By Alyssa McMurtry
The hundreds of protestors camped outside Spain’s Socialist Party (PSOE) Madrid headquarters on Saturday started out optimistic and defiant.
The crowd was mostly united in support of their leader, Pedro Sanchez, and against a government led by acting conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
They ended disappointed, confused and angry.
“The other side doesn’t have the nerve to come here and protest because they are simply doing things badly… You just can’t incite this kind of division within the party,” one protestor, Jon Sanchez, told Anadolu Agency.
However, the real drama was taking place inside, where both sides of the Socialists’ civil war were present.
It took hours to get the meeting started, with several long recesses called so the feuding politicians could gather their composure in the face of one of the deepest crises the party has ever faced.
On Wednesday, 17 members of the Socialists’ executive committee resigned in a move to oust the leader, who has been unwilling to support a conservative government led by Rajoy.
Spain has been without an agreed government for months, with two general elections failing to return one party with enough support to rule or even form a functioning coalition.
The “coup” in the Socialist Party is widely regarded as having been orchestrated by Susana Diaz, the PSOE president of Andalucia, and her supporters. They accuse Sanchez of running the party into the ground and are in favor of abstaining against Rajoy.
“I think the party needed a big bang, and that’s what happened. We needed a moment of reflection,” Ximo Puig, Socialist president of Valencia, who was one of the 17 to resign, told reporters.
Days after the mass resignation, the conflicting sides still could not agree on who was in charge.
After nearly 12 hours of emotionally-charged meetings, debates and recesses on Saturday, the 250 members of the party’s governing body voted on a proposition put forward by Sanchez.
The proposition was about whether or not to hold a congress on Oct. 23 in which grassroots members would decide on the next Socialist leader and whether or not to support a conservative government.
Sanchez’s plan to consult the grassroots was defeated by 132 votes to 107 according to Spanish daily, El Pais. Immediately after, he resigned as party leader. Now, just like the Spain itself, the Socialist Party is in the hands of a caretaker administration.
Spain's Socialist Party was founded in 1879 by labor leader Pablo Iglesias, who coincidentally went by the same name as the pony-tailed leader of today’s leftist Podemos (We Can) party -- also partially responsible for the Socialists’ rapid decline.
The PSOE governed Spain for 21 of the last 41 years, from the country’s transition to democracy from fascism in 1975.
Today, the Socialists are the main opposition in the now-deadlocked Spanish parliament. However, since the peak of the Socialist Party in the 1980’s, the PSOE has lost half its support -- from 44 percent in the 1986 elections to 22.6 percent in June 2016.
The decline of the center-left in Spain is far from an anomaly. Over the last decade, center-left parties all over Europe have experienced major drops in the polls. Socialist parties in Portugal, Germany, Finland and Austria have all seen significant losses in terms of popular support.
The center-left has been suffering in the United Kingdom too, where Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also faced open rebellion within his own party for his staunchly left-wing positions.
Yet, for the Socialists in Spain, the most relevant and terrifying comparison may be that of the Greek Socialists, PASOK, who went from being the largest party in 2009, with 44 percent of the popular vote, to receiving only five percent in January 2015.
Like Greece, Spain’s economy suffered immensely during the economic crisis. Spanish unemployment shot up to around 26 percent by 2013, according to Eurostat. Today, the unemployment rate still hovers around 20 percent, second in the EU only to Greece.
In response to hash austerity measures, perceived mismanagement and systematic corruption in both governing parties, like Syriza in Greece, the far-left Podemos party was formed and skyrocketed in the polls.
Now, the more radical left has taken many voters from the Socialists, especially younger people. In the June 2016 elections, Podemos (in coalition with the United Left Party) received just over one percent less than the Socialists’ 22.6 percent, coming third nationally.
Another party, Ciudadanos (Citizens), also broke into the Spanish political scene in the last couple of years. In June, Ciudadanos came fourth place nationally. While economically right-wing, the party is also socially progressive.
Critics of Sanchez have slated him for this historically low support and an inability to keep the party united amid the shake-up of Spain’s political scene.
He led the party between 2014 until Saturday and was the PSOE’s first leader to be elected by the grassroots in democratic primaries, in which all Socialist supporters were asked to vote.
Now, the next step for the Socialists is to elect a new leader and decide on which political strategy will help them stay afloat in these uncharted waters.
Party reactions on Sunday show the Socialists are still split into two camps and some suggest they would vote for Sanchez to lead again if he were to present himself.
-Between a rock and a hard place-
Spain's Socialists have two obvious options for how to approach the future -- both could be catastrophic for the party.
The most likely option is the party will adopt a new leader, perhaps Diaz, who will abstain in the investiture of the Socialist’s traditional political enemies -- the Popular Party, led by Rajoy.
This is sure to outrage a significant part of the party’s base which may become more likely to vote for Podemos in the future. However, even though a government would be finally be agreed, the Popular Party will still have a weak minority position in the Spanish parliament.
“I prefer to eat fried eggs every day than not have anything, but in this case, I prefer to have this paralysis, debating and looking for better solutions than to be led into misery with the corrupt Rajoy government,” PSOE supporter Jon Sanchez told Anadolu Agency.
The less-likely option after Sanchez’s loss of support in Saturday’s vote is that the Socialists decide to follow his approach and give a resolute “no” to Rajoy.
Unless a pact can be made with either Podemos or Ciudadanos (which Sanchez tried before and failed in the June elections) or with Podemos and various separatist groups (despite the Socialists being against Catalan independence), Spain would be forced to hold more elections in December.
With the meltdown in the Socialist Party, many voters would likely shift to either the more solidly left Podemos, or to the stability of the Popular Party.
To make matters worse for the Socialists, the clock is ticking. They have until Oct. 31 to help form a government or else Spanish voters will be forced to go to the polls for the third time in little over a year.