Sergi Cutillas and Pablo Cotarelo – The Spanish Left Lost in Sanchez’s Labyrinth

Spain has missed a chance to turn round the nation after six years of a dogmatic neo-liberal and corrupt rightist government. Once again it was the Social Democrats who sacraficed democracy to their won political opportunism.

Sergi Cutillas is an economist and worked in the financial sector before taking up his work as a financial justice activist in early 2012. He is a member of the European Research Network on Social and Economic Policy.

Pablo Cotarelo is a Spanish engineer, researcher and consultant at the Ekona Center of Studies in Spain. His focus is on energy and industrial policy. For more than a decade, it has been promoting citizens’ initiatives on energy sovereignty, both at Spanish and European level.


Pedro Sanchez’s government has had a short life. In June, 1, 2018 Unidos Podemos, the pro-independence parties of Catalonia and the Basque nationalists joined forces with the Socialist party to oust Rajoy from the premiership after 6 years in government to replace him with a man not long before outcast by his own party and then reborn in an internal election: Pedro Sanchez.

Some months before the vote many high-ranking members of the Catalan government and leaders of the pro-independence parties were arrested and put in provisional imprisonment accused of rebellion and sedition. Others, like former President Puigdemont fled the country seeking refuge from the Spanish judiciary in Belgium. 14 Catalan leaders are currently on trial while others wisely remain in exile.

It is useful to remember that the Catalan parliament has had a majority of pro-independence MPs willing to proceed toward a process of self-determination since 2012, and that a vast majority of people in Catalonia is in favour of holding a self-determination vote. Beyond the pro-independence parties, the Comuns, the Catalan sister-party of Podemos although holding a federalist or confederalist position, has been strongly in favour of such a vote, and the Spanish Podemos has also defended the right of the Spanish regions to hold such referendums as well as reforming themselves toward a plurinational state, in which old nations within Spain such as Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia must be recognised as equals to the rest of Spain. Such ideas are perceived as an existential threat to the ruling class of the Spanish state, which have kidnapped Spanish identity for their own interests into a narrow conservative view, in which values such as the unity of Spain, the monarchy, Catholicism, a centralist tradition and Castilian language and cultural traits are seen as non-negotiable as the conception of Spain as a whole. It is in this context that the recent clash has come to pass and in which progressive forces pulled together to remove Rajoy out of the Moncloa palace.

The new government of Pedro Sanchez had a Parliamentary support formed by its own party, 84 seats, by Unidos Podemos (Podemos and Izquierda Unida) with 67 seats, by ERC (pro-independence social-democrat party of Catalonia) with 9, by PDeCAT (pro-independence Catalan liberal party) with 8, the Basque Nationalist party PNV with 5, Basque EH Bildu with 2, Valencian Compromis with 4, and Nueva Canarias with 1. A total of 180 votes out of 350 seats in the chamber. It was an unstable majority, but one that was willing to join together in opposition to the conservative policies of Rajoy and the possibility of a new government of the right. But it didn’t. The Catalan ERC and PDeCAT voted down Sanchez’s budget proposal on Wednesday, 13 February, a day after the trial of the Catalan leaders had started at the Supreme Court in Madrid. The lack of a compromise by the Socialist government of Sanchez with Catalonia has condemned it to failure. As evidence has shown, the Spanish centre-left does not have a different notion of Spain than its right-wing rivals.

Sanchez’s government started as a promising political project. The government promised a softening of austerity, an alternative to Salvini’s inhumane migration policies, dialogue instead of repression with Catalonia, and constructive support toward the European federalism represented by Macron and other centrist Europeans. However, it failed to deliver any of those.

On the first hand, it didn’t succeed in setting a higher deficit target from that set on the deficit reduction path previously agreed with the European Commission. Although a modest increase of 0,5% of the deficit target, from 1,3% to 1,8% was passed by the Parliament in July 2018, the Senate controlled by the Popular party, in its prerogative vetoed the target and forced the government to adapt to the pre-established target of 1,3%.

In its first days the new government opened the ports of Spain’s to the NGO ships that rescue people in the Mediterranean Sea and that were denied access to Italian ports. These first humanitarian actions were contradicted very soon at the European Council of early June 2018 by Sanchez’s backing of German and French opposition to reform the Dublin Accords for turning asylum into common European policy. Nowadays Spain denies NGO ships the right to leave Spanish ports and it applies a savage policy of closing the southern border from immigrants through various illegal and violent practices as for instance ‘hot devolutions’ (illegally returning people that have entered Spanish soil via Morocco).

Sanchez has also disappointed recently with his submission to Trump’s imperialistic foreign policy with his recognition of Guaido as president of Venezuela. But what has condemned his presidency is his abandonment of the attempt to build bridges with Catalan institutions and sovereigntist social majority. Although he made some timid attempts at proposing dialogue, in the end he buckled under  the pressure and accusations of allying with those wanting to destroy Spain’s unity by the three vociferous right wing parties, which when it comes to Catalonia have extreme right discourses similar to those of old Spanish fascism. Sanchez surrendered to the old strategy used by the Spanish right in the past with the Basque conflict, in which any attempt of dialogue with Basque nationalist forces by a Social Democrat (PSOE) government to resolve the Basque conflict was framed as supporting terrorism, whereas when in government Aznar’s PP considered the attempts at negotiating ETA’s disarmament as peace negotiations.

Sanchez, above all, has lacked a vision for Spain, a vision to move Spain beyond the current deadlock, which in fact entails a courageous political solution for the Catalan conflict, be that a referendum of self-determination, or a serious offer of administrative reform toward confederalism with respect to national sovereignty of the nations within Spain, including the liberation of Catalan political prisoners. Sanchez, a tactician, empty of ideology beyond staying in power has placed a short-sighted bet expecting that  the PSOE could recover in the polls with cosmetic politics and policies, but without any serious commitment. However, a relatively progressive budget, with higher social protection expenditure and more investment in infrastructure, especially in Catalonia, was the main tool to prolong such a superficial government. This has failed as it was an insufficient proposal for the Catalan pro-independence parties whose leaders are in prison or exile and obviously are under critical pressure from their electorates not to re-establish regular political agreements with what many consider the Spanish enemy (PSOE backed triggering article 155 of the Constitution to intervene the institutions of Catalonia and remove its government) in an exceptional time. Such pressure stems from popular frustration caused by the Catalan government’s failure to deliver what was promised as a relatively easy step: independence from Spain if the referendum vote was successful.

Predictably, even before the motion of censure succeeded (the first time in the history of Spanish parliamentarism), the government of Sanchez was extremely weak already. On the one hand he was constrained by his own party on crucial matters regarding the preservation of the status quo in Spain, such as the conflict over Catalonia and the unity of Spain, labour policies, freedom of speech and demonstration rights, foreign policy in relation to the EU, the monetary union and the sovereignty of Venezuela, migration policy as a southern border member state of the EU, and by its close relationship with the economic elites. And on the other hand, it had a debt toward the political parties that had supported its candidacy in the motion of censure. It was to be expected that an alternative political project would allow a new horizon for the country to emerge based on social and civil rights and greater economic justice as demanded by the left-wing forces supporting the government, and based on the real recognition of national diversity that makes up the Spanish state, as demanded by the Basques and the Catalans. These expectations have been maintained until recently despite the fact that the Spanish political scene has been evolving towards extreme right-wing positions, culminating in two particular moments: the recent election in the region of Andalucia, in which the new far-right party VOX, connected both to the most belligerent Francoism as with Salvini, Le Pen and Bannon, managed to become a member of the new right-wing government; and the demonstration in Madrid by the three right-wing parties (Partido Popular, Ciudadanos and VOX) to vindicate the unity of Spain and the need for general elections claiming that Sanchez was a traitor in colluding with the separatists.

Sanchez, therefore, in between of two antagonistic forces that could topple his government, has chosen to tactically postpone everything to try to survive for as long as possible, as he has reached the conclusion that in the medium term there is no possible successful development for his actual precarious political position. The surprise factor, the divisions and lack of consolidation of the right-wing bloc, the precarious situation of a Left plagued with internal fights, and the moderate strength of Basque and Catalan sides at Spanish level, can play in his favor. In addition, he probably bears in mind the experiences of other social democratic governments in Europe, like in Greece and France to give only two examples, that have tried to manage politically explosive situations. This is why he has hurriedly called a general election.

In this election the most successful parties will be those that show less contradictions, and that can highlight those of the others. All parties have powerful contradictions to hide:

  • PSOE: as already mentioned, Sanchez’s social democrats can be labelled as traitors by the Left and by the Basques and the Catalans, as well as by the Right.
  • PP: the Popular Party struggles to forget the corruption that threw Rajoy out of government.
  • Ciudadanos: supposedly a liberal party, it does not want to be labelled as far-right despite collaborating with VOX in Andalusia, participating with it the Madrid demonstration, and having declared that it will never form a government with traitor Sanchez, thus only considering other options to the right. Its position on the right is probably the most fragile, as it is squeezed between the party that it wanted to replace (PP) and the new, more extreme and demagogue brand (VOX).
  • VOX: it will try to hide its lack of an integrating project, lack of policy in many areas and, above all, xenophobic, macho, aggressive, and totalitarian tendencies with respect to other political and territorial options. That is to say, the rancid Spanish fascism disguised as something new.
  • Unidos Podemos: it will try to cover up its internal fights and splits, to reduce the damage already done, and will emphasize that the PSOE wanted to govern with a budget with its signature.
  • Catalan pro-independence parties: they will hide that they vetoed a progressive budget as did the anti-Catalan right, leading to the fall of Sánchez’s government, one that formed an alternative against Rajoy.
  • Basque nationalists (PNV): they will distance themselves from their role as mediators in the Catalan crisis of 2017. Among all the parties it has the easiest task.
  • Basque Left (EH-Bildu): they will try to keep moving away from their identification with ETA.

Beyond such serious weaknesses plaguing all parties, another factor of uncertainty will be that the election will take place a month before the three simultaneous elections that will take place in May: municipal elections, regional elections in 13 out of the 17 autonomous communities (Spanish regions), and the European election. Thus, the configuration of the political scenario in Spain in the second half of 2019 is full of uncertainties. With polls showing PSOE in the first position with almost 10% difference with respect to the second party, Sanchez has made a risky bet for a good result in the general election and expecting that it will have an important impact on the rest of elections in May. It is highly likely that negotiations to form a government in Spain will influence both local and regional votes, and above all, government alliances in important municipalities and autonomous communities. The traditional bipartisanship of the second Borbonic restoration started in 1978 has ended and neither society nor political actors are prepared to give reasonable answers to the real problems of the population. Finally, the response of the Spanish ‘real powers’ (a term widely used during the alleged negotiation of the 1978 Constitution) will be to try to pilot the negotiation of the entire package resulting from the 2019 electoral super-month (from late April to the end of May) as many are predicting a new economic crisis for which a tied-up multilevel neoliberal political alliance must be ready to implement new rounds of unpopular policies in order to protect the interests of the Spanish ruling class and to keep in line with the Eurozone policy framework.

It was to be expected that the new modern Left would have made a more accurate diagnosis of the political situation and political proposals with more vision and depth. However, one could say that it has made all the same old mistakes of the past, even amplifying some of them. It would have been desirable, and still would be, that the construction of a political project of its own, unrelated to social-liberal compromises, was the main priority for retaking the political initiative to gather broader social support. Such willingness to push beyond neoliberal business as usual would have helped the public to identify how such a project is different from the government of the PSOE, it would, for instance, have reduced the temptation of excessively publicising the current budget proposal, distant from what ought to be a more ambitious political project. It would have been useful too that political debate would not have been replaced by short-sighted popularity-seeking tactics, helping to clarify whether the internal fights emerged from differences of ideas and political projects, or as many claim, personal interests and power games. It was also to be hoped that it had distanced itself from the Sanchez government much earlier, given its multiple disloyalties, political inconsistencies, and differences in such important issues as labour rights, freedom of expression, migration, and the rights of the peoples of Spain to self-determination. In Spain especially, the electorate usually chooses the original, the owner of the copyright, when faced with two very similar options. Given a choice between two social democratic options, moderate progressive voters will always choose PSOE, who promotes similar policies to Podemos but wearing a tie and a suit.

It is highly unlikely that the new Left will be able to solve its problems in the two months remaining before the general elections (or three months for local, regional and European elections). Achieving a strong and clearly differentiated political project from the party in government, led by a coherent and legitimised list of political leaders, is extremely difficult to achieve. Even more so when during the last three years the mechanisms have not been created and the inertias that should allow to make the right decisions in the key moments have moved in the opposite direction. The most likely strategy of the new Left will be defensive one, arguing that it has turned Spanish politics to the left, attempting to maintain the results in the main municipalities of the country to build stronger base for the project, and waiting for the next opportunity to deal with the impossible task of creating a more coherent narrative that allows it to criticise the devastating dynamics of the Eurozone without sounding eurosceptic.

The Left must move toward a more audacious political position, one which confronts financialised capitalism in Spain and internationally, and which aspires to democratise and decentralise state power. Challenging private ownership in banking and proposing strict regulation of financial markets is central. A credible proposal to make possible that Catalan society can vote to decide on its self-determination, not in a remote future, but in the near one, is a second indispensable step for such politics of the future. The Spanish organic political crisis is a combination of centuries-old territorial grievances with the worst financial and economic crisis that global capitalism has seen in almost a hundred years. Without serious proposals to move forward in those areas any new political project of the Left will not survive long.

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