The Left Takes Center Stage in Spain

Spain's interim Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez (L) and Unidas Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias (R) congratulate each other after learning the results of the vote on the last day of the investiture debate at the Spanish Parliament on January 07, 2020 in Madrid, Spain.
Spain’s interim prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, left, and Unidas Podemos party leader, Pablo Iglesias, right, congratulate each other at the Spanish Parliament on January 7, 2020, in Madrid. Photo: Pablo Blazquez/Getty Images

Last week, an elaborate procession led King Felipe VI through the Spanish capital to Congress, where he gave a speech officially inaugurating a new government. The ceremony was an awkward reunion. The governing coalition is the most left-wing administration since the Spanish Civil War, and many of its members are very open about the fact that they want to abolish the monarchy. The last time he was here, in 2016, members of the radical Podemos Party — now in a fragile partnership with the moderate Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) — refused to applaud him, and others wore shirts with anti-monarchy slogans. This time, the ponytailed Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias did clap, but separatist parties, including Catalonian leftists that are propping up the fragile government, read a statement declaring “We have no king,” and walked out of the chamber before the ceremony even began.

Spanish conservatives, already horrified by the new government, demanded that Socialist president, Pedro Sánchez, denounce the insults to the constitutional monarch. Congressman Pablo Montesinos, communications secretary for the center-right Popular Party that governed for most of the last decade, told me, “When the head of state is attacked, the president should come out and say that is unacceptable. We’re just asking that Sánchez defend our institutions.”

This is the first coalition government in Spain since the return of democracy, but it is also a very special kind of coalition, born of necessity after years of political chaos: a union between social democrats and outright anti-capitalists. As the Financial Times noted, there are few precedents for this kind of partnership working in postwar Europe. But just next door, in Portugal, there is something very close. In 2015, the Socialist Party formed a minority government with the support of the radical Left Bloc and the unreconstructed Communist Party, shocking the right wing. Instead of destabilizing the government, the inclusion of the far left simply pushed the socialists to adopt a slightly more robust anti-austerity platform, which proved popular with citizens and economically successful. In 2019, voters with more money in their pockets handed the Portuguese socialists a solid reelection victory. Over the last few years, Europe has lived through the rapid rise of the far right in Central Europe and France and Germany and Spain itself. But the fully socialist Iberia, combined with a setback for nationalists in Italy, is providing progressives with some hope that southwestern Europe might yet push back against right-wing extremism.

“It’s a very strange situation for Spain, but if the coalition succeeds in passing a budget, they can probably last for at least three years,” Pablo Simón, a political scientist at Charles III University of Madrid, told me. The country’s right-wing forces don’t currently have what it takes to bring them down, and after four elections in the last five years, he added, “People are tired of voting. There’s a national desire for some kind of stability.”

Congressman Héctor Gómez, secretary of International Relations for the PSOE, agreed that Portugal offered an example of a successful center-left/far-left partnership, but said the real reason the new government could work is that the socialists and Podemos share a “clear desire to put Spain’s real problems first.” Together, they have already passed a minimum wage increase, increased retirement payments, and raised public worker salaries. A really wildly successful government would be able to end the years of post-crisis belt-tightening, reduce inequality, and get most people in Spain to agree on the shape of the country, so everyone can move forward together.

But there are three reasons that things might be more difficult for the new coalition in Madrid. First, unlike Portugal, Spain has a significant and fast-growing far-right party. Vox had no seats in Congress until 2019, when it won 24 out of 350 seats in the April election, then more than doubled its representation to 52 seats in the November 2019 election. It’s clear to many lawmakers and citizens alike that if this Spanish government falls, its replacement could be a coalition that includes Vox. Secondly, Catalonia remains in crisis, more than two years after courts ruled an independence referendum there illegal. The leader of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), the left-wing Catalan separatist party that helped make the new government possible, is in jail for helping to organize the 2017 vote, and the leader of the regional government in Barcelona, who is affiliated with the more conservative Junts Per Catalunya independence party, has been stripped of his political rights for refusing to remove banners protesting the imprisonment of Catalan politicians. There will be a new election in that wealthy region sometime soon, and the results of complicated negotiations there could be crucial to the national government’s survival. And finally, while Portugal’s leftists had the good fortune of beginning in a strong economic moment for Western Europe, the outlook isn’t looking so good now, said Susana Peralta, an economist at the Nova School of Business and Economics in Lisbon.

“Things are definitely not as bright as they were in 2015,” Peralta said. “Germany just barely avoided recession, there are lower growth rates across the EU, and Brexit has just changed everything.”

Congressman Gómez from the PSOE said that in addition to raising incomes and improving public services, his government’s priority is to use constant dialogue to lower tensions in Catalonia, rather than leaving things to the courts. “We cannot keep forcing the judicial branch to deal with a political problem,” he said. On the question of respect for the king, he said that in a democracy with freedom of expression, other elected representatives are free to say what they want.

Like much of Southern Europe, both Spain and Portugal suffered after the 2008 financial crisis and were forced to undergo austerity as inequality rose. In the last few years, Spain’s two-party system imploded as new groups like Podemos, the center-right Cuidadanos, and Vox won power. Podemos arose in the wake of the indignados protest movement, which took place just before Occupy Wall Street, and now has 35 representatives in Congress (the socialists have 120 out of 350 seats).

Podemos is in full coalition with PSOE, unlike the Portuguese Communists and Left Bloc which only agreed to informal arrangements. A spokesman for Podemos told me that the chaos of recent years made clear that no single party could go it alone. They want to use their newfound power to push for action on climate change, they said, and finally reject the “failed recipes of austerity” offered by Brussels and Spanish conservatives last decade.

“Obviously there is fierce resistance to our government, since a privileged minority and the arms of the media that represent them did not want us and PSOE to come to an agreement,” Podemos said. “Obviously we cannot implement our full program. But we can show that in this country, you can indeed change a few things.”

The Left Takes Center Stage in Spain