Spain’s Socialist Party Has Survived but Is Still in Danger

Steven Forti
David Broder

Spain’s Socialist Party is Europe’s strongest center-left force, easily winning last Sunday’s Catalan elections. But it’s gaining at the expense of its own coalition partners, whose weakness risks bringing Pedro Sánchez’s broad-left government to its knees.

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez speaks at the Palau de Congressos de Catalunya, on 18 May, 2024, in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. (Alberto Paredes / Europa Press via Getty Images)

The Left, broadly defined, is in clear decline across Europe — while the Right, especially the far right, is thriving like it hasn’t done since 1945. Ahead of June’s European elections, the trend is unmistakable: social democrats, greens, and other left-wing parties are set to lose around forty seats in the new parliament. After the fall of the Partido Socialista prime minister António Costa in Portugal, Spain is today the only European Union (EU) country with a meaningfully left-wing government. While other governments may appear “progressive” on paper, such as Slovenia’s, many are either grand coalitions (like Denmark’s) or lean more toward the center than the left (like Germany’s). Events in Spain, then, are more decisive than might be imagined.

So, what’s going on in Spain? Madrid was surely a crucial target for the European right, especially after the Partido Popular and Vox won the local elections in May 2023. German Christian Democrat Manfred Weber, who is president of the EU-wide European People’s Party (EPP), and Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni strategized for Spain to follow the same path as Italy, Finland, and Sweden by forming a coalition between the mainstream right and the far right. However, the snap general elections last July 23 saw a different outcome due to a strong mobilization of the broad-left electorate, allowing the coalition government to continue.

Still, Pedro Sánchez, the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) leader who has been prime minister since June 2018, managed to stay in office by forming a diverse coalition that includes not only the left-wing alliance Sumar but also various regionalist and nationalist parties, including Catalan and Basque pro-independence forces. This minority government relies on the support of almost every parliamentary faction except the conservative Partido Popular and far-right Vox. Yet even this risked being upset this spring by an extended electoral cycle that began with Galicia’s regional contest in February, continued with the Basque elections in April and the Catalan elections in May, and will end with the European elections on June 9.

But to fully grasp the situation of the Spanish left, we need a bit more historical perspective. The last five years have seen the end of a political era. Spain’s 2010s were marked by two main dynamics: the resurgence of the Left, and the Catalan independence movement. The Indignados movement, which began in May 2011, channeled protests against austerity policies during the Great Recession. This movement led to the formation of Podemos and various local platforms that won major city elections in 2015, for instance electing Ada Colau in Barcelona and Manuela Carmena in Madrid. While Podemos didn’t overtake the social democratic center left as hoped — the “Pasokification of the PSOE” was a mirage — it did disrupt the traditional two-party system that had ruled Spain since the end of Francoism. It shifted public opinion to the left, and entered government with the formation of the first coalition government since the civil war in January 2020. The embrace between Pedro Sánchez and Podemos cofounder Pablo Iglesias was the symbol of this process and its most tangible result.

But the last decade was also marked by the Catalan independence process. It gained momentum between 2010 and 2012, and peaked in fall 2017 with the self-determination referendum and the unilateral declaration of independence. This movement significantly influenced not only Catalonia’s politics but also Spain’s, placing the country’s territorial crisis and the post–Francisco Franco 1978 constitution’s model of decentralization at the forefront of public debate. Despite the independence movement being led by the center-right force today known as Junts per Catalunya (JxC), under the leadership of sometime president Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia also saw a leftward shift with the rise of the center-left Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), the anti-capitalist Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), and Ada Colau’s Comuns. With the Catalan elections last Sunday, that political cycle has decisively come to an end.

A Radicalized Right Wing

There had already been signs of this back in 2019 — but now it is beyond doubt. Here come into play three crucial elements I mentioned earlier. First, the long wave of the Indignados moment is over, and the forces to the left of the PSOE are in deep crisis. Unidas Podemos has splintered into a more “intransigent” wing headed by Iglesias, who retained the Podemos name, and Sumar, Yolanda Díaz’s attempt to unite various left-wing parties and movements (Izquierda Unida, Comuns, Más Madrid, Compromís, etc.). In the May 2023 local elections, this division allowed the Right to win most regions and town halls. But in recent regional elections, the trend was no better. Neither Sumar nor Podemos managed to enter the regional parliament in Galicia; they elected only one deputy (for Sumar) in the Basque Country, and in Catalonia — theoretically a heartland of Díaz’s project — the Comuns-Sumar list took six seats, down from eight.

The second element is that the Catalan independence “process” is dead and buried. Independence parties have lost more than 700,000 votes since 2017 in a region of 8 million people: for the first time, they do not have a majority in the Catalan parliament. While it is still unknown whether there will be a Socialist-led government, there will surely not be a pro-independence one. But this is not just about the movement of votes: the heated debates about the creation of a Catalan republic are only a distant memory in the Catalonia of 2024. After the failure of the gamble on an unofficial referendum in 2017, but also the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, citizens are concerned about more concrete issues — inflation, the economy, drought, infrastructure, etc. Beyond rhetoric for internal use and consumption, even the pro-independence parties have veered toward a certain pragmatism in their relations with Madrid.

But there’s also a third development, in line with the European and global dynamics: a radicalized right wing. With the disappearance of Ciudadanos — a pop-up liberal, anti-independence party once compared to Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche vehicle in France — the Partido Popular has recovered electorally, again rallying much of the conservative vote. Yet this is not the same Partido Popular as in the days of former premier Mariano Rajoy: it has moved much further to the right and rapidly embraced alliances with Vox (not even remotely considering a cordon sanitaire against the far right), taking up much of the latter party’s agenda. It not only brands prime minister Sánchez a traitor to the homeland for his agreements with Catalan and Basque independence parties, but even claims that his government is “illegitimate.” The main party of the Spanish right supported the demonstrations, mainly led by neofascist and neo-Nazi groups, that besieged the PSOE headquarters in Madrid for days during November, with scenes that were somewhat reminiscent of the US capitol riot. They have attempted to bring down his government through a mix of culture wars, fake news, and lawfare — helped by friendly media and conservative parts of the judiciary.

Sánchez Holds Firm

The above considerations are important to understand the current condition of the only broad-left government in Europe — and to be able to outline possible future scenarios. The Sánchez government is weak; we knew this from the start. In the last parliament (2019–23), it had some room for maneuver, but now it doesn’t: every vote is crucial for its survival. Without the votes of the seven MPs from Puigdemont’s Junts or the five from Podemos — who left the Sumar parliamentary group after the final break between Iglesias and Díaz — the government has no majority. This legislature may be an ordeal: in part it already has been these last few months, with the difficulties related to the approval of the amnesty law for Catalan independence leaders, which will be definitively approved by Congress by the end of May, after the two-month holdup imposed by the Senate, where the Partido Popular has an absolute majority. Of course, everyone knows that toppling Sánchez means rolling out the red carpet for the right-wing parties to take over government, but there’s a big difference between words and deeds. Not least because the government’s majority also relies on center-right formations such as the Partido Nacionalista Vasco (PNV) and the aforementioned Junts per Catalunya, with whom it has a hard time making deals on tax or social policies.

Still, after being hit by a campaign of right-wing attacks and a corruption scandal involving his PSOE, Sánchez’s own position has recovered in the last month. After the bad result in the regional elections in Galicia, where the Partido Popular retained an absolute majority in one of its historic bastions, in the Basque Country the Socialists have the numbers to remain in government with the Partido Nacionalista Vasco as a junior partner. Meanwhile, the Catalan Socialists easily came in first place in last Sunday’s election. Moreover, the strange crisis at the end of April — for five days Sánchez weighed up whether to resign over the smearing of his wife, Begoña Gómez, whom his opponents baselessly accused of corruption — not only allowed him to center public debate on defending democracy from right-wing efforts in dehumanization, but also gave him breathing room again in terms of polling numbers. The Socialist Salvador Illa’s victory in Catalonia is also a victory for Sánchez and his strategy of dialogue with the pro-independence parties, which is indended to rebuild bridges between Barcelona and Madrid after the 2017 rift and the hard line taken by the Partido Popular government of the day.

Still, the series of major electoral tests won’t end until the vote for the European Parliament on June 9. While a big victory for the Partido Popular seemed certain just months ago, the latest polls speak of a close head-to-head between them and Sánchez’s PSOE. If his support holds up, he will be able to look more calmly at the months ahead. That said, there remain three main unknowns that could trouble the Madrid government’s stability.

Catalonia, Again

First is Catalonia, which continues to weigh on the Spanish political balance.  The possibility of Sánchez ally Illa being Catalonia’s new president greatly depends on the center-left ERC, which took a serious hit in Sunday’s vote after governing Catalonia for three years. Not only did it fall from thirty-three to twenty seats in a parliament of 135 — and, within the pro-independence space, drop far behind Junts (which rose from thirty-two to thirty-five seats) — but its current president, Pere Aragonès, has decided to quit politics. This heavy setback will cause it enormous difficulty in sealing an alliance with the Socialists, or even in giving external support to a Socialist/Comuns-Sumar pact. Inside ERC, some think that this defeat is basically due to the pragmatism adopted in recent years and the support given to Sánchez in Madrid, whose concrete results — the pardons and amnesty, above all — have been mainly capitalized on by Puigdemont, whose rhetoric, at least, is more radical.

If ERC stands firm against a deal, the risk is a repeat election in October. But, at the same time, an agreement with ERC in Barcelona could also spook Puigdemont, who — pressed by the entry of a new far-right independence party, Aliança Catalana — could also decide to withdraw his seven MPs’ support for Sánchez’s government in Madrid. In short, squaring the circle seems near impossible, unless there is pragmatism on all sides — and an understanding that a compromise is the lesser evil anyway. This fall, Sánchez will have to approve a budget — the 2024 one was already put on hold because of the electoral clash in Catalonia. Without an agreement with the pro-independence parties, there is a risk of a provisional budget for 2025 that would probably deliver a fatal blow to Sánchez’s government.

The second unknown concerns the space to the left of the PSOE, which despite its many and changing party labels is continually losing seats. The polls ahead of the EU elections aren’t good at all for Sumar or Podemos: if in 2014 Podemos and Izquierda Unida obtained a total eleven MEPs, and in 2019 the Unidas Podemos list dropped to six, today holding onto that lower number is a best-case scenario; more likely they’ll fall to a total of four. In hindsight, given the ebb of the long wave of the Indignados, the break between Iglesias and Díaz was political suicide, even if it surely had its reasons. Such a weakened and divided left, with Sumar’s project still failing to sink roots at the local and regional levels, is another source of instability for the government — and could even be a bomb under its longer-term survival. In the last parliament, Unidas Podemos managed to move the PSOE to the left: they made important progress both in reducing inequalities (a labor-law reform, a steep rise in the minimum wage, etc.) and on rights issues (feminism, LGBTQ rights, environmental protections, etc.). But will Sumar be able to influence the government’s legislative agenda in the current context? It will certainly be harder than before.

If Sánchez’s support has recovered in the last month, his electoral growth — in Catalonia and in the polls — above all depends on his ability to rally other left-wing parties’ voters. Simply eating up its allies’ support is dangerous for the PSOE: it cannot win overall majorities on its own. Even insofar as both the Socialists and the Partido Popular have regained their hegemony over the broad left and right respectively, they still need alliances to win majorities in parliament. For Sánchez, this means maintaining his alliance with what has been called the “plurinational Spain,” opposed to the nationalist centralism, authoritarianism, and conservatism of the Right.

European Shift

The third unknown concerns the new political balance at the EU level after June 9. Who will lead the European Commission, and with what majority? If Brussels veers to the right, with the ultraright of Meloni & co. integrated into the dominant camp, then everything will be more difficult for Sánchez’s government. The broad-left coalition in Spain would not just be a rare exception in the EU, but a troubling anomaly. Indeed, even without this change in the EU-level balance, there will still be a return to the pre-COVID-19 “Growth and Stability Pact” policing government borrowing. This will mean less room for social policies and a return of austerity, if a less intense one than in the early 2010s. Sánchez will have less room for maneuver — and in Brussels he may well have an opponent more than a potential ally.

Surely this is a complicated puzzle. It could be called the normal stuff of Spanish politics — and yet there is now a more definite sense of weariness and a change in the political moment. In last July’s general election, the fear of the Right reaching power was enough to mobilize a broad progressive electorate and keep the government on its feet. But this bogeyman can’t just be rolled out time and again with the same effect. There is an urgent need for all those involved to roll up their sleeves and work together for a deep regeneration of Spanish democracy. It’s the only antidote to an aggressive and illiberal right-wing camp, both in Spain and across Europe.