Is there a renewal of the Socialist Party in Spain? – Vicente Navarro

The April legislative elections in Spain were certainly a step forward for the Socialist Party. But it was only a step back from his “third way”.

Vicente Navarro

In the elections to the Spanish Parliament on April 28, the Socialist Party (PSOE) obtained the highest number of votes. This has been interpreted by most European media as a “renewal” of the social democratic tradition in Spain (as part of a wider renewal of social democracy in Europe). But this vein of reporting was misleading.

In fact, the PSOE won virtually the same number of votes – nearly seven and a half million – as in the 2011 parliamentary elections, where it was considered to have suffered a big defeat. Indeed, it is the lowest number of votes obtained by the party since 1979. Why, then, the good news this time?

Force majeure

The PSOE had been the main leftist party in Spain and had ruled the country for most of the democratic period, starting in 1978. It had been the main force behind the creation of the welfare state, with the jewel of the crown the creation of the Spanish National Health Service. Social spending increased dramatically under party governance between 1982 and 1996, as did the percentage of national income coming from labor rather than ownership of capital.

Progress slowed, however, towards the end of this golden age of social democracy, due to the application of policies – encouraged by the creation of the European Union – which affected the quality and stability of the labor market. job. These precipitated two general strikes in the country, which is unprecedented in the history of European social democracy.

This decline in support for the party on the part of the working population manifested itself in an increase in abstention from the working class in the 1993 elections, causing the PSOE to lose its parliamentary majority for the first time. To continue governing, the party formed an alliance with right-wing Catalan nationalism (now a pro-independence party), rather than a coalition of left-wing parties (Izquierda Unida).

This meant strengthening the policies that the government deemed necessary to meet the Maastricht criteria for reducing the public deficit and thus gain access to the euro. The continuation of these austerity measures caused the defeat of the Socialists in 1996 as well as the victory of the Conservative Popular Party (PP), founded by the ministers of the Franco dictatorship.

‘Third way’

This initiated a period of sustained growth (1996-2004), based on cheap labor and limited social protection, which ended with the victory of José Luis Zapatero of the PSOE in 2004. Zapatero embodied the Spanish version of the “third way”. A major promise of his election campaign had been a reduction in taxes, which was responsible for 72% of the 27,223 million euros (equivalent to 27.2 billion euros in England and the United States) of cuts in public revenues. between 2007 and 2008, according to an official. The figures. The other 28 percent was the result of declining growth with the onset of the Great Recession.

The budget deficit created by these shortcomings forced major cuts in public spending. Zapatero also introduced labor market “reforms” that further weakened work and empowered employers. And the Spanish constitution has been amended, following an agreement between the PSOE and the PP, to favor the repayment of the public debt over any other expenditure (article 135).

These interventions have become very unpopular, causing the emergence of the indignant or 15M. He protested against the application of neoliberal policies and denounced the “political class” for not representing the interests of the people, but rather those of the financial and economic forces considered to have an excessive influence on “representative democratic institutions”, including including the leadership and apparatus of the PSOE.

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The indignant the rebellion was a call for democracy: its slogan “They, the political class, do not represent us, we, the people”, quickly spread throughout the country.


The protests caused the PSOE to lose the 2011 elections, with a further increase in abstention among its base. The PP won again, forcing yet another “reform” of the labor market, which further weakened the workforce, and further cuts in social spending. These interventions provoked an explosion of protest mood, which led to the creation of a new left party, Podemos (‘we can’). In less than three years, he became the third tallest in the country, at one point overtaking the PSOE.

Podemos had enormous influence and important consequences, from the resignation of King Juan Carlos I (appointed by Franco as his successor as head of state) to the change in leadership of the PSOE. The PSOE party base drove out the old leadership and elected Pedro Sanchez, who ran against the apparatus in the primaries with a left-wing program, inspired in many ways by Podemos.

Sanchez then spoke of the excessive power of economic and financial lobbies within the PSOE itself. Under pressure from the base of the party, he even made a pact with Podemos (who had established an alliance with Izquierda Unida).

Through this, the PSOE approved an economic and social program that included a 20 percent increase in the minimum wage, an increase in pensions to reflect inflation, regulation of rental housing prices and other popular measures, including many were borrowed from Podemos. These were the main cause of the growth in the party’s electoral support, which rose from 22% in 2015 to 28.7% in 2019.

This was even more significant in terms of parliamentary seats, due to the bias of the electoral law in favor of the major parties. The right-wing vote, for its part, divided, as a consequence of the creation of a new party, Vox. A split of the PP, Vox is the truest Spanish version of the right, ultra-liberal in the extreme.

Choice of coalition

However, the increase in its seats was not enough to give the majority to the PSOE, so it must form a coalition to govern. The choice is between Ciudadanos, a major neoliberal party in Spain (the preference of much of the party apparatus and major banking and business associations) or Unidos Podemos (the party base’s preference). We’ll see who wins in the next few days.

Either way, the lesson for social democracy in Europe is that the adoption of neoliberalism can lead to electoral disaster, which can only be reversed by going left. This is what happened in Spain, influenced by Unidas Podemos.

Vicente Navarro is Professor of Political Science and Public Health, Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona, ​​Spain and Professor of Public Policy, Johns Hopkins University, United States of America.

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