Long-time socialist voter Francisco Gómez chained himself to the railings outside his party's local headquarters in the city of Mérida, in western Spain this week.
He was protesting about the rebellion against his party’s leader, Pedro Sánchez. A few hours earlier, 17 members of the socialist executive had resigned in a bid to unseat the leader, and as Sánchez and another 17 loyalists stood firm, an all-out, very public, war had been unleashed in the heart of the party.
“They’ve been pulling the rug from under Pedro Sánchez for ages,” Gómez said, warning that he and other grassroots members of the party would not let it be turned into a “brothel”.
Gómez’s direct action reflects the scale of the drama within the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). Founded in 1879, it has a long and illustrious history and has governed for 21 of the last 34 years. But the party’s current woes represent its biggest crisis since the transition to democracy of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“During the Spanish transition there was a common saying, which still applies today,”
Juan Francisco Fuentes
, a historian of the Socialist party, told
The Irish Times
. “There are three kinds of enemies: enemies, arch enemies and party colleagues.” The PSOE is currently taking political self-destruction to unbelievable extremes.”
This crisis was triggered by the results of two regional elections last Sunday. The socialists lost ground in both, slipping to third place in Galicia and fourth in the Basque Country.
It was the latest in a series of electoral disasters for the party, following a worst-ever result in the inconclusive December 2015 general election, and an even poorer one in the June rerun. Sánchez responded to complaints about the weekend’s performance and his leadership by calling a snap leadership election for later this month, hoping his enemies in the party would not have time to prepare a rival candidacy.
But on Wednesday, Felipe González, a former Socialist prime minister, publicly accused Sánchez of “betraying” him by not abstaining in a congressional investiture vote earlier this month, despite allegedly promising that he would.
The abstention would have allowed conservative Mariano Rajoy to end a nine-month political stalemate in Spain and form a new government. However, it would also have run the risk of alienating traditional socialist voters. Soon afterwards, Sánchez's rivals broke cover, as the 17 rebels resigned, calling on him to do the same. Sánchez and his team refused, even locking Antonio Pradas, until a few hours earlier the party's national policy chief, out of the socialist headquarters in Madrid.
In a fierce editorial, El País newspaper, traditionally a supporter of the Socialist party, described Sánchez as "an unscrupulous fool" whose personal ambitions have been holding the country to ransom.
Comparisons have been made with Labour’s split in the UK over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, especially in light of Sánchez’s own tendency to appeal to grassroots supporters for backing. But ideology has barely figured in the Spanish socialists’ current hostilities. Instead, this is a conflict born of personal clashes and confusion generated by a new electoral landscape.
The powerful regional premier of Andalucía, Susana Díaz, is widely seen as being behind the putsch. Her ambition and thinly veiled disdain for Sánchez's leadership have undermined him ever since he emerged as a relative unknown to take the party's reins in the summer of 2014.
But Sánchez has also had to contend with the arrival, in that same year, of Podemos as a major rival on the left. Under the leadership of Pablo Iglesias and, buoyed by its status as a relatively untainted new force, Podemos has inevitably hurt the socialists.
Sánchez made his own attempt at forming a government in March, with the support of the liberal Ciudadanos, but fell well short of the votes needed in Congress.
Since then, he has refused to help Rajoy do the same, while insisting he can still reach out and form a leftist alternative. The party is split over this plan and over whether to help Rajoy by abstaining in a future vote, or to sit tight until a December general election and risk losing even more ground.
The party’s economic chief,
Manuel de la Rocha
, is one of the members of the executive who have remained loyal to Sánchez.
"His position is firm that the socialist party should never facilitate a PP government," he told The Irish Times following a meeting of loyalists on Thursday.
As for the prospect of forming a leftist government with Podemos and other parties, De la Rocha admitted it was “always difficult and now looks even harder”.
However, the most immediate challenge for Sánchez, the man many blame for Spain’s unprecedented political impasse, is to survive an emergency meeting of the party’s federal committee today.