The Politics of Symbolism in Sanchez’s Spain

7 Aug 2018


Pedro Sanchez’s Socialist government rests on shaky ground. After ousting his predecessor Mariano Rajoy last month, Sanchez leads a government that depends on an array of disparate parties in a confidence and supply agreement. Within this group are diverging interests and ambitions that are pulling the government in different directions and constraining what it can do. As vote-winning legislative victories look hard to come by, the government has been aiming for symbolic victories that it can point to at the next election. Given its inherently weak position, this is its best hope.


Spain’s two-party system of the centre-left Socialists and the centre-right People’s Party crumbled in 2015 after decades of dominance, slain by the growing support for smaller fringe parties. The dwindling strength of the two major parties brings us to the current situation. After unseating his predecessor last month, Pedro Sanchez was able to form a minority government and become prime minister. However, he required a confidence and supply agreement with a collection of smaller parties. The groups propping up the Socialists come from across the political spectrum; from Podemos on the far-left to separatist factions from Valencia, the Canary Islands, the Basque country and Catalonia.


Sanchez’s reliance on this mish-mash of parties is making vote-winning policy changes hard to come by. This difficulty was demonstrated clearly last week. The Socialists hold only 84 of the 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies, so must count on the other parties in its confidence and supply agreement to have any hope of passing legislation. The government proposed lifting the ceiling on government spending by 4.4% to €125bn and raising the deficit target from 1.3% to 1.8% of GDP, to allow them to increase pay for public sector workers and to allow for greater spending by Spain’s 17 regional governments. Unfortunately for Pedro Sanchez the motion was defeated. Besides, the predictable opposition of the People’s Party, the parties in the confidence agreement all abstained, dooming the bill to failure. The need to rely on these parties appears to have already restricted the government and will make accruing any vote-winning policy successes extremely difficult before the next election.


As the failure of its first big vote has shown, the government is at the mercy of the parties in its confidence agreement. Abstentions on their part can doom bills to fail meaning strong support is essential. As the difficulty of navigating the legislature has set in, the government is unsurprisingly seeking symbolic victories to make up for the lack of concrete change.

Two recent events have shown Sanchez in an attempt to prove himself and his government. The Aquarius, a ship carrying 629 refugees, was left stranded in the Mediterranean after being turned away from both Italy and Malta. Pedro Sanchez stepped in and offered to receive the refugees, along with 2 further ships stranded with nowhere to dock. As well as helping him appeal to the leftist factions in Congress, Sanchez can point to this as evidence of his progressive credentials and symbolic of a real shift in the attitude of government since the removal of the People’s Party.  


In 1975, after the death of fascist dictator General Francisco Franco, his remains were buried at the Valley of the Fallen, an important national monument on the outskirts of Madrid. No previous government has since intervened, but Pedro Sanchez has announced plans to move the body to a place of less grandeur, arguing that Hitler or Mussolini would never be revered in such a monument. His critics accuse him of digging up Spain’s dark past and using it for political capital, whilst pointing to polling figures which show very little public interest in the issue. But for Sanchez, it is a chance to present himself as a leader unafraid of confronting issues left alone by previous governments.


His critics say that Sanchez and his government are wasting time on symbolic acts. Deputies from the People’s Party say Sanchez is involved in the ‘politics of gestures’ and is not concerning himself with the real issues concerning Spaniards, such as healthcare, pensions and high unemployment. The location of General Franco’s remains has never been viewed important enough by previous administrations to warrant intervention, with it not being perceived a genuine concern of the public. But what choice does the prime minister have? Leading a small minority government that counts on such unreliable support on legislation in Congress leaves him trapped, unable to build a record of genuine policy successes to help him win a second term.


The government has the power to call the next election any time before July 2020. When that comes, it will be symbolic moves that Sanchez will point to. These moves symbolise Sanchez’s progressive credentials and mark a change from the past. But symbolism can only get him so far, and as time passes and legislative victories continue to be out of his grasp, don’t be surprised if the Socialists call an election sooner than many expect. After some more symbolic victories, of course.


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