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EDITORIAL

The ‘Brexit’ of Spain’s Socialist Party

Pedro Sánchez’s victory over Susana Díaz only serves to accentuate the PSOE’s crisis

Pedro Sánchez’s victory at the Spanish Socialist Party primaries places the PSOE in one of the most difficult situations in its long history. The return of a secretary general with such a legacy of electoral defeat, internal division and ideological swings cannot but be cause for deep concern.

Pedro Sánchez celebrating his victory on Sunday.
Pedro Sánchez celebrating his victory on Sunday. AFP

Sánchez’s campaign program and organization have very efficiently drawn from other experiences around us, from Brexit to the Colombian referendum to Trump’s victory, where raw emotion and blind indignation have successfully defeated reason, arguments and fact-checking. In this sense, Sánchez’s victory is not entirely separated from the political context of a crisis of representative democracy, a scenario in which demagoguery, half-truths and impossible promises gain the upper hand with extreme ease.

Spain has finally suffered its own populist moment. And it has suffered it in the heart of a party that is essential to governing this country; a party that has employed moderation to head some of the most prosperous and progressive years of our recent history.

At a time when Spain is facing a serious territorial problem in Catalonia, it was more necessary than ever for the PSOE to erect itself as a stable party

The same has happened in recent months to French socialism, which is on the verge of disappearing under the leadership of the radical Benoît Hamon. And a similar disaster is about to befall the UK Labour Party, which is headed by the populist Jeremy Corbyn.

It would be delusional to think that the PSOE is not facing risks of a similar nature. In all cases, the kind of demagoguery – familiar to Podemos or Trump – that pits those at the bottom against those at the top has prevailed over the evidence of truth, personal merit and reason. We must acknowledge that we are facing a very difficult situation for our political system.

Sánchez has built his campaign on two pledges that are impossible to fulfill. One of these is to create a governing majority as an alternative to the Popular Party. Even though efforts have been made to convince the party base that such a majority would have been possible in the past, but that there was no will to build one, the fact remains that such a majority was impossible to create in October of last year, and it remains impossible today, because the PSOE has neither the power nor the capacity to build a stable governing majority.

The circumstances have not changed, which means that Sánchez is back where he was in October

The second promise is to reorganize the Socialist Party as an organization without any middle levels, where there is only a leader – the secretary general – and the grassroots militants. But reality is a lot more complex than that: the PSOE is a deeply decentralized party, both structurally and territorially; there is more than just one locus of power, and these other power centers must inevitably be taken into account. Failing to understand and respect that plurality and complexity is precisely what led Sánchez to lose the position of secretary general in October of last year.

It was the combination of those two facts – the impossibility of governing Spain at the time, and his refusal to accept the consequences – that made Sánchez lose support from the federal committee, leading to his resignation. The circumstances have not changed, which means that Sánchez is back where he was in October. There is one crucial difference, however: he returns to the post following a series of ideological shifts on key issues (alliances with Podemos and the concept of nation) that make it even more unlikely that he will ever govern Spain.

We must acknowledge that we are facing a very difficult situation for our political system

At a time when Spain is facing a serious territorial problem in Catalonia, it was more necessary than ever for the PSOE to erect itself as a stable party capable of attracting significant support. Sadly, Sánchez’s project, which is not supported by any party member representing a 22-year legacy of PSOE governments, or by any significant territorial powers, can only deepen what was already a critical internal crisis.

As all the electoral debacles being suffered by socialists across Europe show, and as socialists in Spain have already experienced, the survival and relevance of the socialist project has very little leeway as it is. In these circumstances, ideological confusion and the assembly-type party model that Sánchez is advocating could easily demotivate his voters even more, and pull the Socialists ever farther from power.

English version by Susana Urra.

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