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The PSOE and the Decline of Social Democracy in Europe

After almost 10 months without a government in Spain, Mariano Rajoy was finally re-elected as Prime Minister. At his second attempt, he won the vote of investiture last Saturday. Shockingly, this was made possible by the abstention of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). Although considering the results of last June’s election (the second election in less than a year) this option was on the table, the way the procedure went pushed the PSOE even deeper into crisis. In the last two elections, the PSOE obtained the lowest number of seats in its history (90 seats in December 2015 and 85 in June), partly because of the emergence of new political parties like Podemos and Ciudadanos. However, the historical decision to (indirectly) support Rajoy’s re-election went further than terrible election results and deeply divided the party. What happened in these last weeks that led to the abstention of the PSOE?

A historical decision

With the end of the two-party system in Spain and the election of the most fragmented Parliament of all times, a grand coalition in Spain became an option. However, the PSOE refused to form a government with Rajoy’s centre-right People’s Party (PP) declaring that they would not to support a corrupt political party that had implemented austerity measures. Some members, especially the Andalusian regional leaders, were also against governing with so few seats and preferred to remain in opposition. When the leader of the Socialists, Pedro Sanchez, attempted to negotiate an alternative government with Podemos and Catalan separatist forces, these voices became louder. The bad results in the Basque and Galician regional elections last September finally marked the end of these attempts.

For an increasing number of socialists, it was clear that they could not afford a third election. The dilemma was to either form an alternative government that would be rejected by their moderate voters or to abstain in the investiture procedure which would be unacceptable for their leftist voters. Since Pedro Sanchez refused to allow the party to abstain, he was the main obstacle for a new Rajoy government. Finally, Sanchez was forced to resign as the leader of the Socialists after a dramatic revolt inside the party. The decision of an interim committee about the abstention in the investiture showed a clear division, which was demonstrated by the 15 PSOE votes against Rajoy. In the next days, the insurgent deputies will have to face a sanction for breaking the party discipline.

Pedro Sánchez was not among the party rebels. In order not to go against his party or his electoral promises he gave up his seat in Congress before the vote of investiture. The reason for his decision was his plan to get re-elected as secretary general of his party. He has the support of the party`s grassroots and he wants to increase this support by travelling through the country in order to listen to the citizens’ demands. On top of everything, Sanchez revealed in a television interview that financial and media elites had exercised pressure to prevent the formation of a government with other forces of the left. His controversial statements were not well received by many of his party colleagues who also do not approve of his political strategy.
With or without Pedro Sánchez, the PSOE is facing the worst crisis in its history. However, the Spanish socialist party is not alone in this and in the media its decline is compared with that of PASOK in Greece.

Is there a crisis of social democracy in Europe?

If we look at the situation of social democracy in Europe we can say that there is a general decline in Europe, as we can see in a graph form Kiko Llaneras in an article in El Pais.

Source: El Pais
Source: El Pais

PASOK in Greece is the best example of how a political party has gone from indispensible to utterly negligible. In Austria, the leader of the socialist party (SPÖ), Werner Faymann resigned as chancellor after the far-right’s (FPÖ) election victory last May. France’s president, the Socialist Hollande, has totally lost his popularity in the last months and the expectations for the presidential elections next year are far from good for the socialists. On the contrary, far-right leader Marine Le Pen with her anti-immigration and anti-establishment discourse is likely to win 30 percent of the national vote according to opinion polls. In Germany, the results in the last regional elections were disappointing for the social democrats (SPD), they also lost votes compared to previous elections. Moreover, the rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a populist and anti-immigration party gaining seats in regional parliaments does not augur well for the federal election next year. These are not the only examples for the problematic situation of social democracy in Europe.

In all these countries, the reasons for the decline of the social democratic parties have certain features in common. To begin with, social democrats were incapable of providing solutions to the crisis. Instead, they turned away from protecting the welfare state and moved towards the centre and to the right of the political spectrum. This made leftist voters feel disappointed about their policies whereas they failed to convince more conservative voters that they will really safeguard their interests. Taking advantage of this, new parties have emerged offering an alternative to disenchanted citizens. In most cases, they have a populist and anti-immigration discourse that promises ‘better conditions’ for the elderly and for the native population. Also, increased competition in terms of number of political parties means fewer votes for the traditional political parties. Last but not least, globalisation has changed the needs of society. Historically, social democracy came up for the workers and promoted welfare state policies. Nowadays, the heterogeneity of society requires a more comprehensive discourse that includes people from different social strata.

But not everything is lost, if social democratic parties are able to adapt to this new reality. In the case of Spain the two-party system is over. In this new context competition, negotiations and agreement will be essential. The PSOE should rebuild the party focusing on reducing the inequalities increased after the Great Recession and responding to citizens’ demands. For the time being, Rajoy is Spain’s new prime minister. It is likely that his legislature will end before it has officially expired. Much will depend on the oppositional politics the PSOE will pursue.

You can download the article in PDF here.

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