In the 2016 general elections PSOE obtained its lowest ever vote-share since Spain’s return to democracy. In spite of this, the party managed to maintain the position of a second-largest political force in Spain, avoiding a sorpasso (surpassing) of Podemos.
Nevertheless, the election outcome led to one of the biggest crises in the history of PSOE. In order to form a government, the Popular Party (Partido Popular, PP) needed the Socialists to abstain in parliament, but party chairman Pedro Sánchez refused to do so. The socialist leader had made the phrase "no is no" (in reference to his refusal to abstain) his leitmotiv. Despite of important intra-party and external pressures, Pedro Sánchez did not change his stance. These internal tensions led to an unprecedented confrontation within the socialist party. In the end, Pedro Sánchez resigned, his close circle of allies was demoted and a board was created to temporarily lead the party. In addition, a Federal Committee (the highest body of the party in-between congresses) was convened to approve Socialist abstention in Congress, in order to allow Rajoy (PP) to be elected as President.
Subsequently, in May 2017, a primary election took place to elect a new Secretary-General. Susana Díaz and Pedro Sánchez were competing face to face. While Diaz represented the most centrist wing of the party and was supported by the majority of party leaders, Pedro Sánchez was heading the left-wing current. The latter scored a victory with just over 50 per cent of the vote, with Susana Diaz obtaining 40 per cent, and 10 per cent going to a third candidate.
Sánchez's return to PSOE’s leadership has resulted in a change of political strategy - the party has shifted to the left by making the preservation of the welfare state its core message. In the light of this shift, proposals such as the creation of a new bank tax to reduce the pension deficit were put forward. There social democrats even approached Unidos Podemos, exploring the options of forming a partnership, although it remains uncertain if such will officially take place.
With respect to the Catalan "process", although criticising some actions of Rajoy’s government, PSOE has clearly aligned itself with the "constitutionalist" block along with PP and Ciudadanos (C's). PSOE voted in favour of applying Article 155, by which the Government took control of the Generalitat de Catalunya (the Government of Catalonia).
The PSC (Catalan branch of PSOE with great organizational independence), for its part, has always maintained a position less opposed to Catalan nationalism. During the last elections, for example, Miquel Iceta, leader of the PSC, supported the pardon of Catalan nationalist politicians imprisoned for their role in the independence process. These differences led to tensions between PSC and PSOE, which have been aggravated by the current political context.
At present, the PSOE strategy involves refocusing the media and political agenda on social issues in order to reduce the importance of the territorial debate, as this topic is detrimental to the party, both in Catalonia and in the rest of Spain.
One of the main challenges faced by the Popular Party has been corruption. Important leaders and the functioning of the party itself are being tried for corruption (such as parallel accounting, tax evasion and the evidence destruction). Despite the allegations, in the 2016 General Elections PP emerged as the biggest party.
In recent years, there has been an ongoing generational change within the PP. Mariano Rajoy has promoted the arrival of young leaders such as Andrea Levy, Pablo Casado and Javier Maroto to top party positions. This makeover is taking place without generating significant internal tensions.
During the 2017 Catalan referendum, PP's government was strongly criticized by Catalan nationalists and broad sectors of the Spanish left for the police violence used to prevent Catalans from voting. On the other hand, PP was also attacked by Spanish nationalist sectors for having failed to prevent the referendum from taking place and in general for its management of the conflict (largely deemed weak and ineffective). In the 2017 Catalan elections, the party lost 7 of its 11 seats in the regional parliament.
Following these elections and the current rise of Ciudadanos in the polls, tensions between the two parties have increased. For the first time, a political force is threatening PP’s hegemonic position in the Spanish center-right. Thus, a more conflictive relationship between both parties is expected.
Ciudadanos is the political party that currently has the highest growth prospects according to all opinion polls. Its strong position is highly influenced by the political situation in Catalonia. Ciudadanos was founded in Catalonia, campaigning in favour of Spanish unity and opposing Catalan nationalism.
After the Catalan regional elections of 21st December, Ciudadanos has become the largest party. This was the first time a Catalan nationalist party did not win the elections in the region. This victory was a result of the party’s success in bringing together the useful vote of the "constitutionalists" (parties that defend the Spanish Constitution in opposition to Catalan independence). This result and its performance during the crisis have managed to reinforce its image and its prospects for significant electoral growth.
On the other hand, since its leap into national politics, Ciudadanos has tried to place itself in the ideological centre, making negotiations with both PSOE and PP. However, during its national congress in 2017, the party was ideologically redefined, changing its reference from "democratic socialism" to "progressive liberalism". Some party leaders were critical of this change, arguing that the party was moving too much to the right. Indeed, the party has put forward a proposal for a single labour contract, that, if implemented, would see worker’s protection diminish and unemployment benefits decrease. Despite these criticisms, the change was approved by 89 per cent of the party’s Congress delegates. Albert Rivera affirmed that this change is part of the strategy aimed at making the party a viable coalition option.
Podemos broke into Spanish politics in 2014, achieving an impressive electoral growth, with no precedent in Spanish history. However, after failing to become bigger than PSOE in 2016, it seems to be going through a difficult time.
The party has experienced a period of internal conflict between its three main wings: "Pablistas" (The sector grouped around General Secretary Pablo Iglesas), "Errejonistas" (led by Iñigo Errejón, they defend a greater ideological diversity, and reject the identification of Podemos as a traditional left wing party) and "anti-capitalists" (this group comes from an old Trotskyist party, which constitutes the left wing within Podemos).
The struggle for the party's control ended with Errejón being demoted from the position of number two of the party (he was one of Podemos’ founders and Pablo Iglesias' right hand ever since the party was founded). Another point of contention was the electoral alliance policy, especially the agreement with United Left (Izqierda Unida (IU), the left-wing party historically dominated by the Spanish Communist Party Partido Comunista de España.
The Catalan conflict has also affected Unidos Podemos negatively. Its attempt to not take a position in favour of the two confronting blocks did not resonate well with the electorate. In the Catalan elections of December 2017, Unidos Podemos fared bad, with the party losing 3 of the 11 seats it previously had. Moreover, its position regarding the independence process, which includes the defense of a referendum of self-determination, has generated criticism in the rest of the country.
Guillermo Moreno Rodríguez - Graduate of Political Science from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and graduate of Political Engineering from the Institut d’Études Politiques d'Aix-en-Provence
André Krouwel - VU University Amsterdam / Founder of Kieskompas BV
Yordan Kutiyski - Analyst - Kieskompas BV
Oscar Moreda Laguna - General operations manager - Kieskompas BV
Oliver Philipp - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung
Arne Schildberg - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung