Spain’s New Prime Minister: A Light in the Dark for Europe’s Battered Established Socialists

John Bryan

16 June 2018

Prime Minister Rajoy standing up in front of Congress.

Prime Minister Rajoy standing up in front of Congress.


For Mariano Rajoy, the former Spanish conservative Prime Minister ousted on the 1st of June, the end was anticlimactic. Of all the political challenges he has faced down, from the financial crisis to the emergence of two new challenger parties to the Catalonian independence movement, what finally caught up with him was a party-wide corruption scandal.

As a result of the conviction of many senior Popular Party (PP) officials of money laundering, bribery, and other offences, Pedro Sánchez and his Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) spearheaded a no-confidence motion with the support of the left-populist Podemos, along with a collection of regional nationalist parties. In Spain, a no-confidence motion requires an absolute majority of support in the Congress of Deputies (Spain’s lower house). The government subject to the vote loses the right to rule, and the King (who has responsponsibilities comparable to the Governor General of Canada) must invite another party (likely the one responsible for the vote) to try to form government. New elections need not occur.

Sánchez took power as prime minister on June 2nd, and has been making headlines since. Most notably, he has appointed a cabinet comprised of 61% women, now the highest percentage in Europe. But this feminist approach is only one part of what is a generally progressive-orientated government. For instance, Sánchez has expressed his commitment to the European project, saying that for Spain, “Europe is our new homeland.”

What makes this new government interesting in the broader European context is the establishment-left status of the party. Throughout the continent, the radical populist right has been making powerful strides toward government, in some cases joining other parties in coalition or simply propping up established parties in exchange for policy influence (see the governments of Austria and Denmark as examples of this). Left-wing populists too have seen a resurgence, with powerful results in Greece and Spain itself. In Italy, a country often compared to Spain for their economy and politics, a new coalition has arisen between two populist parties, one far-right and the other left wing.

Populism is a term that has come into heavy use with these developments, especially after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Academically, it refers to an ideology which “considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic camps, the ‘pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’” according to Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser, two leading scholars on the subject.

It isn’t surprising that a strengthening populist presence has led to a diminished establishment presence. What is curious is how the brunt of this effect has been largely taken by the centre-left. In fact, social democrats have had something of an existential crisis of late. In France, Germany, and the Netherlands, traditionally powerful social democratic parties have recorded historic lows. That a centre-left government should come out of Spain is an interesting development and certainly makes it worth watching.

The immediate issue for Sánchez will be gathering enough support to govern properly. Without a majority – the PSOE have only 84 of 350 seats in the Congress – they must turn to other parties for assistance. The unlikely coalition which disposed of Rajoy appears to be his best bet, but it has been criticized – not unfairly – for being an unstable hodgepodge of competing interests and near-irreconcilable ideologies. Comprised of the anti-establishment and left-wing Podemos (meaning “We Can” in Spanish), two Catalan independence parties, and the Basque Nationalists, the alliance has been dubbed “Frankenstein” by opponents.

However, this isn’t the first political ‘abomination’ to be run by a social democrat in Europe. In fact, it isn’t even the first in Iberia. In Portugal, António Costa’s minority government, propped up by two hard left parties, was described pejoratively by the conservative opposition as a “Geringonça,” that is, a “contraption.”  To the irritation of his opponents, Costa’s ‘contraption’ has not fallen apart like a Wright brothers prototype. Rather, he enjoys some 66% approval among Portuguese citizens; unheard of success for a socialist in today’s Europe. The Portuguese experience has acted as a beam of light in an otherwise black scenario for Europe’s established left.

Spain’s Sánchez will certainly want to prove the Portuguese model replicable, and he just might be in the position to do it. Rajoy has left Spain in far better economic condition than he found it. Despite being hit by the financial crisis particularly hard, as was the case with the other “PIIGS” countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece), the country’s economic output has risen above pre-2008 levels. This will lend his government the sort of breathing room necessary to effectively deliver policy without institutions like the EU interfering, unlike the situation in Greece, for instance. In addition, a positive economy typically (though not necessarily) has a chilling effect on political extremism.

Furthermore, though Spain’s establishment has its political insurgents, their ranks are not filled with far-right nationalists. The lack of any viable country-wide far-right populist party is something of an oddity. One possible explanation is that already existing nationalist parties at the regional level, from the Catalan and Basque nationalists to the vehemently anti-independence Citizens party, have monopolized the nationalist appeal and thus deprived any aspiring far-right nationalist of the necessary political oxygen. Regardless, Spain’s political environment is less hostile than most for social-democratic rule.

It is uncertain whether Spain’s unlikely new government will survive past the next set of elections. The question of Spanish identity and unity remains the most emotionally compelling issue in the country, and if Mr. Sánchez isn’t careful he may be sidestepped on the issue entirely. What is certain is that his monster, his ‘Frankenstein,’ will be a fascinating test-case of colliding European political trends.