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Sergei Khenkin

Doctor of History, Professor of the Comparative Political Studies Department of the MGIMO University

Social-democratic parties throughout Europe are suffering an identity crisis, losing ground to traditionalist and populist parties of various stripes. The social democrats no longer have a vision that could unite broad layers of society. They must change radically to suit the times or become politically marginalized. One such troubled party is the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE). On June 18th, its formerly ousted secretary general, Pedro Sanchez, returned to his post. But his return will not solve the party’s problems, which are typical for social-democrats at the current time.

PSOE is facing a critical moment in its 150-year history. Spaniards’ opinions are polarized: some think that Sanchez, after two electoral losses, will not do any good. They see his victory as an expression of the dissatisfied populace’s emotions winning over logic and reasoned arguments. But many others disagree: they see Sanchez as capable of strengthening PSOE, a representative of young Spaniards thirsting for change in their party and country. It will soon become clear which of these positions is closer to the truth.


Social-democratic parties throughout Europe are suffering an identity crisis, losing ground to traditionalist and populist parties of various stripes. The social democrats no longer have a vision that could unite broad layers of society. They must change radically to suit the times or become politically marginalized. One such troubled party is the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE). On June 18th, its formerly ousted secretary general, Pedro Sanchez, returned to his post. But his return will not solve the party’s problems, which are typical for social-democrats at the current time.

PSOE’s fall began in 2010, when its leadership responded to the socio-economic crisis with cuts to social services (by 90%) and only minor increases in taxation (10%), without explaining the reasoning behind these highly unpopular measures. This new course provoked a wave of criticism from PSOE’s supporters, who accused it of betraying its social-democratic principles. Between this and corruption scandals, the party lost 4.3 million supporters at the 2011 parliamentary elections. Hopes to end the crisis were laid on the young, new Secretary General Pedro Sanchez, elected in 2014 with a reform program based on classic social-democratic ideas. But he was unable to change the situation: at the 2015 parliamentary elections and the early elections in 2016, PSOE continued to lose ground, with its worst result in the entire democratic period.

The weakened position of PSOE was related to the crisis in Spain’s bipartisan system, in which center-left PSOE and the center-right People’s Party (PP) had long taken turns in power, overshadowing all other parties. The 2015 elections radically changed the situation, with the radical left party “Podemos” (“We can”) and center-right “Ciudadanos” (“Citizens”) notably pressuring PSOE and PP. The parties were forced to form a coalition government, but were too caught up in party interests to come to agreements. The attempt to create a government after early elections in 2016 was also unsuccessful: the leader of PP, Mariano Rajoy, did not receive enough votes to become prime minister.

PSOE’s position significantly affected the results of this vote of confidence in the new PM. Sanchez and his allies declared support of Rajoy to be unacceptable, saying that PP policies increased inequality, ignored institutional problems, and were rife with corruption. The rhetoric of PSOE’s leadership makes PP look reactionary to low-ranking party members, which is one of the main reasons that leading parties in Spain cannot form a coalition. The influence of “Podemos” affected PSOE’s position, as “Podemos” attracts youth who see little difference between PP and PSOE. The decision to reject Rajoy’s government was aimed to show young voters that socialists and conservatives are not the same, and avoid accusations of “capitulation to the right”. Nevertheless, some socialists decided to refrain from voting during the vote of confidence, saying that they did not support Rajoy, but that for the sake of national interests, the party that received the most votes should rule. Surveys showed that this position was more popular among the electorate than “No to Rajoy”.

The conflict between Sanchez’s supporters and detractors led to the secretary general’s resignation on October 1st, 2016, which altered the political situation. The socialists refrained from participating in the new vote of confidence, which allowed Rajoy and PP to form a minority government. As PSOE members began working alongside PP, a significant portion of the party remained on Sanchez’s side and refused to cooperate. They took the tacit acceptance of Rajoy’s leadership as a betrayal and an insult. This disagreement hides an important question: should PSOE be a center-left party, willing to make deals with center-right forces, or should it be a left-socialist party, seeking support from radically-minded societal groups? Without resolving its accumulated tension, the party began preparations for the election of a new secretary general.

The three candidates for the post were President of Andalusia and Secretary General of the PSOE Andalusian Branch Susana Diaz, former Secretary General Pedro Sanchez, and Basque socialist leader Patxi Lopez. The electoral campaigns were very aggressive, particularly between Sanchez and Diaz. Diaz is the leader of the biggest branch of PSOE, was supported by most of the party apparatus and “old guard”, and ran on a traditional social-democratic “common sense” platform. Sanchez’s platform was more radical, promising “truly leftist politics”, and criticizing Diaz for enabling Rajoy’s victory. Sanchez claimed to represent the people, promising a party with more grassroots participation; at his meetings, supporters sang the “Internationale”. But others accused him of inconsistency, as he had gone from center-left to radical politics overnight. Sanchez and Diaz also differ in their attitude toward coalitions: Sanchez supports a union of leftist parties, including “Podemos” and separatists, while Diaz is against “Podemos” and finds any flirtation with separatist forces unacceptable. They also have different ideas about Spain’s crucial territorial problem. Diaz holds PSOE’s traditional position: Spain should become a federation. Sanchez rejects his party’s position and Spain’s constitution, arguing that Spain should be a “nation of nations” (the constitution of Spain currently stipulates only the Spanish nation).

Against initial predictions, Sanchez earned a decisive victory at the elections, receiving 49.8% of the votes to Diaz’s 40.2%. In the end, the elections only made the disagreements between PSOE members all the harsher. Sanchez’s new federal committee included only his supporters, excluding his critics, like Diaz. HIs victory is part of the trend of rebellion among those dissatisfied with establishment politics, which has recently enveloped many parties and countries. Socialists in France and Labor in Britain have seen victories by radical candidates, expressing the mood of some voters, which may not correspond to the attitude of the electorate in general. In France, the socialists lost support due to this development, whereas Labor in Britain made a solid second-place finish at recent elections.

PSOE must now restore its unity and heal the wounds caused by its internal crisis. Some of Diaz’s former supporters, including former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, have called on their allies to accept Sanchez’s leadership. But not all party members agree, and their dissatisfaction could paralyze the party’s work. PSOE’s success depends largely on Sanchez’s ability to resist PP, work with “Podemos”, and solve the Catalonian problem. Meanwhile, it is uncertain whether PSOE, turning toward a left-socialist position, will be able to keep its traditional center-left support base. Additionally, it is clear that “Podemos” and PSOE, in spite of a possible union, will make an effort to discredit each other. After all, Pablo Iglesias, leader of “Podemos”, does not hide his ambition to make his party Spain’s main leftist force.

PSOE is facing a critical moment in its 150-year history. Spaniards’ opinions are polarized: some think that Sanchez, after two electoral losses, will not do any good. They see his victory as an expression of the dissatisfied populace’s emotions winning over logic and reasoned arguments. But many others disagree: they see Sanchez as capable of strengthening PSOE, a representative of young Spaniards thirsting for change in their party and country. It will soon become clear which of these positions is closer to the truth.


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