Can Europe Make It?

The unexpected rise of Pedro Sánchez

The rise of PSOE to government does not guarantee deep political change in Spain, but it makes Unidos Podemos a central actor, for Sánchez needs its support.

Pablo Castaño
4 June 2018

Spain's new Prime Minister and Socialist party (PSOE) leader Pedro Sanchez during swearing in ceremony in Madrid. PPE/Press Association. All rights reserved.

The Spanish Parliament has ousted prime minister Mariano Rajoy, who will be replaced by socialist Pedro Sánchez after the success of his no confidence motion. This dramatic turn in Spanish politics seemed impossible only a week ago, when Rajoy’s conservative minority government obtained the parliamentary approval of its 2018 budget with the support of centre-right Ciudadanos and the Basque Nationalist Party.

However, a decision by the National Audience last May 25 changed everything. The court found several Popular Party (PP) officials and the party itself guilty for a setting up a wide corruption scheme since 1989, which led the Socialist Party (PSOE) leader Pedro Sánchez to present a no confidence motion. After a vertiginous week of negotiations among parties, on June 1 the majority of the Parliament supported the motion, ousting Rajoy from the prime minister office and electing Sánchez. The rise of PSOE to government does not guarantee a deep political change in Spain but it opens a new political period in which Unidos Podemos will be a central actor, for Sánchez needs its support.

Pedro Sánchez

Pedro Sánchez has gone through surprising political transformations throughout the last years. After the 2016 general elections, when PP lost its previous majority, Sánchez refused to support Rajoy’s investiture, but a rebellion of the Socialist Party apparatus overthrew Sánchez and the provisional direction of PSOE decided to allow Rajoy’s second term as prime minister – instead of forming a progressive government with Unidos Podemos and the Catalan and Basque nationalist parties.

In 2017, the distressed PSOE experienced another dramatic upheaval: Pedro Sánchez surprisingly won the primaries and was re-elected as secretary general, despite the opposition of the party apparatus and mass media. Sánchez seduced the socialist militants with an unequivocally anti-austerity discourse and the recognition that Spain is a plurinational state. However, Sánchez’s left turn did not last long. He refused to promote a no confidence motion against Rajoy and he supported the conservative government’s hard line against the Catalan pro-independence movement.

The decision of the National Audience on the illegal funding of the Popular Party has triggered a new turn in Sánchez’s strategy. Short after the publication of the judicial decision, the socialist leader registered a no-confidence motion, which immediately received the support of Pablo Iglesias’ party, Unidos Podemos (Iglesias himself had previously tried to oust Rajoy through another no-confidence motion, which had not been supported by PSOE). However, the Unidos Podemos MPs did not succeed in procuring a majority. They also needed the Catalan and Basque nationalists.

Catalan and Basque nationalist parties

Catalan nationalists decided to support Sánchez as a lesser evil than Rajoy, who has responded to the Catalan pro-independence movement with heavy repression and the suspension of the region’s self-rule for months. The case of the Basque nationalists was more complex: they supported Rajoy’s budget less than two weeks ago, in exchange for large investments in the Basque Country, but they did not want to appear as the saviours of a corrupt Rajoy. In addition, the Basque Nationalist Party was afraid of an immediate general election, for polls suggested a possible victory for the Spanish centralist party Ciudadanos, which threatens Basque financial autonomy. These two considerations led the Basques to support the no confidence motion, condemning Mariano Rajoy to parliamentary destitution.

The new political situation in Spain is uncertain but hopeful. The margin of manoeuver for Pedro Sánchez’s socialist government will be limited until the end of the year, for it will apply the budget elaborated by Rajoy’s government.

However, the new government could reverse the most harmful policies of the PP when it comes to job precarisation, the repression of social mobilizations, the weakening of public services and introduction of obstacles for renewable energies.

The PSOE government depends on the support of Unidos Podemos and Catalan and Basque nationalists, which at least to some extent will force Sánchez to address the most urgent social needs of Spanish society and begin a dialogue with the Catalan pro-independence government.

Both will represent a leap forward in comparison with Mariano Rajoy’s disdain for the suffering of large swathes of the population and his choice of repression to address the Catalan crisis. Pedro Sánchez will not lead a radical government that will end austerity overnight, but it represents a rare source of hope in today’s Europe, growingly dominated by renewed neoliberalism and a rising far-right.

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