Can Pedro Sanchez’s blueprint revive social democracy?

The perpetual decline of the traditional centre-left was taken for granted in Europe and elsewhere.

Social democracy’s late 1990s apex under Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder capped the ultimate decade of substantially rising middle class wages, propelling all three incumbents towards reelection.

Since then U.S. Democrats got Trumped, Labour was taken over by self-confessed Marxists and the German SPD has been surpassed by the Green party. Crushed in the crucible of closed-model populists and open-model liberal and ecological parties, social democratic decline seemed terminal.

But then spring 2019 brought something weird: a (small) victory of Finland’s SDP, followed by a bigger one in the opposite corner of Europe: Pedro Sanchez boosted his Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) to almost thirty percent of the vote while crushing the main opposition, the conservative Partido Popular (PP).

Xenophobe upstart VOX remained stuck around ten percent–weaker than expected. Even adding up PP and VOX votes equals to less than PP mastered on its own in 2016–a spectacular defeat for national-conservatives in the Franquist tradition.

What has been happening in Spain?

Had the country voted just one year earlier, surveys indicate the result might have looked very different. Albert Rivera’s liberal Ciudadanos (“C’s”) party was hovering around thirty percent, eclipsing the PSOE by at least ten percent, with the PP lodged somewhere inbetween.

This suggests that the story of Sanchez’s ascent is also the story of Rivera’s decline. And indeed, the shift can be traced to three strategic decisions made by Sanchez whose effect was compounded by three commensurate Rivera blunders.

(1) Sanchez’s first masterstroke was to capture the opportunity to oust the PP’s Mariano Rajoy in the wake of the Guertel corruption case. This coincided with Rivera’s mistake of abstaining from the vote on Rajoy’s censure motion even though it was already clear that Rajoy would lose. Rivera conveyed an image of C’s indecision that contrasted with his earlier deftness–voting with Rajoy whenever it was required to keep the state machinery humming but roasting him mercilessly on corruption and a host of other issues.

(2) Once Sanchez was installed at the Moncloa prime ministerial residence, he defused the corrosive conflict with Catalan separatists while moderating the tone of discussion without offering anything of substance. This was surprising, given that the Catalans had been crucial for Sanchez to come to power in the first place. Rivera, however, still fuming from Sanchez’s ascent, demanded the ousting of the Catalan government and the application of Madrid direct rule without an apparent reason, a stance that appeared extreme to voters and would have put fuel into the fire of a simmering long-term conflict.

(3) When the PSOE, in a severe blow to Sanchez, lost their Southern stronghold of Andalucia, Rivera committed his most profound strategic error: C’s formed a new regional government in coalition with the PP. This might not have had much of a nationwide impact, had the new government not depended on the votes of VOX, a xenophobe ultra-nationalist party that appears not only hostile to immigrants but also to women. Sanchez, by contrast, firmly painted Rivera into the extremist corner by making him a poisoned counteroffer.

One can easily track the decline of C’s and the corresponding ascent of PSOE along the demographic trendlines for both parties:

(1) Sanchez election: June 2018

(2) Catalonia standoff: Q3/2018

(3) Andalusia elections: December 2018

As 2019 dawned, Sanchez was forced to call new elections when his budget didn’t go through. By then, public opinion had already swung firmly in favour of PSOE, strengthening the national government’s hand with Catalonia. Sanchez went as far as to say “no means no” to another independence referendum, rebuking his Catalan allies.

The three inflection points mirror not just a tactical shift but also a strategic realignment between PSOE and C’s: voters preferring the “open” model no longer had anywhere to go but Sanchez. Whether it was Rivera’s Andalusian pact with misogynistic neo-fascists or his blunt handling of the Catalan matter, his decisions made C’s lose millions of moderate and female voters, driving them into the arms of an incumbent premier whose chiselled face, sonorous voice and straight posture have been likened to James Bond.

While the political mechanics appear to be uniquely Spanish on the surface, they highlight the danger for any liberal or centrist party whose voters presume it to pursue the open model. When faced with a choice between higher taxes or socially conservative policies, open-minded voters would rather lose a bit of net income rather than sacrifice their principles of how society should look like–especially during times when the economy is good.

In summary: yes, Sanchez won it. But Rivera also lost it.

The lessons for liberals and centrists are clear: any association with xenophobe, ultra-conservative and “closed” political forces is absolutely toxic and must be avoided at any cost.

Only full-throated advocacy of the open model will secure a viable future for liberals as well as future participation in government.

Social Democrats, meanwhile, can take heart from the achievement of their Iberian political brethren.


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