What should we expect of Spain’s new socialist government?

BY NICHOLÁS RUFO MENA, History and Politics UG

  • Pedro Sánchez, now the new Spanish PM after his successful vote of no-confidence against the conservative Mariano Rajoy, has appointed a cabinet of 11 women and 6 men.
  • An astronaut, an anti-homoeopathy doctor, and a climate change activist are some of the new members of the Spanish Council of Ministers.

When last week the Spanish Parliament had to debate the vote of no-confidence proposed by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) against the current conservative People’s Party (PP) government, nobody expected what was yet to come. Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Socialists, was once again a candidate for Prime Minister, not even two years after his first attempt. Sánchez had previously resigned from Parliament when a palace coup within his own party forced him out due to his firm opposition to Rajoy’s investiture. The December 2015 General Elections resulted in a hung parliament and the narrow victory of the incumbent PM, Mariano Rajoy, and his party. However, Sánchez was more likely to appeal to the left-wing Podemos and the centrist liberal Ciudadanos, thus King Philip VI appointed him to form a government. He failed, nonetheless, in conciliating both parties, and Spain went to the polls again in June 2016, giving this time a wider victory to the People’s Party, but with an executive still dependant on a hung parliament.

But when the long-running accusations of corruption and embezzlement to the People’s Party were confirmed by the High Court investigating the Gürtle Scandal, something in Spanish politics changed. The Parliament, even though remained stuck on the same gridlock after the 2016 elections, was now clearer on its opposition to Rajoy’s government. The two newest parties, Ciudadanos and Podemos, which are the main ideological opponents to both PP and PSOE respectively, had naturally adapted to the Parliament’s daily-life and to the new electorate. Ciudadanos, allegedly centrist, is now more pro-market and rightist, and it is clear in its defence of the State against Catalan separatists. Podemos, born in the massive demonstrations of 2011, had moved from what some would call “far-left” to a more social-democratic and moderate leftist position in order to appeal to a more centrist electorate. So, when Sánchez proposed a vote of non-confidence (which, according to the Spanish Constitution, must include a candidate for a new government), the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, stated that he would unconditionally support the initiative, contrary to what he did in 2016 when the failed negotiations of both parties led to Rajoy’s second term in office. On the other hand, Ciudadanos’ president, Albert Rivera, said he would only back the vote if the new cabinet was to call for new elections—his party is on the lead in most of the polls. However, with the smaller Catalan and Basque nationalist parties and Podemos supporting his proposal, Sánchez won the vote and was appointed new Spanish Prime Minister; Ciudadanos, otherwise, was the only party backing the Conservative government against the vote.

Sánchez’s new government is full of surprises, and yet, it still shows what his intentions are for the next two years left of the term. He was realistic in his acceptance speech at the Parliament—he could not govern with the Socialists’ 84 seats in a Parliament of 350 total seats. Even with the support of those parties that backed his investiture, he would still struggle to pass legislation and commit the long-overdue reforms that the Spanish Constitution requires. And he is also aware that public opinion is not very keen of what might be seen as a desperate attempt to seize power—note that his investiture was supported by separatist parties, and this may have upset his more centrist electorate. Hence, Sánchez’s long-term plan is to call for new elections before the term ends (2020). Yet, he cannot call for elections now as it would mean a presumably huge victory for Ciudadanos, now that the People’s Party has been painfully defeated.

Spain’s new cabinet of 18, including Sánchez himself, has 11 women and 7 men, which means more than a 60% of female members, the highest proportion in Europe and in Spain’s history. Women are given the most important roles in the cabinet, including Justice, Defence or Economy and the Treasury. Two of the male members—one of which is a famous TV presenter, journalist and writer, and now Minister of Culture—are openly gay, and their announce comes as a result of PSOE’s long support for LGTBQ rights after they legalise gay marriage in 2005.  Sánchez’s list includes Pedro Duque, the first Spanish astronaut and important researcher in the ESA, as Minister of Science, Carmen Montón, a doctor and strong voice against homeopathy and the privatisation of the national healthcare system, or Teresa Ribera, who worked alongside Sánchez to write the party’s manifesto for the last elections and is now Minister of Climate Change. This new office will have to deal with the consequences of global warming and lead Spain’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable resources. The cabinet is, in Sánchez’s own words, made up of people who “shared the same vision of a progressive society that was both modernising and pro-European”.

This government has a clear objective. It is made up of party colleagues but also from experienced figures from outside the Socialist Party and politics in general. The names of the new government have been dropped carefully and slowly, almost like music festival’s headlines, creating great expectancy among the press and the public opinion. Sánchez has opted for a smart move. He knows that the reforms people are asking for cannot be achieved during this term, considering the reality of the Parliament. Controversial reforms on workers’ rights, austerity measures and the eternal Catalan question are only a few of the points on the new government’s agenda. But with only 84 assured votes on the Congress of Deputies and an absolute majority of the conservative party in the Senate, he is aware that the socialist—and Podemos— will have to sacrifice the social policies of their manifestos. Furthermore, they will have to follow the conservative party’s 2018 budget, which had just been approved a few days before the vote of non-confidence on that same party. Therefore, we must consider this new government almost as a propagandistic prologue, an attempt to appeal to public opinion and the electorate in view of the future elections. The Spanish left has huge challenges ahead, and the rise of Ciudadanos on the right supposes a serious threat to their social programs. In PSOE, and probably in Podemos as well, they are preparing themselves for the new elections. This cabinet is formed for mass appeal: full of experts, technocrats and high-profile names. It would actually prove that they did not take the government for nothing and that their intentions, rather than their actual actions, are good; and mostly, that they are prepared. Then, eventually, it would pay off.

The People’s Party, now in an internal fight for power after Rajoy’s resignation on the leadership of the party, seems to be no longer a threat, at least in the short term; however, it is still the most voted party in regional and national levels, and it has been the main centre-right party since the Transition. His ability to heal their wounds should not be questioned. Ciudadanos, leading in polls and surveys, and his “regeneration” ideas are now being questioned after they backed alone the corrupt government in the vote of non-confidence. Moreover, this new attractive cabinet of experts has severely damaged their influence and appeal on the media and the celebrities; the party’s main way to win votes is approaching to high-profile personalities. Several actors and writers belong to the party, and they have potential candidates for Madrid and Barcelona’s major’s offices such as Literature Noble Prize awarded, Mario Vargas Llosa, or the former French PM, Manuel Valls. The renown and fame of the new ministers and its own composition have been a huge strike on Ciudadanos’ ability to attract the press and the public opinion, now that they seem to lead the opposition to the new government. On the other side of the aisle, Podemos and the main left-wing parties inside the alliance, face now a long journey until the elections to heal the damages caused by the media and an exhausting time fighting for the progressive alternative’s moral leadership in Spanish politics against PSOE. Yet, they have been waiting for this vote of non-confidence since Sánchez won the primaries and returned to PSOE’s, believing that this could open the door for a leftist coalition intended to win the elections. Their position is now obliged to support the socialist government they supported whilst also keeping a check that their policies remain on the left side of the political spectrum, and do not lean towards the centre and more moderate reforms.

It is clear then, that this government supposes a promising future for Spain, but that will, at some point, prove itself on elections. The political situation in Spain requires new elections to commit the reforms it has been delaying for too long. Employment policies, new reinvestments on public services and research, the Catalonian crisis and even constitutional reforms that may lead to the adoption of a federal system, are some of the challenges that Spain must face in the next few years. Such reforms depend on big majorities in each House of the Parliament. Pedro Sánchez’s hope is to wait long enough to let the Spanish people evidence the effect of their policies. In other words, to prove himself and his party’s ability to govern and lead after the terrible results in the recent elections and its internal crisis. But above party policies, this is a change for the Spanish and the European left and social-democracy. This, following the Portuguese success, can prove that social-democracy is finally recovering after the disastrous electoral results in Greece, France, Italy or the UK. What started in England with Jeremy Corbyn that most considered an “isolated case”, seems to be now spreading across Europe. The European Progressive Alliance has apparently healed from the repercussions of their mandates before and during the beginning of the 2008 economic crisis. The ghost of Zapatero’s last term is still haunting the Spanish Socialists since they lost the elections in 2011 after their poor handling of the economic consequences of the crisis. Spain’s new socialist government is now about to prove itself and their theories on the State and the economy and will try to succeed in order to gain the confidence of the electorate that will translate into further reforms. Whether or not this works, it is undeniably the beginning of an interesting period in Spanish and European politics, now that we prepare for the European Parliament Elections in 2019.

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