“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”
Karl Marx, the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
Late in July, a full three months after the April 28th national elections, the effort to forge a broad government of the left once again failed decisively in Spain. As in 2016, so in 2019, the stage was set for cooperation and victory, but the two progressive parties in a position to form a government could not close the deal. Their failure, acted out in the elegant hall of the Spanish Congress in full view of the nation and astounded Conservative deputies, dashed the hopes of millions of Spaniards, reinforced already strong doubts about Spanish political culture, and sent the country drifting under a caretaker government toward an autumn already full of trouble. American progressives facing a season of fractious primary battles between Democratic moderates and radicals should take note.
2019 began well for the Spanish left, or at least for the center left Socialist party (PSOE). The Socialists came first in the April 28th national elections and seemed poised to form a government of the left with the help of a badly battered Podemos, which lost 29 of its 71 seats, most of them to the Socialists. After the 28th, it was widely assumed that the Socialists, who for a year had been heading a numerically weak, sometimes fractious government with the support of Podemos, would now form a numerically stronger and more stable coalition with them.
The two parties had been learning, after all, how to work together. And now a great deal was at stake: the pushing through of a budget that would break decisively with the policies of austerity adopted during the Crisis; the repeal of noxious anti-union and wage-deregulation laws also imposed at that time; and the adoption of powerful new measures to guarantee women’s rights and fight climate change. Much was at stake as well for the two parties themselves. The Socialists, their popularity rising in the polls, were in a position finally to gain something like a stable governing majority. And Podemos desperately needed a boost. It was reeling not only from internal schisms, headline making defections, and leadership blunders but from its terrible performance in April’s elections and its even more catastrophic results in May’s local and regional contests. All this losing could be left behind, the party’s leaders felt, if Podemos could realize its dream of governing in Spain, although not yet in full command, at least as a junior partner in a progressive government, something no party to the left of the Socialists had achieved in the decades since Franco’s fall.
Finally, of course, there was the matter of holding the country itself together. In 2017 the Socialists had sided with Spain’s conservative parties (and its constitution) in denying Catalonia’s secessionists the right to a unilateral referendum and declaration of independence, while Podemos had adopted the ungainly stance of affirming this right while urging the Catalans to remain in Spain. Now, almost 2 years after the thwarted Catalan declaration of independence in October of 2017, things seemed likely to come to a head again, with decisions in the trials of leading secessionists, a fiercely independentista party in charge of the Catalan parliament, and equally fierce anti-independence parties to the Socialists’ right rejecting any compromise. If a progressive government were not to be in place by fall, the nation would face this crisis with the Socialists’ “gobierno en funciones,” a weak, care-taking government, at the helm. And later, when new elections came in November, that Socialist government could well be replaced by a bellicose coalition of the right, including, perhaps, the neo-Francoist party Vox.
The drawn-out process of actually forming a new government climaxed in late July when the generous period allowed for consultation and negotiation with potential coalition partners was up. Ominously, there had been little contact for most of this period between PSOE and its potential partner, and it was clear that the socialist leader Pedro Sánchez was looking forward neither to negotiating with Podemos nor, should a coalition be formed, governing with them. He had reasons, of course, and not only the ideological differences between the two parties: his relations with Pablo Iglesias, the head of Podemos, had often been sharply and even personally antagonistic. Each leader had given the other cause for bitterness and distrust.
Podemos, in spite of this, was, as I have already said, counting on the creation of a coalition to repair its dramatically sinking fortunes. Moreover, it was determined not just to play a supporting role in the Socialists’ triumph, but to place its own people at the head of several key ministries and its leader, Pablo Iglesias, in a vice-presidency.
Things went badly from the start. In the week before the opening of the investiture debate, Sánchez tabled a working proposal which made it clear that he would not come close to meeting these demands, and Pablo Iglesias responded by calling his prospective coalition partner’s offer “idiotic.” Sánchez responded in kind. The Socialists, he declared, were opposed to offering the truculent, power-hungry Iglesias any high position in the new government; in fact, this demand was the “principal obstacle” to the creation of a coalition. As Sánchez put it later in the debate, “what we need is one government . . . one government not two governments in one. One government.”
At this point Iglesias played an interesting card. He circulated a video in which he declared that in the name of the higher needs of the left and the nation for a stable progressive government he would renounce all claims to a position in the coalition government. His concession, however, was laced with misrepresentations and new demands: he misquoted Sánchez, rewriting his “principal obstacle” as “only obstacle” and declaring that in return for stepping down he would expect to be given control of many ministries and to have the right to choose the individual minsters himself. (It was in response to this demand that Sánchez made his comment about “one government, not two.”)
Yet many on the left, overlooking these half-hidden riders, took Iglesias’ dramatic renunciation as a sign of a noble new flexibility. Perhaps, they dared to hope, there would be no repetition, this time, of the debacle of 2016, when Iglesias’ refusal to support Sánchez at a similar moment led to the failure of the Socialists’ bid and the return to power of the profoundly corrupt conservative Partido Popular. Perhaps Sánchez too would respond in kind, set aside his skepticism, and begin to treat Podemos with more respect.
But this was not to be. Whether because the two parties’ ideological differences were in fact insurmountable (as Sánchez had long been suggesting) or because personal animosities precluded cooperation, things only got worse when the formal investiture debates got underway July 22nd. As the nation watched aghast on television, Sánchez and Iglesias said terrible things to each other from the podium in the grand “hemiciclo” of Congress. “They appeared more like mortal enemies than potential allies” declared one observer.
Sánchez, fed up, perhaps, with Iglesias’ endless maneuverings, took every opportunity to put his potential junior partners in their place. “The world doesn’t begin and end with you,” he reminds Iglesias. “The Spanish Communist Party and Izquierda Unida . . . before you there was a left to the left of PSOE.” (The searing insinuation here is that Podemos, founded to “storm heaven” and quickly take power in Spain, had been reduced to merely one more small ultra-left party capable of claiming no more than 15% of the vote.)
Little wonder that Iglesias, given to construing political struggle in terms of “The Game of Thrones,” as a sadistic battle for domination, rose to the bait. “Don’t ask us to be a mere decoration in your Government,” he retorts melodramatically, “because we aren’t going to accept. We’re not going to let anyone humiliate and trample on us.” Sánchez snaps back, in his chosen register of disdain, “The offer we have made is generous and not merely decorative. Assume your responsibilities.” But Iglesias persists. His final declaration on this first day of the debates, as Iván Gil observes in El Confidencial, is an unveiled menace. Either Sánchez will “cede” a number of important positions in the government to Podemos or “usted no será presidente de España nunca!” (you will never be president of Spain!).
The last two days of the investiture go just as badly as the first. With time running out and the two parties’ negotiating teams either squabbling over the distribution of positions in the coalition government or refusing to speak with one another, Pablo Iglesias is ever more frustrated and furious. Video footage catches him slumped puffy-eyed in his seat or staring at Sánchez with stony fury. When Iglesias is speaking, Sànchez can be seen fiddling with his tie or feigning a deep interest in the screen of his laptop. The exchange of offers and counter-offers behind the scenes produces a couple of minor concessions from both parties, but these fail to issue in any final agreement. Either one party or the other holds out for more.
At one point, Sánchez declares that he is unwilling to sacrifice his political convictions in order to come to power. But Iglesias appears not to believe him until minutes before the final vote. Then, with disaster staring him in the face, he makes a desperate and profoundly undignified effort to barter a deal from the podium itself. “We will give up the Ministry of Labor,” he declares, “if you will give us the power to produce the Annual Plan for the Politics or Employment in this country.” His offer produces groans of exasperation and offended dignity from the chamber and is simply ignored by the Socialists.
Then, just before the vote, an unlikely figure rises to resurrect at least the idea of cooperation and the memory of a discourse worthy of the left. Gabriel Rufián, the arrogant and obstreperous acting-head of Catalonia’s ERC party, begins his speech by apologizing to the chamber for his own history of provocations. Then, speaking deliberately but with great passion, he calls on Iglesias and Sánchez to come to their senses. His appeal to Iglesias is particularly eloquent: “Your party is only four years old (I say this with enormous respect and care) four years! And you’re being offered four ministries! It’s extraordinary. Enter the government and demonstrate that you’re the better party!” “This isn’t,” he continues, now addressing both leaders, “a question of which party, PSOE or Podemos, is going to justify its bad behavior more persuasively. It’s a question of whether we can finally get the left together. The people don’t see one of you getting the upper hand. All they see is the left losing one more time.” “I’m of the left,” he concludes, his voice breaking, “and I have been losing ALL MY LIFE. And it’s happening again here and now, and [pointing to the conservative deputies] it is not because of them, it’s because of us.”
In the end, history repeats itself, although what occurs is something darker than farce. As they did in 2016, the Socialists fail on July 25th to get the support they need in order to form a government. As for Podemos, it once again strikes a pose of stubborn, puerile defiance that will almost certainly cost it dearly in the next elections. And these elections appear to be imminent, for there is little or no chance that the two parties can cool off, resume negotiations, and find some way to form a government of the left before September 23rd, the ultimate deadline in this way-too-protracted process. Then, as in 2016, it will be on to a second national election in November. No one can say who will win that election, but the polls suggest results will closely resemble those of last April.