Is Spain’s democracy too resilient for Pedro Sánchez to ruin?

My new book exploring the causes of the deterioration of leadership in Europe over at least the last two generations has identified some alarming outcomes.

But in Spain there has been an unexpected denouement.

A mainstream party has embraced extremists on the left committed to raw socialism as well as prosecution of US-style culture wars. Separatists, some with a background in terrorism, have been treated as respectable coalition partners and offered state positions and a big say on policy.

A project that some see as a bid to reconstruct the nation around the agenda of one faction in the political world, has been the brainchild of an ambitious middle-class adventurer Pedro Sánchez. He has fought five elections as leader and so far has not obtained a governing majority in any one of them. But he has still been able to rule Spain for the past five years and pushed through many controversial measures. This is because he has been prepared to ally with previously marginalised fringe forces on condition that he incorporate some of their policy planks. He has not held his nose in the process but instead seems to relish the belief that it is time for Spain to live dangerously.

To the dismay of many in the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) arguably the chief political actor in the Spanish democratic transition that got underway in the second half of the 1970s, its current leader has rejected the need for balance and moderation. He has sought to demonstrate that pragmatism and restraint are obsolete. He feels instead that it is a time for fierce contestation in order to awaken Spain from a parochial slumber. His hope is that Spain can be a front-runner in creating a new global progressive order. His inspiration comes less from the EU or the USA and more from Latin America where middle-class radicals have sought to impose a brand of authoritarian personality politics on disparate nations.

He has provoked a backlash from conservative nationalists in the Vox party which scarcely existed a decade ago but is now the third main political force. But the good news is that Sánchez lacks a critical mass of supporters, and many Spaniards are prepared to prevent him reviving ideological trench warfare which, in the 1930s, led to Spain tumbling into a disastrous civil-war. Even the Vox party has not risen to the bait as he has sought to politicise ((hitherto dormant) civil-war memories by various provocative gestures.

A general election is being held on 23 July when it normal for much of Spain to bake in temperatures approaching 40 degrees centigrade. The unexpected move was taken in order to limit the scale of the defeat most commentators assumed the government was facing when its term was over at the end of the year. Sánchez and his party had suffered a crushing defeat in elections for autonomous regions and municipalities held on 28 May. He found it difficult to defend a feeble economic record and was often not welcome on the campaign trail in places where his unpopularity was seen as a liability for the party. Indeed, in no other set of elections for these administrative tiers in a very decentralised country has PSOE suffered losses on anything like this scale.

It was thus seen as odd that Sánchez called a snap general election straight away. He hoped to wrong-foot his main challenger, the centre-right Popular Party and go before voters as ‘the come-back kid’. But in a presidential style campaign he proved insipid and lacklustre. Instead of setting out an interesting or appealing policy agenda he concentrated a wave of attacks on his opponents.

Alberto Núñez Feijóo, his chief opponent, was seen as compromised because he had once been photographed in the company of an alleged smuggler thirty years previously. In the only television debate between the two main leaders, held on 10 July, the cerebral Feijóo eclipsed Sánchez who came across as a nervous aspirant for office rather than as Prime Minister.

Sánchez continues, however, to be admired from afar as a glamorous and smooth figure, one who has retained his good looks into his fifties. The view of many Spaniards, irrespective of their party allegiance, that he is someone without any strong principles who is addicted to personal power has scarcelybeen communicated in West European media outlets.

He has worked out that his greatest chance of enjoying the fruits of office at home and being a notable figure in European decision-making circles lies in making common cause with the far-left. This Faustian pact has not led to condemnation at EU level. Insouciance is displayed in Brussels towards his readiness to tear up conventions about the separation of powers that were inserted into the 1978 Constitution, underpinning the new democratic era. He has inserted followers who share his dogmatic and cynical attitude to power not only in the party but increasingly across the apparatus of the Spanish state. What is condemned if it occurs in certain post-communist lands is seen as excusable in Spain. European decision-makers, some with far-left backgrounds themselves, continue to be far more animated by the dark night of Francoist repression in Spain than they ever were by the more systematic and intrusive repression that occurred east of Vienna between 1945 and 1989.

Sánchez’s main political weapon is the moral superiority enjoyed by his left-wing followers, very few of whom spring from the working-class but are to be found among educators, media figures, favoured NGOs, and bureaucrats. As elsewhere the post-working-class left sees itself on the right side of history. In Spain the contention is that it now faces a particularly dark set of forces with roots in the 1939-75 Franco dictatorship.

Sánchez’s well-honed self-righteous streak enables him to focus on appearing modern, progressive, and virtuous while having an often negligent approach to governmental responsibilities. This was perhaps never more obvious when he allowed a clumsily drawn-up law to be introduced by a far-left ally, supposedly meant to crack down on violence against women but which instead allowed hundreds of people already condemned for such a crime to have their sentences reduced.

Ultimately, his posture of moral virtue grates with too many Spaniards to be an effective politician weapon. Franco’s arguably most important political legacy, was the creation of a large middle-class with pragmatic instincts. Appeals to partisanship worked when Spain was socially polarised into haves and have-nots and class animosities were intensely felt. But for fifty years there has been a widespread desire for low-key competence rather than passion and experimentation at the top of government.

It is the misfortune of Sánchez that his main opponent, the leader of the Popular Party (PP) Feijóo, comes over as an efficient centrist with a serious approach to governmental responsibilities. His fiscally conservative and socially liberal party has consolidated its hold on the political centre where most Spaniards continue to be found. Sánchez has partly compensated for the defection of moderates by an influx of new support from both the previously ill-led far-left and the Catalan nationalists whose performance has disillusioned many adherents. The concessions Sánchez has made to radicals and the fact that he rarely bothers to mentions Spain in his public utterances facilitates such a movement.

But veteran Socialists are furious that he has ditched the social democratic legacy of the party. Dismay is expressed that he has given positions of power to parties which viewed the 1978 constitution, the cornerstone of Spanish democracy, as a continuation of Francois by other means.

No less than 24 of the 71 ministers who served under the last two Socialist Prime Ministers have refused to give an endorsement to Sánchez. One of them, Juan Alberto Belloch, has declared that ‘Pedro Sánchez has decided all that matters is power and everything else is unimportant’.

The term, Sanchismo, denoting egotism, improvisation, and the lack of a national project is often seen as a right-wing slur but the term was first coined by his own predecessor as party leader, the late Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba. Democratic Spain’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Felipe González, has made a point of reaching out to Feijóo. The veteran socialist has quietly asserted the continuing need to occupy the centre ground in order to safeguard a nation historically prone to ideological polarisation. But another socialist, César Antonio Molina, a former minister of culture, has not been as reticent. He has warned that Sánchez is on ‘the road to authoritarianism’. He believes that his bid to ‘colonise the state’ violates the separation of powers upon which a democratic Spain is based. He is in no doubt that the defeat of Sánchez is necessary for the reconstruction and survival of PSOE.

If the historic party of the left is badly wounded, the beneficiary will undoubtedly be the far-left. A changing of the guard has occurred, with the Podemos party which emerged in 2015, being replaced by a federation of left parties called Sumar (which means ‘Add up’). Its architect is the forceful minister of labour and the social economy, Yolanda Diaz. She has revived the fortunes of the long moribund Spanish Communist party and has had a campaign that perhaps even Madonna would hail for its unabashedly egocentric character. Its emphasis has been placed not on importing US-style culture wars which backfired badly on Podemos, but on economic redistribution. At the start of the campaign Diaz promised to give a handout of €20,000 to each Spaniard when they turned 18, to be paid for by a tax on the wealthy.

The gesture was dropped after it provoked an outcry. But it led to parallels being made between her and another blonde social radical Eva Peron. She was famous for her redistribution zeal as minister of labour in Argentina 75 years ago and she made an unlikely but effective alliance with the Argentinian caudillo Juan Peron.

Diaz, the daughter of an imprisoned communist trade-unionist, and Sánchez work well together. But despised his alleged Caesarist tendencies, he still seems unlikely to carve out the place in history that the Perons managed to do. Too many Spaniards see him as a man on the make. As one commentator wrote recently:

‘The list of his flagrant lies is endless and many Spaniards already know it by heart: that he would not pardon the Catalan coup plotters, that he would not govern with Podemos, that he would not repeal sedition, that he could not imagine a government in which half of its ministers defended the self-determination of Catalonia, that he would not agree with Bildu [former Basque terrorists], are some of the most far-reaching’.

In his defence, Sánchez insists that changes of position have been forced upon him by altered circumstances and that he is no less dishonest than other politicians. But he has trampled over too many people and left too many casualties in his wake to impose his will on a democracy that was carefully constructed to foil ruthless power-grabs.

An uninhibited and sinuous Sánchez-type could possible do much greater damage on the other side of the Pyrenees than in Spain where people have learned the hard way not to let their politicians get away with murder.

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