Spain’s Social Democrats Buck European Trend

Pedro Sánchez was willing to take a side in his country’s culture war and won.

Prime Minister António Costa of Portugal greets his Spanish counterpart, Pedro Sánchez, in Lisbon, July 2, 2018
Prime Minister António Costa of Portugal greets his Spanish counterpart, Pedro Sánchez, in Lisbon, July 2, 2018 (Governo da República Portuguesa/Clara Azevedo)

Spain’s are among few social democrats in Europe who have figured out how to thrive in a new political reality.

Although the 30 percent support Pedro Sánchez is projected to win Sunday night is a far cry from the 48 percent support the Socialists won at the peak of their popularity in the 1980s, it is a significant improvement on the last two election results (22 percent in both 2015 and 2016) and almost double what the conservative People’s Party, for decades the dominant party on the right, has managed.

Two reasons

One reason for Sánchez’ success is the radicalization of the mainstream right.

Under Pablo Casado, the People’s Party has taken a harder line on everything from abortion to immigration to Catalan nationalism. Casado tried to stem defections to the far right but ended up legitimizing it. The far-right Vox is projected to win 10 percent support. However, the combined right could lose seats in Congress.

Another reason is that Sánchez, like António Costa in Portugal and unlike social democrats in France, Germany and the Low Countries, has been willing to do deals with the far left and take a side in his country’s culture war.

Culture war

The pertinent political divide in Europe is no longer between the left and right but between open and closed, or cosmopolitan and patriotic, or progressive and reactionary.

The center-left historically had supporters in both camps: liberal elites and the working class.

No longer.

A socially and geographically mobile upper class — well-educated and internationalist in outlook — is reaping the benefits of porous borders and globalization. Older, low-skilled voters, especially in small towns and the countryside, feel left behind.

It’s impossible to appeal to both groups.

Sánchez has clearly sided with the former with a pro-European, pro-immigration, feminist agenda. That may not appeal to enough Spaniards to give his party an absolute majority, but it is enough to stay ahead of a divided right and — crucially — in power.