The Lesser Evil

Antonio Maestre

After years of corruption scandals and austerity, Spain finally ousted its conservative president Mariano Rajoy. But will the center-left PSOE do much better?

Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) leader Pedro Sanchez in the Spanish Parliament on June 1, 2018 in Madrid, Spain. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty Images

Interview by
Eoghan Gilmartin

Friday’s ousting of conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy has opened up a new moment in Spanish politics. As the motion of no-confidence passed in the parliament, Pablo Iglesias’s message to the new Socialist PM Pedro Sánchez was “better late than never.” More than two years of aborted attempts at cooperation between left-wing Unidos Podemos, the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE), and regional nationalists had finally removed the scandal ridden Popular Party (PP) from office.

Sánchez will lead an interim government lasting at most eighteen months to two years which he promised will be “pro-European” and “socialist,” which means it will accept Brussels’ fiscal straightjacket and be made up entirely of members of his own party. Yet even still it was the Unidos Podemos deputies who seemed most enthused by the change in government, with their supporters in the gallery chanting “sí se puede” as the vote passed. With the Spanish right having been in the ascent since last October’s Catalan referendum, and emergent conservative party Ciudadanos topping the polls, Iglesias and co. are betting on their ability to regain the initiative.

Jacobin contributor Eoghan Gilmartin sat down with the Spanish journalist and documentary-maker Antonio Maestre to discuss these developments, and what this new minority administration means for Catalonia, Spain’s municipalist movement, and the potential for more radical politics in the future.


EG

Even with the recent convictions of high-level PP officials in the Gurtel corruption case, few believed the PSOE’s motion of no confidence would succeed when it was announced. In part because under the Spanish constitution such a motion also involves voting for an alternative prime minister, in this case Pedro Sánchez. How did PSOE manage to find the numbers to take office?

AM

The judgements in the Gurtel case were important because they ruled against the PP as a party, with the court finding that it had run a system of institutionalized corruption. Having this spelled out in a legal judgement finally forced a majority of the media and political parties to explicitly say that this cannot go on. In this sense Sánchez managed to frame the motion simply in terms of a binary choice: do you support Rajoy or not, leaving aside any consideration of his own candidacy.

Podemos also played a vital role and without Pablo Iglesias the motion probably would not have succeeded. Firstly because [unlike the talks to form a left-wing government two years ago] he demanded nothing from Sánchez in exchange for supporting the PSOE’s motion. This was a real sacrifice. Secondly Iglesias has a good relationship with Basque and Catalan nationalists and was a vital intermediary between them and PSOE. Also key was his announcement that if the motion failed, Podemos would bring another one straight away with the intention of calling immediate elections. This gave the Basque Nationalist Party, who held the balance of power in the chamber, a clear choice: support Sánchez or new elections. Given their fear of a Ciudadanos-led government [which would be even more hostile to regionalist interests], they chose to back the motion.

Of course Iglesias’s generosity here also reflects the fact that Podemos has been in retreat in recent months. In supporting Sánchez, the party was betting on opening up a more favorable scenario in which it could reconnect with the popular classes. Their strategy now is analogous to that which brought Ciudadanos such success with Rajoy’s government: support PSOE while also criticizing them from the left.

EG

Pedro Sánchez has gone through various stages in the last year. He won back the PSOE leadership promising a return to the party’s social democratic roots but then supported Rajoy during the Catalan crisis showing again his inability to push the party in new direction. What expectations do you have for this new government?

AM

They have little room to maneuver economically as they have agreed to carry over the existing PP budget for the next year as well as to respect the European Union’s fiscal rules. It is also highly unlikely they can repeal the PP’s labor reforms as this would require the support of right-wing regional nationalists. And so in terms of improving the material conditions of the working class, it will be complicated to pass any substantive measures.

In reality Sánchez is a social liberal, a descendant of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schoeder’s Third Way. He did win back the PSOE leadership [after a palace coup against him eighteen months ago] by appealing to the desire of his party’s members for a more left-wing line, but he never really believed in it himself. He should not be underestimated politically. He is extremely ambitious and determined but is more like a Macron or Albert Rivera — an empty vessel onto which you can project various ideological elements.

At the same time Rajoy’s seven years in office has been marked by a real regression in terms of civil rights and I think Sánchez’s government can make progress here, for example repealing much of Spain’s gag laws. There will also be advances on questions thrown up by Spain’s growing feminist movement and further implementation of Spain’s historical memory law. It was the Basque and Catalans who suffered most under Franco and so they will back measures in this area. Ultimately, PSOE’s objective is to create an account of its two years in office with which it can win the next elections: demonstrating a more caring, democratic politics, being able to point to cultural victories against the Right and a reduction in tensions on territorial issues.

EG

On the question of Catalonia, with direct rule from Madrid now lifted, what room is there to make progress in the next two years?

AM

I think the government has the potential to establish a framework for dialogue during this period. Both the Spanish and Catalan right thrive in a context of confrontation and so if Sánchez can reduce tensions, it will be to the benefit of his own party. In his speech last week he repeatedly promised to reach out to the Catalan and Basque governments stressing the country’s diversity. This was well received by the conservative nationalists in the Catalan European Democratic Party (PdCAT).

In this sense it could also create another positive effect from PSOE’s perspective. The independence movement is not homogeneous. There are many divisions with parties as distinct as the radical Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), the Republican Left, and PdCat having to work together. If they can reach certain agreements with the new Catalan government of Quim Torra, it could produce a rupture within this bloc strengthening in turn the Spanish government’s position.

EG

What will the PP’s tactical line be now that they find themselves in opposition?

AM

It is going to mount an aggressive opposition focusing on subjects that can divide Spanish society. In this sense questions that have to do with historical memory need to be dealt with carefully. It is something that has to be advanced but always in a gradual way avoiding dramatic decisions that the Right can use to inflame the situation. For example outlawing the Francisco Franco Foundation is obviously desirable but it could backfire.

But the last time the PP were in opposition between 2004–2011, Spain had a clear two-party political system, very distinct to the current multi-party one. In planning their lines of attack against the new PSOE government, they will also need to consider the maneuvers of Ciudadanos. Inflaming cultural wars could end up benefiting Albert Rivera’s party more than themselves as happened during the Catalan crisis. It is not clear how effective their traditional strategy of “inflammation” will be in this new context.

EG

The motion of no confidence was also a blow to Rivera and Ciudadanos, who are widely seen to have lost the initiative after dominating the polls for months. How do you see this battle for hegemony on the right now playing out?

AM

Rivera made the mistake of believing he already had the parliamentary weight which the polls suggested he might win in the future. He spent the last week acting as if he was an indispensable figure whereas in reality Ciudadanos’s votes were largely irrelevant during the whole process. This sense of impotency led Rivera to lash out during his intervention in the parliament with a speech laced with extreme right-wing rhetoric.

Now he finds himself in a much more complicated situation. The PP with its 137 seats to Ciudadanos’s 32 will dominate the parliamentary opposition leaving Rivera little choice but to try to outflank them on the right — to concentrate on opposing the opposition rather than the government. So we are going to see a struggle within the Right over who can be more aggressive and virulent. Interestingly this should reinforce the right-left divide which is something Ciudadanos have always refused to acknowledge.  Their line is that there is no such thing as classes, only Spaniards.

EG

Ciudadanos is a difficult party to characterize, mixing a centrist denial of ideology and pro-European rhetoric with a hardline form of Spanish nationalism. Where would you place it on the political spectrum?

AM

It is a party of the radical right, a nationalist-populist force. It has yet to resort to a strong anti-immigrant message because it has not needed to having other resources to draw on. In this sense Rivera has aspired to imitate the strategy of [the PP’s historic leader] José María Aznar. Like Aznar, he appeals to a civic or constitutional patriotism but one which, unlike those proposed by people like Jurgen Habermas, incorporates existing nationalist symbols and narratives that are inevitably going to divide Spanish society.

But we are also now starting to see elements of an anti-immigrant discourse, especially in recent months. Their rhetoric around drugs in immigrant neighborhoods in Madrid is one example and their opposition to health-care access for undocumented immigrants is another. This could now intensify, little by little, particularly as they seek further advantage over the PP.

EG

You mentioned earlier Podemos’s setbacks of late. Less than three weeks ago the party held a vote of confidence in the leadership of Pablo Iglesias and the party’s parliamentary spokesperson Irene Montero. The two announced the members’ vote as a response to the controversy arising from the family house they purchased in the Madrid suburbs. It seemed like a disproportionate response to what was always going to be a passing polemic. How do you see it?

AM

Yes, totally. It was an error to call the vote because it implicated party members in a private issue that related to their personal lives and turned it into a wider party matter. Buying the house was always going to have an effect on the leader’s [plebeian] discourse but they should have dealt with as a private matter not commenting on it even with all the media pressure. It was an attempt to socialize an error but to call a vote on such an issue simply undermines their value as an internal democratic mechanism. It’s true that recent events with the fall of Rajoy have largely buried the affair but we will have to see if there is any lasting damage.

EG

At the same time for a party which has been so consumed with internal struggles in recent months and under constant attack from the media, Podemos has maintained a steady position in the polls between 18-20 percent. This seems to point to the fact that it is party with a strong and distinct electoral base.

AM

Yes, I think everyone is surprised at how well this base has held up across the last year. This new political cycle could now also be much more favorable to the party giving it greater opportunities to take the initiative and appear once again as a vital reference point. The idea is to emulate Ciudadanos’s strategy: Podemos has to present itself as a stabilizing factor while at the same time pushing the PSOE into passing more progressive measures, ones which it would not consider if it was not reliant on Podemos’s support. The party’s role is to be the critical conscience of the new government — loyally backing it against the worst attacks from the Right but also ensuring it does not drift in a conservative direction itself.

EG

How would you draw up the balance sheet of Spain’s new left which emerged after the 15M mobilizations, not just Podemos but also the various municipalist formations and confluences?

AM

There has been a certain process of “bourgeoisification” of all these new forces. This always happens to a greater or lesser extent when you enter the institutions which have their own rules and ways of doing politics. What started as something at least politically revolutionary has become institutionalized as a new multi-party system. There are parties like Podemos to the left of PSOE and Ciudadanos, which for me, is to the right of the PP. Even while Spanish society is becoming less ideological, in the parliament this new party system is in fact reinforcing the old left-right dynamic.

EG

And the progressive local governments in Spain’s major cities, the so-called “fearless cities”?

AM

Local government in Spain has little power and it is more a question of administration or governance. You can hardly change anything of substance and so [the municipalist formations] are new parties which add to the greater pluralism in Spanish politics. This is positive and they have introduced some interesting innovations but obviously they don’t represent anything profoundly transformative.

For certain people in Podemos, above all Inigo Errejón, their importance is more in terms of demonstrating that these new forces can govern responsibly, so they can reduce people’s fears of Podemos taking office in the future.

EG

There is something conservative about Errejón’s perspective with its emphasis on “order and responsibility.” In recent interviews he has repeatedly claimed that what has been most revolutionary about these municipalist administrations in Barcelona, Cadiz, and Madrid “is that the day after they took office they guaranteed that the rubbish was collected and streets cleaned.”

AM

Yes, it is frustrating and quite demoralizing but it reflects how the “window of opportunity” [which opened up in the wake of the financial crisis and 15M] for a more profound transformation has passed. And I do not see it returning. In Spain people have become accustomed to living with the crisis. It has been ten years. The indignation that was palpable a few years ago and reflected in the mobilizations and protests is gone. And this means for a party born to undermine the existing system in its entirety the conditions are not present to take power.