Héctor Sierra explains a tumultuous year in the Spanish state as the maneuverings of the right in the Socialist Party forced out leader Pedro Sánchez for wanting to work with left wing Podemos.
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s words describe accurately the situation the Spanish state has gone through in the past year. Great expectations had arisen among activists five years ago. Following the outbreak of the economic crisis and the brutal austerity packages imposed on the working class by the European Troika and successive governments, the greatest mobilisations seen in decades took the streets. These protests gave birth to the 15-M camps or the anti-eviction campaigners’ movement (PAH) — the Spanish version of Occupy.
The pillars of post-dictatorship Spain looked like they were crumbling. The king appointed by General Franco as his successor was forced to abdicate and hand over to his son in order to save the monarchy’s face. The two-party system, with Socialists (PSOE) and Conservatives (PP) fighting over who would be a more obliging servant of big business, felt threatened for the first time by the abrupt and meteoric rise of anti-austerity party Podemos.
And the unity of the country, the cornerstone on which all the other ideological pillars were built, was severely endangered by massive pro-independence demonstrations in Catalonia ending up in the formation last year of a parliamentary majority officially seeking to split from Spain.
Unfortunately, Podemos leaders’ stress on parliament as their main battlefield made it inevitable that, when general elections were held in December 2015 and Podemos only came third, people’s hopes in the party’s ascent were dashed. The poor result appeared to be an insurmountable obstacle. The exclusive focus on the need to be in office led them down a path of compromise.
The only way Podemos leaders could accomplish their objective and be part of the coming government was by making an alliance with PSOE. But that meant abandoning their rhetoric about PSOE and PP being two faces of the same coin, a widespread feeling among many sectors of the working class that had precisely made possible the emergence of Podemos in the first place. Thus, PSOE’s leader Pedro Sánchez overnight became “one of the progressive forces of change” in Podemos leaders’ speeches.
Nevertheless, Sánchez needed more support than that of Podemos to be president. That could only come from either Basque and Catalan nationalist parties, who in exchange for their backing would ask for a referendum on independence or further devolution of powers (unacceptable for PSOE), or from Ciudadanos (Citizens), an unapologetic neoliberal party artificially boosted by the mainstream media to counteract Podemos’s rise. Ciudadanos was the choice of the Socialist leader, based on the belief that to have a right wing counterweight in the coalition government would give him margin to ignore Podemos’s more radical proposals.
But no agreement was reached. After Sánchez’s failed attempt to form a government, new elections were called — a first in Spanish history.
Meanwhile, voices against the manoeuvres of PSOE’s leader had begun to make themselves heard. The ruling class owned media was putting forward the cause for socialists to let the conservative PP, the force which had received the highest number of votes, continue governing “for the sake of stability”, and sectors within PSOE’s leadership bodies rushed to echo these arguments.
The situation only got worse when the second elections arrived in June 2016 and voters didn’t deliver any change that could unblock the situation. Renewed hopes among the left after Podemos and the United Left agreed to run a joint candidacy turned into despair when their results together were not above those obtained by Podemos alone six months previously. More disturbingly, the right wing PP was showing signs of recovery after years of losses.
Pressure was huge this time to allow conservative PP member Mariano Rajoy to become president. The editorials of mainstream newspapers began to spell out what their masters wanted, and the European Union made its authoritarian nature felt one more time, threatening economic sanctions if Spanish parties failed again to form a government.
But Sánchez and the sectors behind him rightly thought that by backing the right they would only accelerate the transfer of votes from PSOE to Podemos and so they withstood the pressure. As a result, as with Sánchez before him, Rajoy did not obtain the level of support required to be president.
The country was now heading into the third general election in less than a year —and that was a level of uncertainty the ruling class was not used to dealing with. Its methods were about to get authentically nasty.
On 30 September ex-president Felipe González (PSOE guru and link between the political establishment, big business and media conglomerates) appeared in a radio broadcast and gave the order: Sánchez was driving the party towards disaster and something had to be done.
A few hours later 17 PSOE high rank members handed in their resignation to Sánchez in order to force him out. When he refused to resign, the next day every single mainstream newspaper’s front page was placing the blame on Sánchez for the country’s situation and asking the party to get rid of him. The editorial of El País went as far as to call him “foolish and ruthless”. Other senior members of the party made statements claiming he was no longer in command of the party.
The bureaucrats of the PSOE had found themselves in a contradictory situation in which defending the interests of the party would mean going against their own interests as members of the ruling class. They had no doubt of where their loyalty should lay.
On 1 October the coup was finally staged. The plotters called an emergency party meeting and for more than ten hours Sánchez’s supporters and opponents exchanged insults without being able to engage in any real discussion. One of his detractors even tried to physically attack Sánchez. Meanwhile, enraged Sánchez sympathisers and militants gathered outside the building. They held banners calling those involved in the coup fascists and traitors and many declared they would leave the party if Sánchez was forced out.
The plotters refused to open the debate to the grassroots of the party. At some point during the night they managed to rush a show of hands vote in front of the press on the continuity of Sánchez’s leadership. As expected, he was defeated and immediately afterwards he announced his resignation.
The puppets of the capitalist bosses had asserted their hold over the party. In barely 48 hours the ruling class had managed to remove what they saw as a threat.
As with Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Sánchez had become the main target of his own party. The difference, though, was that unlike his British counterpart, he had no grassroots movement he could possibly have relied on to defend him. He never had any intention of reforming his party or taking part in the social movements unfolding in Spain.
Paradoxically, when Sánchez ran his candidacy to lead a declining PSOE two years ago he had enjoyed the enthusiastic support of most of the mainstream media, unlike other candidates further to the left. He had been entrusted with the mission of ending the crisis of the party and of the whole state. He was sacrificed once it became clear to everyone but himself that both things were not possible.
The way is now paved for four more years of conservative rule, a precious time the capitalist state hopes to use to continue enforcing the neoliberal agenda. There is very little doubt that Mariano Rajoy will be sworn in as president within the next weeks. So far, with many senior members of PP being tried over illegal funding of the party and large scale embezzlement of public funds, and with strong evidence that even Rajoy is involved in the scandal, the new board in charge of PSOE claims that the outcome of the trial should not be an obstacle to a successful understanding between the two main parties.
As a result, the leaders and activists in Podemos and the United Left will at the very least find themselves isolated in parliament, and helpless without the movements they turned their backs on. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Podemos is a product of the political crisis, not its cause, and therefore uncertainty and instability will go on with them or without.
The main threat posed to the Spanish ruling class now is that of the Catalan and Basque working classes pushing forward with their split from Spain from the left. It has always been that, and not Podemos, that really frightens the Spanish elites.
The historic failure of the Spanish left to see that has led it to continuously dig its own grave. Podemos showed a different approach to the issue, but it soon aligned itself with reactionary forces to prove the statesmanship and responsibility of its leaders. With no pact in sight anymore, that might change soon.
Héctor Sierra is a Spanish socialist based in London.
On 29 October, a new vote of confidence was held in the Spanish parliament on conservative Mariano Rajoy. Following the orders of the provisional board in charge of the party, 68 out of 83 PSOE MPs abstained, while 15 (18%) disobeyed and voted no. Rajoy was elected president thanks to these abstentions, putting an end to the 300 day blockade.