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Gambling Spain’s Future

By rejecting a left-wing coalition to placate business interests, Spain's PSOE has badly miscalculated ahead of today's election – and may hand the far-right a historic victory.

In the aftermath of April’s general election in Spain, The New York Times hailed the country’s acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez as “the unlikely standard-bearer for a Socialist movement that has crumbled in countries like France, Italy and Germany.” Certainly, the 123 seats his centre-left Socialist Party then boasted in a 350-seat national congress made him the envy of most social-democratic forces across the continent. Added to this was the prospect of Spain’s first left-wing coalition since the 1930s with Pablo Iglesias’ Unidas Podemos, something Sánchez had himself appeared to support at various points during the spring election campaign.

The atmosphere now, however, is quite different. Spaniards are set to head to the ballot box for the fourth time in less than four years this weekend, after weeks of mass protests and rioting in Catalonia alongside signs of a fresh economic downturn. Growing frustration with institutional deadlock and the electrifying impact of the recent sentencing in the politically-explosive trial of pro-independence Catalan leaders on this election now presents the possibility of the far-right Vox party – which, before April, had no national representation whatsoever – emerging as Spain’s third-largest national party.

A number of polls in the last fortnight have indicated a surge in support for the extremist force. The most dramatic of those surveys was published last weekend in El País, suggesting Vox could win as many as 46 seats (almost double its current share of 24), while several others have shown it battling with Pablo Iglesias’ formation for third place.

In this context Sánchez’s decision to opt for fresh elections, instead of accepting a coalition deal with Unidas Podemos in July, looks increasingly like a major error. As fresh elections were announced in September, Sánchez claimed “96 percent of Spaniards” would have felt anxious with Podemos ministers in the cabinet, adding: “Today I could be head of a government but I would not be able to sleep at night.”

Polls suggest the Socialists now will not improve on its result of 28.7 percent in last April’s elections, with PSOE predicted to lose two points and between five and ten seats. Such a result, however, should be sufficient to maintain its position as the country’s largest party, as Spain’s establishment gears up for some form of governing arrangement between the Socialists and their historic adversary, the right-wing Popular Party (PP).

As veteran Spanish journalist Enric Juliana put it: “The real purpose of holding repeat elections is to move the political dial rightward, but without PSOE losing its hold on office.” 

Sánchez’s Calculation

At the beginning of this summer, PSOE and Unidas Podemos looked set to broker Spain’s first left-wing coalition since the Second Republic. To Sánchez’s right, Albert Rivera’s Ciudadanos refused to negotiate a centrist pact and, on the eve of PSOE’s victory in April, the Socialist base made clear its opposition to such an agreement – chanting “with Rivera, no!” outside party headquarters in Madrid.

This left an agreement with Unidas Podemos and regional nationalists as the only viable option for a stable government. However, months of sustained pressure from economic forces pushed Sánchez to revert to type. His tenure as Socialist Party leader has been defined by a series of tactical shifts — with the PSOE swinging from the centre to the left and back again in rapid succession. Unwilling to govern against the country’s economic elites or ruffle feathers among the European powers, Sánchez chose to abandon talks with Pablo Iglesias the night before the first parliamentary vote on his premiership in July. 

The pressure exerted on Sánchez – from Brussels, as well as from the IBEX 35 financial sector – formed part of a broader shift that took place over the course of the summer months. Indeed, capital’s veto was cited repeatedly in the summer talks, as acting Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo memorably explained to Podemos negotiators when they asked why their party could not take up the Labour Ministry portfolio in any governing deal: “You unnerve the CEOE [association of business leaders]”. 

There was also an important electoral element to his calculation. PSOE’s internal analyses indicated there was little scope to expand its vote through continuing to position the party leftwards (a poll in the lead-up to 28th April indicated a quarter of Podemos’ voters from 2016 would now opt for PSOE). So, accordingly, Sánchez decided to fix his view on the political centre. 

PSOE would aim to hoover up “moderate” voters, particularly in light of Rivera’s plummeting poll ratings. Predicting that the impending outcome of the Catalan leaders’ trial would produce further political upheaval, which would allow PSOE to position itself as the party of moderation, the PSOE leadership placed their bet that an autumn election could see the party secure over 30% of the vote and govern with fewer difficulties.

The calculation was not without some basis in numbers. In the lead-up to this moment, Sánchez’s party saw its vote share increase significantly in May’s European and local elections. One CIS poll in August suggested the PSOE might win up to 41% of the national vote if repeat elections were called. 

Podemos’ vote, on the other hand, suffered a substantial retreat in many of the regions and municipalities its branches and affiliates had swept to victory in so dramatically in 2015. With the prospect that Podemos’ erstwhile number two, Íñigo Errejón, could launch a national formation and thus split his former party’s vote, and with Ciudadanos having suffered months of high-level resignations, Sánchez was poised to finish the task he set out to realise in April. 

By moving towards repeat elections, he hoped he could reduce Iglesias’ and Rivera’s formations to “minor satellites”. Along with a third soft-left force organised around Errejón, these would amount to little more than fragmented forces jostling for influence over a PSOE government – by contrast to the transformational forces they had threatened to become only a few years prior.

Errejón’s role within this strategy was underlined in the days leading up to Sánchez’s failed investiture vote by an incendiary tweet sent out by a PSOE special adviser. Commenting on the deteriorating relations between his party and Unidas Podemos in the build-up to July’s crucial investiture vote, it simply read: “All yours, Errejón”.

The motivation behind such messages was clear: if the left vote was divvied up between these old rivals – among whom there was no love lost after Errejón’s acrimonious split with Podemos in January – Sánchez could turn his attention to the centre, where he believed he could make significant gains picking at the cadaver of Ciudadanos . 

Operation Errejón

Sánchez’s abrupt decision to break off talks the night before the vote on his premiership came as a shock to Podemos’ leadership, not least because former PSOE Prime Minister Zapatero was counselling Iglesias that a deal was still possible. But in the months that followed it became clear that Podemos had, to some degree, been reinforced electorally by how the negotiations played out. Iglesias’ tactic of accommodating Sánchez’s various redlines – including the veto against his own participation in government – left it clear who was to blame for the collapse in the talks.

In terms of optics, the outcome also fit with Podemos’ anti-establishment narrative that it was the only political force the economic powers feared. From August onwards the message coming from Iglesias’ party was that we were witnessing “an elite operation” designed to silence the voice of “nearly four million Spaniards.” 

By late September when Errejón announced he would run against his former party with a new platform, Más País, Unidas Podemos was half a point up on its April result while polling also showed most voters blamed Sánchez for new elections. This was where “operation Errejón” began to falter. His line that both parties were equally to blame held little weight with most left-wing voters, while it was never clear how Errejón would make good on his promise to “break the deadlock” except by accepting a centrist alliance with PSOE and Ciudadanos. 

More broadly Más País never managed to articulate a distinct political profile – with Errejon’s attempts to position it along the lines of the German Greens failing to gain traction. It also became clear that the new formation had been hastily organised with few structures in place beyond Madrid and Valencia. With Errejón unable to persuade high-profile allies – like ex-Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena or Podemos’ former foreign affairs spokesperson Pablo Bustinduy – to join his ticket, the wider candidacy inspired little interest.

At no point during the campaign did Unidas Podemos feel pressured to engage with Errejón. Apart from an initial comment from Iglesias that Más País was not an adversary, his party simply ignored its presence. Going into the final days of the campaign, polls register Más País on between 3 and 3.5 percent of the vote. That result would mean only a handful of seats.

Más País’ failure left Iglesias free to focus his fire on Sánchez, particularly in last Monday’s television debate when the PM’s rightward shift was apparent. If Iglesias did not dominate the debate, as he had done in April, he communicated very effectively the idea that the only chance of a left-wing government after Sunday involved a strong showing from Unidas Podemos. He repeatedly dared Sánchez to state his preferred governing partner, with PM’s silence becoming increasingly uncomfortable throughout the debate.

In the last days of the campaign, Unidas Podemos were again gaining ground as the party targeted around 900,000 PSOE voters (or 2.7 percent of its electorate) who backed the Socialists in April but now were wavering between the two parties. Far from seeing off Iglesias’ formation as a major political force, most polls predict minimal losses, with last minute tracking predicting it could even surpass April’s result. 

Dividing the Orange

Across the campaign, Sánchez’s plan to dominate the electoral field from the centre has also run aground. The phrase la izquierda (the left) has disappeared from PSOE’s discourse in recent weeks and has been replaced by the promise of “order.” Sánchez used his first intervention in the television debate to promise further measures in Catalonia – proposing to revise the criminal code to introduce a specific charge of organising an illegal referendum, as well as to root out independentist “propaganda” from regional television.  

He and his advisors had believed an election dominated by Catalonia could be to their benefit: PSOE would position itself as the only party capable of securing constitutional stability. The punitive sentencing in the Catalan leaders’ trial – with former Deputy Premier Oriol Junqueras receiving a thirteen year jail term – saw events spiral beyond anything they had expected. As the mass protests turned to rioting after the police used heavy force to clear the occupation of Barcelona’s airport Sánchez promised “firmness and proportionality”. 

Yet the subsequent days saw some of the most intense riots in recent decades in Spain, with hundreds of youths fighting pitched battles with police and thousands more engaging in peaceful acts of civil disobedience against the security forces. 

In an atmosphere of extreme tension – further heightened by Spanish television’s obsession with the supposed break down of law and order in Barcelona – Vox saw its opportunity. Its vote had fallen from 10.3 percent in April’s poll to 6.2 percent in the European elections only a month later. But, by demanding that a “state of exception” should be called in the region as well as the arrest of current Catalan Premier Quim Torra, its inflammatory rhetoric chimed with a large part of Ciudadanos’ voters.

The liberal-right party Ciudadanos had positioned itself very much in the right-wing bloc in April – engaging in visceral anti-Sánchez rhetoric – and so the idea that its collapse could benefit PSOE was always a stretch. But under a renewed wave of nationalist reaction, Ciudadanos seems to have lost of nearly half its vote (down from 15.9 percent to 8.5), and is expected to lose as many as two-thirds of its seats. This has bolstered the other two right-wing parties – and contributed little if anything to the PSOE.

In terms of increased vote-share Vox looks set to benefit the most, jumping five points, while the conservative PP is projected to regain more than thirty seats after its disastrous result in April.

Digging up Franco

Only three weeks before this weekend’s election, Sánchez’s government finally made good on its promise to disinter fascist dictator Francisco Franco from his grandiose mausoleum at the Valley of the Fallen outside Madrid.

The monument had been a stain on Spanish democracy for decades. Yet, by calling unnecessary repeat elections under conditions perfectly suited to the far-right, Sánchez looks likely to have handed the Francoist nostalgists in Vox a historic chance to become a major political force.   

A far-right party on more than 50 seats, and finishing third in a general election, would be a game changer for Spanish politics – just as the broader political landscape looks likely to lurch to the right. It would also be the ultimate indictment of Sánchez’s high-stakes tactical zig-zagging. 

There is little doubt the PSOE will remain the largest party after votes are counted.  The weight of regional nationalist parties also makes a right-wing majority unlikely. However, Sánchez is staring down the barrel of a strengthened right-wing and fewer governing options than in April. He will not be able to obfuscate further. His options will either be to accept a left-wing coalition with Podemos – backed by Catalan and Basque nationalists – or reach an agreement with the PP. 

The latter looks the much more probable option, with Sánchez refusing to rule out seeking a PP abstention. But with it, another of Labour’s European allies would have turned its back on any hope of reviving a meaningful social-democratic politics.