government, but everything will depend on the progress of negotiations to resolve the Catalan crisis and infighting over the independentist cause.

The main stumbling block — an amnesty for pro-independence figures indicted after the 2017 unofficial referendum — already seems to have been surmounted, in political terms at least. The amnesty would guarantee the annulment of criminal, administrative, and accounting liability of more than three hundred pro-independence activists — including Puigdemont himself, who is self-exiled in Belgium as a current member of the European Parliament. It would also amnesty seventy-three police officers.

After the pardons issued in summer 2021 and the reform of the crime of sedition, an amnesty would complete Sánchez’s previous path toward more dialogue, reconciliation, and the normalization of relations between Madrid and Barcelona. However, the amnesty is legally complex, and we will better understand its real effectiveness after the parliamentary debate and the Constitutional Court’s response. The rebellion against the amnesty proposal by conservative sectors of the judiciary foretells future legal appeals — and a long wait before it is implemented.

Beyond agreements on issues like new powers for the Catalan government or greater fiscal autonomy, the other stumbling block concerns a possible future referendum on self-determination, which both JxCAT and ERC demand.

On this point, the margins for maneuver are practically nil: the PSOE’s “no” is clear, as is the unconstitutionality of the thing being demanded. At most, the pro-independence forces can obtain a nonbinding consultative vote regarding a political agreement negotiated between the parties. This could, perhaps, reform the Catalan statute of autonomy, for instance if the articles struck down by the Constitutional Court in 2010 were reinserted after amendment. Such a solution would allow some face-saving on each side. But it will take a lot of political will and finesse.

What’s more, in addition to the June 2024 European elections, there will be regional elections next spring in the Basque Country and Galicia and, in February 2025, in Catalonia. The government can expect major hits, especially given the likely Basque fallout of the deal, given that the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV)’s political hegemony is today seriously threatened by the pro-independence left of EH Bildu.

As for Catalonia, the interminable struggle for hegemony between JxCAT and ERC (the latter today leads the autonomous region’s minority government), could push each to try and outdo the other in pressuring Sánchez, including over the referendum issue, and in turn produce an untenable situation. The latest polls confirm that support for Catalan independence is lower than any point in the last decade: a fact that could unnerve Puigdemont and ERC leader Oriol Junqueras and make them reconsider their recent displays of pragmatism.

A Trumpist Right

There is, however, also another factor for instability, likely the most serious. Spain is increasingly polarized, and a radicalized right is blowing on the fire. Doubtless, many citizens are against or skeptical about the amnesty, as evidenced by last Saturday’s peaceful demonstration in Madrid that rallied 170,000 people.

But in recent weeks the debate has been far from civilized. Since the deal between PSOE and JxCAT, there has been a troubling crescendo of insults against Sánchez, branded a traitor and “golpista” (i.e., perpetrator of a coup d’état) with assaults on PSOE MPs and the storming of the party’s headquarters. For more than two weeks, every night the PSOE HQ in Madrid’s Calle Ferraz has been besieged by several thousand neofascist militants. These demonstrations also attended by Vox leaders, supported by influencers of the so-called “Hate International,” such as former Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson.

Vox’s Abascal called the government “illegitimate,” repeatedly termed its creation a “coup d’état,” and called on police officers to rebel against their superiors’ orders. While the PP did not go to these excesses, it did not distance itself from Vox, did not explicitly condemn the violence, and some historic leaders, such as Esperanza Aguirre, participated in the protests in Calle Ferraz alongside neofascist militants. Meanwhile, the PP has launched an international campaign comparing Sánchez to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, even lobbying EU institutions to curb what they see as the “destruction” of the rule of law in Spain.

This isn’t all new. When PSOE leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero surprisingly won the 2004 elections, the PP launched a harsh campaign in parliament and in the streets, backed by conservative media. It is no coincidence that right-wing former premier José María Aznar has also reappeared, calling for an unyielding mobilization against Sánchez. The radicalization of the Right is a fait accompli: proof of this is that Mariano Rajoy, considered a PP “moderate,” publicly endorsed Javier Milei for the Argentinian presidency.

It is not surprising, then, that sectors of the judiciary, which are supposed to be politically neutral, have organized demonstrations in front of the courts against the PSOE-JxCAT agreement or that some seventy retired military personnel have launched a manifesto calling for the army to oust Sánchez. The Right is consciously stirring up chaos. Unfortunately, a Spanish version of the assault on Capital Hill is not unthinkable, no matter how solid democratic institutions have proven thus far.

Perilous Period

In short, the continuity of the PSOE-Sumar government is excellent news for the European left. Not least because it could hardly have been taken for granted. It is, first and foremost, a victory for Sánchez. But it also results from the realization, by all the parties that make up this heterogeneous majority, that it is necessary to make a virtue of necessity to prevent the far right from reaching power.

Yet, the possibility of applying bold social policies as in the last legislature remains unknown, whatever the PSOE or Sumar’s intentions. Most likely, the government’s greatest energies will be devoted to resolving the territorial issue, with the goal of finally ending the Catalan dispute.

This will not be easy. The tensions that could arise within such a composite majority, the self-destructive attitude of a Podemos in obvious decline, and the Catalan and Basque nationalists’ respective struggles for regional hegemony, all complicate things. And so, too, does the mobilization of the Spanish right. It not only draws on a mighty media system and the conservative majority of judges, but also controls most regions and large cities, and it has an absolute majority in the Senate — where it will do all it can to filibuster or at least slow legislation.

The Right, including its theoretically more moderate elements, has clearly decided that any weapon is legitimate to bring down the government and will not be toning things down in the coming months. Quite the contrary. Until the European elections next June, a crucial date for all sides, there will be no respite. If the Sánchez government gets that far, we can take stock of what it has achieved.