Spain’s Socialist Party was on the verge of “civil war” Thursday after half its leadership staged a coup, in what could turn out to be good news for those desperate to end the country’s political deadlock.
“A sad spectacle”, “War”, read headlines in Spanish newspapers, after 17 members of the party’s executive quit Wednesday in a bid to oust leader Pedro Sanchez, unhappy about the way he was navigating the Socialist ship through this year’s choppy politics.
“The Socialists had already gone through other stormy periods in the past decades but never had we seen something like this: a coup… to depose a secretary general elected democratically by grassroots members,” wrote the right-wing El Mundo daily.
The Socialist Party (PSOE) has for months been wracked by internal dissent over Sanchez’s leadership during Spain’s nine-month political stalemate, as rival parties fail to agree on a government following two inconclusive elections.
It scored historically bad results in December and June general elections, and in regional polls at the weekend — the last straw for many high-ranking Socialists who precipitated the coup.
– Crux ’24 hours’ –
The PSOE’s woes come hot on the heels of similar troubles in Britain’s Labour Party, which saw leader Jeremy Corbyn severely challenged by high-ranking members.
But he survived and was re-elected last weekend thanks in large part to support among grassroots members, and Sanchez too is hanging on.
The 44-year-old was seen arriving at his party headquarters in Madrid on Thursday to attend a meeting of his now reduced executive, albeit through the windows of his chauffeur-driven car.
With two separate, earlier resignations, this takes the number of executive members that have quit to 19 out of 35 — a majority. But what happens now is far from certain as both factions argue over the interpretation of party statutes.
Pablo Simon, politics professor at Madrid’s Carlos III University, said this type of leadership coup was usually resolved quickly — “within 24 hours after the manoeuvre”.
Sanchez’s detractors want the party to use its 85 parliamentary seats to help unblock the national deadlock and allow a right-wing coalition government through by abstaining in the necessary vote of confidence.
That, they argue, would avoid a third round of elections. The party could go into opposition and build up strength again.
But Sanchez refuses, having directed the Socialists to vote earlier this month against such a coalition government led by acting conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
This prompted it to fail, and the country looked like it was heading for a third election.
– ‘Difficult to heal’ –
Now, however, if Sanchez’s critics win the day and manage to impose a caretaker party executive after the coup, the chances are Rajoy will attempt to push a government through again knowing that the Socialists will abstain this time.
But if Sanchez manages to impose his will and appeal directly to grassroots members by immediately convoking an extraordinary meeting to vote on the party leadership, the future looks more uncertain.
If he held on, the PSOE would risk falling into “civil war” with Sanchez going into third elections with half of the party campaigning against him, Simon said.
Come what may, though, the 137-year-old party is in trouble, he added, saying the schism would affect “the PSOE’s electoral opportunities over the next decade.”
Fernando Vallespin, politics professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid, said the only solution was to revamp the party.
“The PSOE has lost the youth vote, the urban vote, the vote in the most dynamic zones of the country,” he said.
“It’s a rural vote and an elderly vote, and that’s wrong for a left-wing party.”
– General decline of centre-left –
Why such disillusion?
Simon points to the general decline of Europe’s centre-left as a factor, as economic gloom and the migrant crisis see voters flock to more radical parties.
Some Spaniards have also not digested the management of the economic downturn by the last Socialist prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who implemented tough austerity measures.
The party also faces competition from far-left, anti-austerity Podemos which has taken millions of votes away from the PSOE.
“A leadership that emerges from such a critical and violent situation will face difficulties,” Simon said.