Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Four-Way Fight: PSOE

Life in the land of PSOE can move at a slow pace. Perhaps this suits a party that is the second oldest socialist workers party in Europe, one that was founded in 1879 by Pablo Iglesias. Now there's a coincidence.

PSOE was originally a product of Marxism. Early on in its existence it avowed policies of anti-clericalism (against the church, therefore), coming into alliances with Republicans and even with a dictator. Though PSOE was to be proscribed by Franco, it was useful to Primo de Rivera, a collaboration earning it the wrath of a more militant left-wing.

By the time of the Second Republic of 1931 to 1936, PSOE had become the largest political party in Spain, but the upheavals of that period were followed by its banning. It didn't totally cease to be, as it existed in exile and later in a clandestine fashion inside Spain. Then, in 1977, it was invited, under its leader Felipe González, voted in at a meeting in France in 1974, to take part in the first post-Franco democratic election. Five years later González won. PSOE would govern for fourteen years, a period of enormous social change, which was to end through a combination of economic crisis, strikes and allegations of corruption.

In the democratic era, defined as having started in 1977, PSOE has ruled for 21 of the 38 years. It might be said, therefore, to be the natural party of government in Spain, though such a conclusion doesn't take into account the fact that the Partido Popular (in government for a total of twelve years) has only truly existed since 1989: PSOE can claim only two more years of government than the PP since then.

These two parties have dominated the scene for the past generation, but both now are exposed to the demands for a new politics made by their Ciudadanos and Podemos challengers. For PSOE, these challenges have been as great if not greater than for the PP. This creation of the nineteenth century, stripped of its one-time and ancient quasi-revolutionary roots and of the enormous vitality that González once injected into the party and into Spain, lumbered through the years of Zapatero. Yes, it effected some decent social legislation but it never dared to take its old anti-clericalism to the conclusions some might have wanted, while economically it was living off the complacency of a boom with all too shaky foundations.

When the world first started to learn the terms subprime and toxic debt, Zapatero's reaction was to say there was no crisis in Spain. He failed to consider the structural weakness, ineptitude and corruption of parts of the Spanish financial system as well as inherent lack of competitiveness in the economy and chose a policy of spend. Too late, too slow, he tried to go into reverse. He didn't stand for re-election.

His successor, Alfredo Rubalcaba, presided over PSOE's humiliation in 2011. It lost 59 seats in Congress, having held 169. Despite this, Rubalcaba stayed on. A man of some honour, he was nevertheless exposed as symptomatic of the PSOE malaise. It was old, it had lost its way, it had little or nothing to offer. At last year's European elections, there was further humiliation. Finally, Rubalcaba stood aside.

Enter, therefore, Pedro Sánchez, a 42-year-old with comparatively little experience. With some acquired at the town hall in Madrid and with two years as a Congress deputy, it was to be a book that he had written on Spain's new economic diplomacy that was to launch him as a potential replacement for Rubalcaba. In July last year he became the party's secretary-general.

His comparative youth was in contrast to Rubalcaba, It was in contrast to Mariano Rajoy as well, but by the time Sánchez was elected, there were more youthful kids on the block and both were taking pops in equal measure against the PP and PSOE. Sánchez was leader of one of the "casta", a party every bit as mired in a history of sleaze as the PP.

While the electorate more readily associates corruption with the PP and so considers this a reason to give it a kicking on Sunday, it associates PSOE with crisis. Confronted as well by the arrival of Podemos and the C's, this economic legacy has dragged PSOE down further. It may end up losing thirty or more seats in Congress to add to the 59 in 2011.

Afforded the right as the leader of the (at present) main opposition, Sánchez went head to head with Rajoy on Monday night. The prime minister had cut everything but corruption and was not a decent man. The general view was that Sánchez lost the debate. On Sunday there is a great deal more to lose. Sánchez has failed to galvanise PSOE as many would have hoped. Slow, too slow. It needs a Pablo Iglesias. 

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