With hundreds of his supporters gathered in a convention centre in the southern city of Cádiz, on March 12th, Pedro Sánchez produced a surprise gambit. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, appeared on a screen with a video message.
“I follow and back you because today, European social democracy needs leaders – leaders like you,” the Cádiz-born Hidalgo said, speaking in Spanish.
“Because we need someone who can reinvent social democracy without losing any of our history.”
Hidalgo’s intervention was a major coup for Sánchez and it lent an international dimension to the leadership contest of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE).
The result of the race, which concludes in May, is expected to set the tone of Spain's uncertain political landscape in the near future and social democrats around Europe will be watching closely.
Sánchez (45) is reapplying for a job he already held, until he was ousted in October after a messy civil war.
The PSOE had been divided over whether or not to abstain in an investiture vote to allow conservative Mariano Rajo, of the Popular Party (PP), to continue as prime minister, after two inconclusive general elections. Sánchez insisted on voting against Rajoy.
But many senior figures in the party disagreed, fearing an extension of the political stalemate. They rebelled against the leader, replacing him with a caretaker administration which promptly abstained, allowing Rajoy to govern.
Attempting to thwart Sánchez’s comeback is former Basque regional premier Patxi López (57), who is seen as a moderate candidate.
And on March 26th the powerful regional premier of Andalusia, Susana Díaz (42), is also expected to formalise her bid, with the support of a platoon of senior party figures.
Despite having been a relatively moderate leader for most of his previous, two-year tenure, Sánchez is now presenting himself as a more radical figure, appealing to the left wing of the party.
“It seems as if some of our colleagues find it difficult to admit that the PSOE is on the left,” he told his supporters in Cádiz.
“The PSOE has always been the great force for change in this country, on the left, it’s never been in a non-existent centre.”
He added: “There are only two options: the PSOE of the Rajoy abstention vote – and the PSOE that we defend, which is a PSOE that is independent, leftist and credible and in which party members take an active role.”
Sánchez has been an energetic presence recently, tweeting with abandon and going for early-morning runs with party activists as he travels the length and breadth of Spain.
By contrast, López has struggled to convince the media he is a serious contender and the cagey Díaz has been waiting for the right moment to announce her candidacy.
Many view Sánchez’s maverick, stridently leftist new persona with scepticism.
Columnist Íñigo Sáenz de Ugarte is among them, but he also notes that the former leader’s attempt at a comeback “has set off alarms among the party’s bigwigs, who believe the Spanish political system should resemble that of the 1980s, and that the PSOE should therefore resemble the party of that period”.
The PSOE was instrumental in modernising Spain following the transition to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 and has governed for 21 of the last 35 years, as a left-of-centre yet market-friendly force.
But since 2014 it has been vying for votes on the left with Podemos, whose anti-austerity, populist voice has made it the country’s third political force.
“The strategic line the PSOE pursues from now on will decide whether it is able to govern Spain in the medium term or not – that’s why this process is so important,” says Pablo Simón, a social scientist at Carlos III University.
Díaz is seen as much more likely to guarantee a stable parliament, given that she is believed to be more open to a pact with the PP than Sánchez, who now says he regrets not working harder to forming a governing pact with Podemos during last year’s paralysis.
However, polls suggest that the Andalusia leader’s status as a powerful party insider who many blame for ousting Sánchez last year makes her unpopular among voters.
March 14th marked the anniversary of the surprise election victory of socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in 2004 and he celebrated by hosting an event in Madrid attended by US economist Jeffrey Sachs.
“I don’t believe the theory that there’s a crisis in social democracy,” Zapatero said. “I’ve been hearing that ever since I was a kid.”
However, the losses suffered by the Dutch Labour Party in the following day’s election, along with similar difficulties weathered by many of its counterparts across Europe, suggest otherwise.
With many countries seeing a more fractured political scene due to the surge in support for populism, centre-left parties are vulnerable, says Pablo Simón.
“This represents a dilemma that all social democratic parties have across Europe – they’re having to re-define their political coordinates and decide how to behave with the parties to their left,” he says.