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“Abstaining is tactical, not ideological”: interim PSOE chief

Javier Fernández discusses the next moves for Spain’s deeply divided Socialist Party

Javier Fernández, head of the PSOE's management committee.
Javier Fernández, head of the PSOE's management committee. EL PAÍS

Javier Fernández is chairman of the interim management team that took over from Pedro Sánchez after the latter resigned as secretary general of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) on October 1, at a dramatic party meeting in Madrid.

Since then, Fernández has been dealing with the challenging task of pulling a deeply divided party back together again in time to find a common position on the issue of whether the PSOE should take the historical step of letting its traditional rival, the Popular Party (PP), form a minority government.

Such a move would unblock the 10-month stalemate in Spain and prevent a third general election in a country where voters have grown weary of the prolonged political bickering. Polls indicate that turnout at a third election would be significantly low and that the winner would, once again, be Mariano Rajoy of the PP.

Reality is complex and somebody needs to deal with it

Question. Should a Socialist abstention at the investiture vote to enable a Mariano Rajoy administration be considered a victory for the right wing of the party? Is voting against Rajoy the only left-wing thing to do?

Answer. I hope not. That would be a mistaken way of interpreting things. It’s not right to make an ideological reading of something that is complex but simply tactical. Ideology is something else: it’s your position on taxes, the labor market, universal health care, the role of education, equality...But debating whether it’s in the best interests of Spain and the PSOE to hold new elections under these conditions is merely a tactical question.

Q. What has happened to put the PSOE in a position of having to decide this in just 20 days, when nearly four months have elapsed since the last elections?

A. We became frozen in a state of silence with regard to what was best for Spain and for the PSOE. Debate should not be forbidden. It’s good to talk. It’s indispensable. A “no” to a PP government is deeply ingrained in our party members because of so much PP corruption and all the cuts [under the previous Rajoy administration]. This position was reinforced by Socialist leaders’ resounding rejection of the idea of abstaining. But all other options have proven impossible, and now we need to effect a crash landing into reality.

Q. How do you convince the average PSOE voter who has been hearing “no is no” for weeks that the time has come for an abstention that will deliver the government to Rajoy?

A. I would tell them that there is no left-wing alternative to a PP government. To abstain is not the same as to support. That is a very primary concept in politics. Politics is not poetry, it is prose. It is not feeling, it is reason.

Q. And who should make the final decision on whether to abstain at the investiture vote? The federal committee or the party grassroots?

A. The federal committee; although we will keep the grassroots clearly in mind. We have the obligation to create a debate at the grassroots level, but it must be the federal committee [which makes the decision.] I know that mediation and representation gets a lot of bad press, but it’s the committee delegates who must make the decision and later defend it before the grassroots. This tendency towards direct democracy is not in the PSOE’s culture. It has a representative culture.

Pedro Sánchez resigned as PSOE secretary general on October 1.
Pedro Sánchez resigned as PSOE secretary general on October 1. Reuters

Q. You’ve already warned Rajoy that you will not guarantee stability throughout the term. Are you aware that he will ask for your support on a bill-by-bill basis?

A. It should be clear that the PSOE is not considering any kind of alliance with the PP, but there are affairs of state on which we will always support the government. Opposition should not always be construed as antagonism, but as what is useful to people. Let me stress again that abstaining is not the same as supporting. We have to drop this confrontational idea of politics we have in this country, where politics is reduced to mere antagonism.

Q. If there are third elections after all, all other parties will blame you for it. Is this one of the reasons why you want to avoid them?

A. It’s absolutely unfair to lay all responsibility at our door, but in politics it’s not enough to have reason on your side. I am absolutely certain that if there were new elections, we would get the blame. The PSOE would be the scapegoat.

Q. Is the PSOE’s problem one of lack of leadership or lack of a project?

A. Victory brings you together just as defeat pulls you apart. If we hadn’t suffered the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression in 2008, the PSOE would not be in this situation. It was because of the crisis and our own mistakes. We have seen workers, the urban middle classes and young people walk away from the PSOE. We have not conveyed a sense of reliability, of a party that is able to manage the economy efficiently. We had social credibility, but not economic credibility. In government, and in the party, we need to have the best. And that’s not always been the case.

Q. Has the PSOE given up on being a party able to command an absolute majority?

A. The PSOE must not give up on being a majority party, although I’m not sure about absolute majorities. We define ourselves as socialist, working class and federal. But we need to reach out to the liberal professions, to entrepreneurs, to government employees, to the middle classes who want to see change but without breaking the basic balance of our society. These people would never vote for Podemos.

We became frozen in a state of silence with regard to what was best for Spain and for the PSOE

Q. Yet you seem to be losing votes on the left.

R. Objectively we have lost votes to Podemos and due to abstention. But we had lost a lot before that. In any case, the PSOE should not move away from the center left in order to be the only hegemonic left-wing force. That would rule us out as the alternative to a PP government. Even so, we must defend our left flank.

Q. You said recently that the PSOE was “Podemizing” itself. What did you mean by that?

A. Part of Podemos’ culture is basically disjunctive: up and down, the people versus the caste, the good and the bad, the elite versus the citizens...It’s Manichean, and it is always resolved through plebiscites rather than deliberation. Podemos has lots of well-meaning proposals, for instance on social policy. But besides being well-meaning, they should also be useful. And most of Podemos’ proposals are not useful, because they ignore the principle of reality. Populist culture is the culture of simplification, and that can never be the PSOE’s culture.

Q. Has your party descended into oversimplification?

A. Reality is complex and somebody needs to deal with it. The right has always liked to simplify, and so does the populist left. The only party with a real calling for reform is the PSOE.

Q. Yet hasn’t the party given the impression these days that it’s all essentially an internal power struggle?

A. I will not deny the disagreements between party leaders and relevant officials, myself included. But we’re talking about something else, which is the position the party must adopt in order to avoid new elections. I will not go into the events of the last two years, or what happened on October 1 at the Federal Committee. I want to forget that as quickly as possible. As chair of the management team, it is my job to calm the waters, not to agitate them.

English version by Susana Urra.

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