Analysis | A New Government: The Spain of Pedro Sánchez

Analysis | A New Government: The Spain of Pedro Sánchez

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Cameron Vaské

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Enter Pedro Sánchez
Washington, D.C.—On the 1st of June, the social democratic Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Worker's Party, i.e. PSOE) passed a vote of no confidence against then-President Mariano Rajoy in Congress and successfully installed the party leader Pedro Sánchez as President of Spain. The vote came just days after the Audiencia Nacional shed light upon the Gürtel Case—a corruption scandal of immense proportion. The PP (“Popular Party”) had been operating a kickbacks-for-contracts ring from their central office, receiving illegal donations from companies in exchange for public contracts on behalf of the government. It is believed that Rajoy also benefitted from the illegal system that his party managed to the tune of several hundred thousand euros. The scandal gave the PSOE the definitive opportunity to unseat Rajoy, drawing support from Catalan and Basque separatist parties that could no longer afford to politically back him.

This end has long been in the winds for the PP, which suffered negative shocks to public opinion time and again in the last years for various cases of corruption, the largest recent case in 2013, involving then Secretary of the Treasury Luis Bárcenas, who ran a slush fund funded by the government and reaping huge financial benefits for the PP. The harbinger of Rajoy's political demise came on May 24th, when Bárcenas was sentenced to 33 years in prison and fined a total of €44 million ($51.3 million) for involvement in the Gürtel case.

Following Rajoy’s departure not only from the presidency, but also his resignation as Leader of the PP and withdrawal from politics, the party has been left deeply fractured. Seven candidates now travel Spain to get out the vote and to retain some sense of a united party. However there is as yet no favored candidate, leading each to compete with one another for sponsorships from party veterans. Their concerted efforts to defeat one another in order to win the party leadership could potentially result in an even more divided and weakened party. The fate of the PP leadership now rests squarely support of the its affiliates and whom they choose to back.

El Momento Ciudadanos
For Ciudadanos, the non-traditional centre-right party, this comes as excellent news, for although Ciudadanos supported Rajoy and the PP in the vote, it has long sustained a strong anti-corruption policy stance and rhetoric—something that plays very well with voters, especially in the wake of Gürtel. Now that the PP has not only been ousted from the executive office but divided and tainted from the scandal, Ciudadanos has the opportunity to become the foremost centre-right party. Public support for Ciudadanos’ message will no doubt grow in the as the extent of the PP’s involvement in Gürtel makes its rounds in the press.

That makes now “El Momento Ciudadanos” for Albert Rivera, leader of the party. Ciudadanos will have little difficulty in exploiting the weakened state of the PP and PSOE’s minority government in order to gain further support from centrists on the right and left. Ciudadanos retains a strong base in the youth population and in the pro-business community, and sports a decidedly pro-European and anti-separatist stance on virtually all issues—views with which a majority of Spaniards identify strongly. Furthermore, by backing Rajoy in the vote, they left PSOE with no alternative but to rely on Catalan and Basque separatist votes from the PDeCAT,  ERC, EH Bildu, and the PNV, and the populist left votes of Unidos Podemos to oust Rajoy.

Although these parties share extremely few common policy views with PSOE, the new minority government now holds the stigma of having sided with these parties in order to gain the presidency. Being able to count on PP's congressional opposition to most PSOE legislation supported by an unprecedented minority government, Ciudadanos is now the key to legislative progress and policymaking. Ciudadanos is already capitalizing on PSOE's lack of domestic policy agenda. At the time of this writing, the first thing a visitor to the Ciudadanos website encounters is a recent quote from Inés Arrimadas—the opposition leader from Ciudadanos in the Catalonian Parliament: “The Sánchez Government is that of improvisation and easy advertising: it still has not explained its plan nor its agenda.” 

This sudden turn of events has the potential to leave a significant pool of voters disenchanted with the heretofore two main parties—voters who just might support Ciudadanos in the next Spanish general election and in the European parliamentary elections in 2019. In any case, it’s a good day for Albert Rivera.

On the Fringes
For the minute far-right VOX party, founded by former PP members, PSOE’s tie to these parties in the vote of no confidence bore some fruit as well. On June 3rd, two days after the vote of no confidence, a few thousand people filled the plazas and squares of Spain as part of an nation-wide event organized by VOX party to protest Sánchez’s “coup d’état.” Accusing Sánchez of having collaborated with the “enemies of Spain,” the protesters demanded his immediate withdrawal from office and call for a general election. At Madrid’s gathering, the President of VOX, Santiago Abascal, read the following to a sizable audience: “Today we are here to demand that Pedro Sánchez renounce the congressional support that he was given him by the votes of golpistas [those in favor of a coup d’état], Podemos communists, and ETA’s politicians. We are here today to demand of the representatives of our national sovereignty, to each and every one of them, that they end this infamous legislature. Give a voice to Spaniards.”

VOX has absolutely no congressional representation, polling at 0.2% in the 2016 general elections, and its anti-islam, eurosceptic, and nationalist rhetoric make it almost anathema to most Spanish voters. Yet the early June demonstrations serve to demonstrate the disillusionment of voters with the main parties, from which Podemos and Ciudadanos grew. The unique pro-European, anti-establishment nature of populist movements in Spain certainly spells greater support for Ciudadanos, Podemos, and other nascent parties in the future if PSOE and PP are unable to reinvent themselves and motivate their bases in the new climate. For the PSOE, everything is riding on Sánchez’s new government and its ability to demonstrate its value to voters ahead of the inevitable general elections in 2019 or early 2020.

The Sánchez Administration
Sánchez’s arrival in Moncloa was well received in the wider European political community. Following his swearing in, Sánchez proceeded to name a decidedly pro-European, reform-minded, all PSOE cabinet. The nomination of former President of the European Parliament Josep Borrell as Minister for Foreign Affairs was a calculated move to signal Spanish support for the European project and European reform. Reinvigorated Spanish support is a welcome change for the European Union following the rise of many eurosceptic populist parties across Europe, among them the new coalition government of Italy, which poses an existential threat to the European reform agenda championed by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angel Merkel. Sánchez’s addition of former Permanent Representative of Spain in the European Union, and Secretary General of the European Social and Economic Committee Luis Planas Puchades to his cabinet was also welcome news in Brussels.

Sánchez’s European agenda was outlined clearly this past Monday, when he debuted “a complete ‘Europeanist’ theory to justify the evident rupture in the historic Spanish  [political] tradition,” according to El País. Signaling his intention to build stronger ties with Paris and Berlin, Sánchez plans to lunch with Macron in the Eliseo Palace on Saturday, after which they will give a joint press appearance. Sánchez is expected to strengthen ties between Madrid and Paris and demonstrate Spanish support for Macron’s European economic and migration reform agenda. This is good news for Macron, as it will provide his agenda the legitimacy of support from a Southern European country that was hard struck by austerity measures during the 2008 fiscal crisis. Joining forces with Macron will also give Sánchez the authority to speak on behalf of the former “PIGS” countries in reform negotiations now that Spain has de facto replaced Italy as the voice of Southern Europe following the installment of a eurosceptic, far-right government there.

Following his appearance with Macron, Sánchez will travel to Berlin, where he have dinner with Merkel on Tuesday where he is expected to solidify his support for a cohesive and integral common European immigration policy. This is likely to be well-received in Spain where, unlike most European countries, the issue of immigration does not do much to fuel anti-establishment eurosceptics, but is generally seen as a pragmatic and humanitarian issue. This was well demonstrated this past week when Spain offered to receive the 630 African refugees denied entrance to Europe by the Italian Coast Guard and refused entrance in Malta. According to authorities, the new arrivals will be granted a “special authorization” to remain in the country for 45 days while each refugee’s request for asylum is examined case by case. Spain’s Minster of Development, José Luis Ábalos added that the government “will act with sensibility and at the same time with legality,  with a caution to Europe that there is yet a lack of a [common] migration policy to date.” Sánchez’s message to European policymakers could not be more clear: there is an overwhelming need for a common European migration policy. 

In receiving immigrants seeking refuge in Italy whose government is now dominated by the eurosceptic populist coalition of the Five-Star Movement, League, Forza Italia, and the Brothers of Italy, Sánchez further poised Spain to replace Italy as the third power in the Western axis leading Europe, together with France and Germany. 

However, although the new President projects the image of a strong, united new government in the European political sphere, in the domestic sphere the PSOE remains left with few resources to advance its national political agenda. PSOE holds only 85 of the 350 seats in the Congress of Deputees, Spain’s lower court, while the PP remains in the majority in the Senate. Because of this, Sánchez will likely be unable to pass more ambitious reforms over Spanish labor and tax policy. Instead, PSOE will probably be forced to focus on more moderate legislation that can still pass both chambers rather than developing a truly social democratic agenda.

Nonetheless, new government officials continue to insist that there is yet sufficient consensus in Congress to pass legislation on pensions, euthanasia, gag law, and labor reform. Though the idea of progressing with legislative reform given imminent elections is optimistic and ambitious, it is perhaps impractical. Carlos E. Cué writes in El País that, “when Sánchez won the vote of no-confidence, he installed in the political world the idea that he could govern, but he has practically no capacity to pass anything in Congress.”

On top of the lack of sufficient backing in Congress, Sánchez has little time left before calling for new elections. What Sánchez is able to do with the time he has remains to be seen, and the support he has to achieve it, much less than those of his predecessors. Even so, the European reform agenda now has another ally for now, and that is worth it in itself.


All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.


Crédito Fotográfico:

  1. Crédito Fotográfico: By Ministry of the President. Government of Spain, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69626925

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