New PSOE leader Sánchez faces uphill struggle to unite Spanish left

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He’s a disarmingly handsome economics professor, and he’s the first major Spanish party leader who grew up chiefly in the post-Franco era and in the era of Spanish democracy.Spain_Flag_Icon

But Pedro Sánchez, who leapfrogged the more well-known Eduardo Madina to become the leader of Spain’s Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) earlier this month, and who will assume the leadership later this week, will have his work cut out for him before elections that will take place within the next 17 months, with the party’s traditional voting base increasingly supporting both new and established alternatives on the Spanish left. 

Sánchez (pictured above), just 42 years old, has only been a member of the Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), the lower house of the Spanish parliament, the Cortes Generales, from 2009 to 2011 and  since January 2013, representing Madrid, where he served as a city councillor for the preceding five years.

Sánchez won the PSOE’s first direct contest to elect the party’s general secretary in a three-way race, with 48.7% of all votes against just 36.1% for Madina and 15.1% for the more left-wing José Antonio Pérez Tapias.

Though Madina, at age 38, is even younger than Sánchez, he’s been a member of the Congress of Deputies since 2004 and the secretary-general of the PSOE’s congressional caucus since 2009. A Basque federalist, he was perceived as the frontrunner in the race, especially after taking a republican stand in the aftermath of Juan Carlos I’s abdication from the throne. But the favorite to lead the PSOE, Andalusia’s 39-year-old regional president, Susana Díaz, endorsed Sánchez instead, as did many former officials from the administration of former prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, including former public works and transportation minister José Blanco.

That effectively lifted the more unknown Sánchez, who holds a doctorate in economics, above Madina, who once lost part of his left leg in a Basque nationalist bomb blast.

On his election, Sánchez declared the ‘beginning of the end of Rajoy,’  challenging the unpopular center-right government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy, which has presided over the worst of Spain’s recent economic crisis.

Not so fast. 

Though Sánchez has said that he looks to Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, another center-left reformer, for inspiration, it’s not clear that Sánchez will emerge as the PSOE’s most credible prime ministerial candidate. Sánchez will have to compete separately in primaries to become the PSOE’s candidate in the general election that must be held before December 2015, leaving open speculation that Sánchez is merely  a stalking horse for Díaz, who has nevertheless ruled out running for prime minister for now. Sánchez could also face competition from other familiar faces who demurred from the leadership contest, such as former defense minister Carme Chacón and the former Basque regional president (lehendakari) Patxi López.

Sánchez’s predecessor, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, stepped down after the PSOE’s horrible showing in the May 25 European parliamentary elections. The party won just 23.0% of the vote, a 15.8% swing from its result in the 2009 European elections. Those elections marked a more widespread turn away from Spain’s two major parties. Though Rajoy’s governing Partido Popular (PP, the People’s Party) led with 26.1% of the vote, it marked a 16.0% swing from the PP’s 2009 result.

Instead, voters are turning to alternatives to both the PP and the PSOE, both of which have records of raising taxes and cutting government spending since the 2008-09 financial crisis that popped Spain’s real estate bubble and brought to an end an era of high growth and easy credit. Though the efforts of the Zapatero government and, since December 2011, the Rajoy government, have helped Spain avoid seeking a humiliating bailout from the European Union, those measures have come at a huge sacrifice — and any EU-backed bailout would have required similar austerity measures, possibly even more stringent than the ones that the Zapatero and Rajoy governments enacted.

In third place was the Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left), an alterntive leftist coalition dominated by the Partido Comunista de España (PCE, Communist Party of Spain), which could win more support in next year’s elections than at any other time since the IU’s foundation in 1986. Alberto Garzón, a 28-year-old IU deputy first elected in 2011, has quickly emerged as one of the most representative voices of a generation even younger than Sánchez’s. 

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But the real shock was the fourth-place winner, Podemos (which translates to ‘We can’), a new movement created only in March by political science professor Pablo Iglesias (pictured above), based in part from the 2011 anti-austerity protests and the generalized movement of Spain’s ‘indignados,’ the millions of workers who have suffered from the country’s economic collapse and who now reject both the PP and the PSOE. Though Spain’s economy is showing signs of improvement, and the unemployment rate has now dropped below 25% for the first time in two years, Spain’s economy remains one of the weakest within the European Union.

If it’s understandable why Zapatero and Rajoy felt compelled to take such stringent austerity measures, it’s understandable why the indignados no longer trust Spain’s political elite and why Basque and Catalan nationalist movements are flourishing. It’s easy to imagine a different course had EU policymakers placed a greater emphasis on easing the pain of Spain’s economic contraction. That’s not Sánchez’s fault — or even Zapatero’s fault — but the Spanish electorate may not care.

To succeed, Sánchez must unite Spain’s leftist voters behind the PSOE. The latest July 14 IaSexta poll shows that the PP would win 26.4% of the vote, the PSOE would win 22.7% of the vote, Podemos would win 12.1% and the IU would win another 11.2%.

Essentially, that means that the PSOE is winning just two out of every four potential voters, with each of the IU and Podemos siphoning off one-quarter of the PSOE’s potential supporters, leaving Rajoy’s conservatives in the lead for 2015. Upon his election as PSOE secretary-general Sánchez pledged a leadership as leftist as the PSOE’s grassroots members, and he’s aggressively trying to counter Iglesias and co-opt Podemos’s powerful appeal.

Sánchez will also face rising regional parties of the left. In the Basque regional elections nearly two years ago, Euskal Herria Bildu (EHB), a radical leftist coalition of ezker abertzalea (‘patriotic left’) groups competed for the first time after the landmark 2011 ceasefire deal between the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) and the Zapatero government. Though Sánchez, incredibly, won more votes in the PSOE contest in the Basque Country than Madina, he may find he’ll have a harder time winning over ezker abertzalea supporters in 2015.

In Catalunya, regional president Artur Mas called snap elections in December 2012 on the rising tide of Catalan nationalism (and seems certain to go through with plans for an independence referendum in November 2014), but the real winner in those elections wasn’t Mas’s governing center-right, nationalist Convergència i Unió (CiU, Convergence and Union), but the leftist, pro-independnece Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalunya), which gained 11 seats in the regional parliament.

The Catalan question, more than any, has caused policy fits for the PSOE. Under Rubalcaba, national and local PSOE leaders divided sharply over the independence referendum, and Rubalcaba was left looking like a meek bystander in the increasingly calcified standoff between Rajoy and Mas. As a federal party, the PSOE has traditionally opposed unilateral efforts to hold a Catalan independence referendum. But local Catalan PSOE officials credibly argue that Rajoy’s refusal to negotiate with the Catalan regional government on constitutional issues represents a slap at Catalan sovereignty. Sánchez must quickly formulate a position navigating the entrenched positions of Rajoy’s federal government and Mas’s Catalan executive that alienates neither federalists nor Catalan nationalists.

Despite the Rajoy government’s unpopularity, Spain’s economy will likely be enough on the mend by the end of next year that it’s possible to imagine Rajoy could win reelection. It’s a dynamic that is working similarly in favor of the governing, budget-cutting Conservative Party in the United Kingdom, which will hold a general election in May 2015. British prime minister David Cameron is perhaps now even a slight favorite to win reelection, much to the chagrin of center-left Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, whose once double-digit lead over the Tories has disappeared.

It’s all so daunting, you understand why so many of the PSOE’s heavy hitters passed on the leadership contest.

Sánchez must convince Spanish voters over the coming months that he’s truly leading the PSOE, not holding the leadership as a peacekeeper for Díaz or anyone else.

He must convince Spanish voters that the PSOE — and not the United Left or Podemos — can really formulate responsible policies that will give voice to the millions of unemployed and impoverished Spaniards who have suffered in equal measure under subsequent Zapatero and Rajoy governments. He must do this, by the way, while convincing moderate voters not to reward Rajoy for an economy that will likely be much improved in 17 months’ time.

He must convince Catalan (and Basque) nationalists that he can pave a third way on the thorny issues of constitutionalism and sovereignty that are now clearly the most existential threat Spain faces today, and that will come to the forefront as Mas holds the Catalan referendum in November.

Sánchez’s victory may mark the beginning of the end of Rajoy, but Sánchez will need to do a lot of fence-mending with the Spanish left, and not an insignificant amount of luck.

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