In 2014, the sudden appearance of Podemos at the European elections in May shocked Spanish politics, channelling generational grassroots anger brought on by the long economic crisis and causing the immediate resignation of the then leader of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the abdication of King Juan Carlos and the proclamation of his son, King Felipe, in less than a month. In 2015 and 2016, Podemos rocketed towards the top of the polls and Ciudadanos was made nationally relevant but two general elections did not produce a decisive result. Congress and Spanish voters were split five ways between two traditional left and right parties (the PSOE and the PP), two new left and right parties (Podemos and Ciudadanos) and a few regional nationalist parties (Catalonia, the Basque Country and the Canary Islands).
Old-new, tradition-regeneration, establishment-challenge, left-right, centre-extremes.
In that period, politicians were not able to agree on anything very important, entrenched behind their soundbites and tweets. Coalition or cooperation or agreement were absent, with leaders too proud to take even small steps away from their core positions. The path out of the stalemate was ugly: an internal hit job to oust Pedro Sánchez as leader of the Socialist Party, allowing the establishment left to change its position on Mariano Rajoy being reappointed as Prime Minister. In 2017, Mr. Sánchez proved his detractors dead wrong, winning back control of the PSOE after a grassroots campaign, and national and international attention was consumed by the Catalan separatist crisis, which dragged on into the first six months of this year. 63-year old Mariano Rajoy, in his extremely low-energy version of "leadership", was happy enough two weeks ago, after everything, to squeeze a very delayed 2018 budget through with a few seats from the Basque nationalists, at the last minute. Why rock the boat any more?
Then Pedro Sánchez put a stick of dynamite in the wheelhouse and left all of his opponents reeling from the sudden burst of energy and drive. From an irrelevant third or fourth place in the polls to the Prime Minister's office in nine days. The left and regional nationalists were able to put aside their previously insurmountable differences for a few days in order to achieve a shared political goal: getting rid of Rajoy. The new socialist cabinet—which includes 11 women and an astronaut—has pleasantly surprised Spaniards across the political spectrum and met for the first time on Friday morning. Before it gets down to work and starts making mistakes in the real world, the new Spanish executive can reasonably be described as hopeful, progressive, feminist, pro-European, pro-economy, pro-business, competent, experienced, constitutional, modern and with a preference for logic and reason over religion and belief. There were no Bibles or crosses at the swearing-in ceremonies; it is Spain's first female-majority cabinet; there is an astronaut, an aeronautical engineer, two judges, a public prosecutor, teachers, a doctor and economists. Spain now has an Ecological Transition Ministry. These are not ministers Pablo Iglesias (Podemos) would have appointed but they certainly would not be out of place in a government led by Albert Rivera (Ciudadanos), and some of the names would even be well received by the Popular Party.
This is not the dreaded Frankenstein government editorials warned against.
So what is Mr. Sánchez really up to? Having leveraged what (relatively little) power he did have within the rules of the system to take power, his new government is all about consolidating his position, to the detriment of his political opponents. He is using power to extend his hold on power, already. The new Prime Minister means to govern, not only prepare for early elections, and is stealing—or has already stolen—a series of strategic political pieces from his still shell-shocked opponents. How will Podemos—which has just lost the fight for the Spanish left—now try to dominate debates on feminism? Sánchez has appointed 11 capable, experienced women to his cabinet, including the Deputy Prime Minister, who is also Equality Minister. Another woman, Teresa Ribera, is now Spain's new Ecological Transition Minister, so the PSOE just moved right out in front of the debate on climate change. How can Ciudadanos complain the PSOE is going to make concessions to Catalan separatists with Josep Borrell as Foreign Secretary? Unless the Popular Party really does want to sabotage its own budget in the Senate—Mr. Sánchez has promised to keep it, and keep Basque nationalists happy in the process—how will conservatives argue the new government is economically irresponsible? The new Economy Minister, Nadia Calviño, resigned as the Director General for Budget at the European Commission this week to start her new job in Madrid. It is difficult to think of someone more orthodox or in-step with Brussels on money matters.
Whenever Mr. Sánchez does call the next election—and it is now his decision as Prime Minister–the PSOE will almost certainly be in much better standing with the electorate than it was two weeks ago. At some point, probably after the summer break now, Podemos, Ciudadanos and the PP will come up with new strategies to oppose the new socialist government and its policies. Until then, the new PM can continue to consolidate his new hold on power and to dazzle commentators and voters. His only problem—and not a minor one—is how to govern with a still divided parliament. He still needs Podemos and the regional nationalists to get bills through, or repeal others, so expect him to concentrate on measures that both reinforce his positions against his opponents while at the same time proving impossible for them to reject, for ideological or policy reasons. Mr. Rajoy's ouster was the first such—successful—example.
Subscribe Now To Understand Spain Better, In English
Spain is a fascinating country, its history full of intriguing characters and events, and the story is not over yet.
Catalan independence, Podemos, corruption, economic recovery and now a political crisis that might bring Rajoy's government down.
The truth still needs to be told, power still needs holding to account. Our collective futures depend on our ability to understand how our societies are evolving.
The Spain Report gives you fast reporting and deeply informed analysis of the latest news, events and trends changing this wonderful country, in English.
Your subscription guarantees our news and analysis are 100% independent.