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Will Spain Be the Savior of Social Democracy in Europe?

Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Spanish prime minister and Socialist Party leader Pedro Sánchez addressing supporters outside the PSOE headquarters, its façade covered by a giant election banner, Madrid, April 28, 2019

The performance of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) in last month’s Spanish general election, in which the party won a plurality of seats in the lower house of parliament and a majority in the upper house, was not just a remarkable recovery in fortunes for Spanish Socialists. By limiting the gains of Vox, a far-right party whose opposition to immigration, feminism, and LGBT rights echoes the values that prevailed during the Franco dictatorship, the PSOE’s victory has also lifted the spirits of social-democratic parties across Europe as they battle rising nationalism, secessionism, and skepticism about European integration.

By far the most enthusiastic response has come from neighboring France, where the Socialist Party has been in complete disarray since the end of François Hollande’s administration in 2017. The Spanish-born mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, hailed the PSOE as “a hope and an example for social democrats in Europe.” Her Socialist colleague, the party leader Olivier Faure, said: “The Socialists are showing a rebirth in Spain after being mocked and given up for dead.” 

On the surface, a Spanish-led social-democratic revival in Europe would seem an improbable proposition, given the terrible state of the center-left among the leading EU member-states. Since the last national elections in France, the Socialist Party has been reduced to political irrelevance, with support now standing at about 5 percent. In Italy’s 2018 elections, the mainly social-democratic Democratic Party won less than 19 percent of the vote. The Social Democratic Party of Germany won only 20 percent of the vote in the 2017 elections, its worst performance in the entire postwar period.  

For all of its own recent travails, the PSOE has never been as down on its luck as many of its peers are. This may have less to do with the PSOE itself than with the special circumstances of Spanish political history. The PSOE has always been able to count on the memory of General Franco, whose dictatorial rule lasted from the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 until his death in 1975, serving to curb the appeal of the far right.

But as the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy, Spain may also be both a leading indicator of, and a significant influence on, changing political tides in Europe. As some observers have noted, there is already a social-democratic wave gathering force through Europe’s periphery. Today, the left is in power in Portugal, Greece, and Scandinavia—in the Nordic countries, social democrats hold power in Sweden, are in a governing coalition in Finland, and are expected to prevail in Denmark in upcoming elections.   

More importantly, the election campaign run by the PSOE’s leader, Pedro Sánchez, offers pointed lessons on how center-left politicians can confront the electoral challenge of the far right—and win. Instead of imitating the right’s nationalist discourse with a diluted form of nativism and chauvinism in the hope of stemming the defection of white working-class voters, Sánchez ran as a principled progressive. He emphasized the values intrinsic to social democracy, such as equality, solidarity, and a commitment to social justice and the welfare state. And he took the fight to the hard right by portraying himself as a crucial defender of democracy against the forces of authoritarianism and separatist nationalism.

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“Spain is painted red,” reported El País on election night. The PSOE won nearly 29 percent of the vote, enough to earn the party 123 parliamentary seats, almost twice the number won by the conservative Popular Party, or PP, which came in second, with a distant 16.7 percent of the vote. Despite drawing large and enthusiastic crowds during the campaign, Vox made a modest electoral debut. The hard-right populist party did end Spain’s exception of being the only leading European country without far-right representation in its the national legislature, but it did so by earning only about 10 percent of the vote, placing fifth behind the PSOE, the PP, the liberal Ciudadanos, and the left-populist Podemos. 

Because the PSOE did not win an absolute majority in parliament (which requires 176 seats), it will have to rely on support from Podemos and regional parties such as the Basque Nationalist Party to form a working government. But the party has a clear governing mandate, winning most of Spain’s regions—including the largest, Andalusia, in the south; the vote-rich region of Madrid, which the party had not won since 1986; and the northwestern region of Galicia, a bastion of conservatism (and Franco’s birthplace), where the party had never won. The PSOE also won in some of most affluent parts of Spain, such as the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, as well as in some of the most impoverished, like Melilla, a Spanish enclave bordering Morocco.

More surprising, the PSOE won the majority of rural provinces, which since the return of democracy in 1977 have consistently been a reliable bank of votes for conservative parties. Though known as La España vacía, or “Empty Spain,” because these rural areas are so thinly populated, the Spanish electoral system favors them with a disproportionate number of seats in the national parliament. According to Politico Europe, Spain’s most sparsely populated constituencies have less than 20 percent of the population, but command 30 percent of parliamentary seats. 

Propelling the PSOE to victory was a huge turnout: more than 75 percent, about 8 percent higher than in 2016, and not far from the 1982 record of 80 percent when the Socialists returned to power for the first time since the end of the Civil War. Undoubtedly, turnout was affected by the enormous interest that the elections generated, in no small part due to Vox’s Trumpian agenda to “Make Spain Great Again.” It calls for deporting all illegal immigrants, banning the teaching of Islam in public schools, nullifying laws protecting women against domestic violence, abolishing the system of regional governance created after Franco’s passing, and rescinding the Law of Historical Memory. That law, enacted in 2007, condemned the Franco regime as illegitimate, offered reparations to the victims of the Civil War and Franco’s repression, and granted Spanish citizenship to the descendants of Franco’s political refugees. Unsurprisingly, turnout was highest in the areas most threatened by Vox’s nationalist and nativist platform: urban centers like Madrid (just under 80 percent) and separatist regions like Catalonia (77.5 percent).

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Much of the credit for the Socialists’ victory, though, rests squarely on Sánchez’s shoulders. A former basketball player with movie-star good looks—upon his entering the national political scene, in 2014, the Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia named him El Guapo or “the handsome one”—Sánchez has in recent years proved to be one of Europe’s most resilient and resourceful politicians. Despite suffering a grave setback in 2016, when he resigned as Socialist leader after the PSOE’s disastrous performance in the 2015 general elections, Sánchez regained control of the PSOE the following year. Then, last June, he succeeded in engineering a vote of no-confidence against the Popular Party Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose administration faced criminal charges over corruption that included embezzlement and bribes.

Although Sánchez got himself chosen as Spain’s next leader, he faced another reversal last March when the Catalan separatist parties, which had supported his ascent to power, voted against his 2019 budget plan. The separatists were retaliating against Sánchez for his refusal to allow an official referendum on Catalan independence. In reality, Sánchez had little room for maneuver after Spain’s Constitutional Tribunal declared the referendum on Catalan independence organized in October 2017 a violation of Spain’s 1978 Constitution, but the defeat of his budget proposal left Sánchez with no choice but to call early elections. Early polling was not promising for the PSOE, predicting a likely PP victory, buoyed by support from Ciudadanos and an ascendant Vox.

Against the backdrop of a pan-European wave of rightwing populism, however, Sánchez ran as an unapologetic progressive. This move was pivotal in persuading Spaniards to vote Socialist again, especially young people, women, labor union members, and disenchanted voters such as those who, in recent years, had abandoned the PSOE for Podemos. Sánchez’s success in luring left-of-center voters back to the PSOE is evident in the changing voting patterns between the 2015 and the 2019 elections: in 2015, the PSOE received 5.5 million votes versus 5.2 million for Podemos; in 2019, the PSOE soared to nearly 7.5 million votes, while Podemos’s share fell sharply to 3.7 million. 

It helped that Sánchez had the bona fides to back his progressive platform. When he was sworn into office last June, there was no bible or crucifix in sight—a striking break with Spanish tradition, and a testament to Sánchez’s commitment to the separation of church and state. An avowed ally of women’s empowerment, Sánchez’s cabinet ranks first among OECD countries for the highest percentage of women (65 percent). To tackle rising economic inequality in Spain, he raised the minimum wage by 22 percent in January, the largest increase in forty years. And in the run-up to the election, he rushed through a series of legislative proposals to close the gender pay gap and make paternity leave as long as maternity leave.

Sánchez also opposed the right in ways not seen in Spain since the end of the Civil War. During the election campaign, he framed his mission as a struggle against separatism and authoritarianism, casting himself as a champion of the democratic, constitutional order that has held sway since the dictatorship. Sánchez left no doubt that a vote for Vox, the PP, and even Ciudadanos was a vote for returning Spain to the Franco era. On the stump, he excoriated the right’s extremist proposals to restrict abortion rights and regional autonomy, and its opposition to the plan to exhume and remove Franco’s remains from El Valle de los Caídos, or the Valley of the Fallen, Franco’s controversial memorial to the “heroes” of his nationalist crusade. 

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Emboldened by his decisive win in April, Sánchez has signaled his intention to move away from the separatist crisis in Catalonia that has dominated Spanish politics in recent years, and instead turn his attention to other pressing matters such as inequality, political reform, and climate change. After the separatists’ parliamentary rebellion in effect triggered the elections, the PSOE’s strong showing has considerably diminished the capacity of Catalan nationalist parties to disrupt Spanish politics. Catalonia’s pro-independence parties received markedly less support in last month’s elections (39.3 percent) than in the Catalan regional elections of December 2017 (47.5 percent). 

Even before the elections, the Catalan independence project was adrift. Lacking a legal pathway to independence the separatists appear to have settled on a strategy of “victimhood,” based on portraying Catalonia as a colony of Madrid. They had counted on the spectacle of various trials for treason, secession, and misuse of public funds of the architects of the illegal referendum on Catalan independence of 2017 to expose Madrid’s oppressive ways. But this strategy is going nowhere: although the trials, which are being broadcast live, played out as a backdrop to the election campaign, they have proceeded smoothly and without provoking the wave of indignation that separatists had banked on.  

After neutralizing the threats of both separatism and rightwing populism, Sánchez has set his sights on a bigger role for Spain within the EU—with the express intention of reviving social democracy. Speaking to supporters on election night, he said: “To Europeans, I say that social democracy has a great future because it has a great present and Spain is an example of that. We formed a pro-European government to strengthen, not weaken, Europe.” 

Sánchez’s European play comes at an auspicious time. Britain’s impending departure from the EU will leave space in the EU’s executive bodies for another major player alongside France and Germany. Under normal circumstances, Italy, which is larger than Spain in population and GDP, would be the obvious candidate to fill this vacuum. But Italy’s rightist government is hostile to the EU, leaving Spain as the obvious candidate.

At the same time, the PSOE is soon expected to be the largest group within the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. Spanish Socialists will thus lead the effort to push for a social-democratic agenda within the EU on a range of policies, from banking reforms to immigration to climate change, with support from like-minded groups from Southern Europe and Scandinavia. 

It is fitting that the PSOE would inspire a social-democratic revival in Europe. The oldest party still active in Spain—it was founded in 1879 by Pablo Iglesias, a Madrid typesetter— the PSOE has an inspirational and illustrious history that includes fighting fascism during the Civil War and surviving what the British historian Paul Preston has referred to as the “Spanish Holocaust” (the attempt by the Franco regime that followed the end of the Civil War to cleanse Spain of all political dissidents). The party then endured some forty years of political exile in France, before returning to Spain in 1977 to help with the restoration of democracy. 

This history goes a long way toward explaining Spanish Socialists’ commitment to democracy, social justice, and human rights. The PSOE was one of the first parties in Europe to implement gender quotas to increase women’s participation in politics; it also passed a same-sex marriage law, and brought about reparations for victims of political repression, as well as a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.  

On the other hand, with its recent electoral win, the PSOE has proved that it is possible for social-democratic parties to prevail without emulating the rhetoric and policies of the populist right, as some center-left leaders in Europe have tried to do in recent years. This compromise not only betrays core social-democratic values, but it is also self-defeating: in the name of wooing back an old white working-class electorate, it jeopardizes the task of building support for an emerging working class that is larger and more diverse than the old industrial one ever was. Across Europe, this new working class comprises women, minorities, and immigrants—many of them belonging to the so-called precariat, that sector of the labor market whose employment and income is marked by insecurity and uncertainty.  

Winning the support of this emerging social class and harnessing its political energies will be crucial to the survival—and revival—of social-democratic parties across Europe. Sánchez’s PSOE is blazing the trail.