Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, seized the initiative this week by slapping down right-wing judicial attacks on his government. But his left-wing allies Sumar seem increasingly overshadowed — and their weak position is exposing divisions in their ranks.

Yolanda Diaz speaking on December 20, 2023, in Madrid, Spain, as Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez looks on. (Eduardo Parra / Europa Press via Getty Images)

Spain was stunned last week as Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez temporarily withdrew from public life — plunging into five days of official silence as he considered whether to resign. Spaniards were gripped by speculation about whether the center-left leader had reached a breaking point, after he published an emotional open letter admitting his doubts about “whether it is worth [continuing].” Sánchez’s dramatic move came as a Madrid court opened an obviously bogus criminal investigation into his wife, Begoña Gómez, on allegations of trafficking political favors.

The speculation ended on Monday, as Sánchez announced that he will remain in post. But his confidence in his future — and his hint he could even fight the next general election — also suggested that there had been a political calculation behind his gesture. Sánchez was looking to take back the political initiative from the Spanish right after months on the defensive by kickstarting a national debate on “regenerating democracy.”

Once again, he cast himself as the Left’s progressive champion battling with reactionary forces in the media and justice system. Few other center-left politicians in Europe are capable of playing the left-populist card, even opportunistically. But a flash opinion poll saw Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) getting an immediate 6 percent boost — and demonstrated his ability to appeal to voters well to his party’s left.

Pedro Sánchez looked to take back the political initiative from the Spanish right after months on the defensive.

However, the success of Sánchez’s maneuver also ensured the eclipse of his junior coalition partner — the left-wing alliance Sumar. As it happened, its unveiling of a new executive committee was overshadowed amid the progressive mobilizations in support of Sánchez. In many ways, this has been indicative of Sumar’s grueling first six months in Sánchez’s second coalition government, in which it has struggled to keep pace with the PSOE leader. Indeed, a string of disastrous regional election results and debilitating factionalism have raised serious concerns about the project’s future viability — and deputy prime minister Yolanda Díaz’s capacity to oversee the construction of a sustainable organization.

Division and Eclipse

The election pact headed by Díaz last July united twenty formations across Spain’s fragmented left space. The last-minute deal ahead of the snap vote was marked by a tense standoff with the formerly hegemonic left-wing party, Podemos. In its campaign, dominated by the charismatic Díaz, Sumar managed to hold the line for the Left after years of declining polling numbers and damaging factionalism. Its 12.3 percent of the vote and thirty-one seats nearly matched Unidas Podemos’s result in the previous such contest in 2019 — and, crucially, doubled the Left’s number of votes compared to the local elections only two months earlier.

Yet by the time Sumar’s founding conference kicked off on March 23, the euphoria of the general election results had long since dissipated. The unity on the Left had only lasted as far as December, when Podemos chose to break with Sumar after being excluded from the Left’s five ministerial posts in the coalition government headed by Sánchez’s PSOE. Neither side had shown any political will to reach an agreement over a Podemos appointment, with Díaz determined to impose a clear-out of party founder Pablo Iglesias’s old guard from the Left’s front bench.

The split has now left Sumar with only twenty-seven MPs, further complicating the government’s already fragile parliamentary majority and weakening Díaz’s hand at the negotiating table with PSOE. Furthermore, humiliating results in regional elections in Galicia in February, where Sumar received less than 2 percent of the vote, reconfirmed not just the Left’s electoral weakness beyond Spain’s major urban areas but also the limits to organizing around yet another ad hoc, leader-centered platform. This was followed this April 21 with heavy losses in the Basque regional elections as Sumar and Podemos ran competing candidates that split the left-wing vote relatively equally. Their divided forces won only one seat (for Sumar) compared to six MPs four years ago.

With its founding organizational and ideological documents, which were passed at conference, Sumar was seeking to lay the basis for a more sustainable structure for the Spanish left. Yet the internal factionalism has, if anything, intensified in the weeks since then — confirming that its problems stretch far beyond its relationship with Podemos. It faces considerable strategic and tactical challenges if it is to remain a viable political project in the years to come.

The government’s first six months have been consumed by the negotiation of an amnesty law, which would end the criminal charges hanging over Catalan independence leaders.

The most immediate of these hurdles is the ongoing parliamentary deadlock. The first six months of the coalition’s new term have been consumed by the negotiation of an amnesty law, which would end the criminal charges hanging over Catalan independence leaders. “Right now, the government’s agenda is frozen — with no major legislation or new social measures expected before July,” one Sumar advisor told Jacobin. “Even after that, it won’t be easy as we will need the support of [the center-right, Catalan nationalist] Junts to secure a parliamentary majority and pass anything.”

In particular, Sánchez’s announcement that he was giving up attempts to pass a government budget this year — with his executive instead holding over last year’s fiscal plans — has meant the four Sumar ministers new to their posts find themselves without allocated resources to advance their policy priorities in the coming months. The Sumar platform was originally launched off the back of its leaders’ existing record in office, and above all Díaz’s impressive record as labor minister. Yet this legislative impasse has left Sumar with little chance to mark the political agenda since last July’s elections.

Even on Gaza, Díaz — the highest-ranking European official to call out the slaughter as genocide — has been outshone by Sánchez. In particular, the prime minister has launched a diplomatic initiative in recent weeks to lead a small group of European nations to recognize a Palestinian state before June’s European elections. Combined with his newfound protagonism owing to the judicial attacks on his wife, Sánchez is betting that such a move will rally voters to back his PSOE at the polls.

Going Green

This, in turn, points to a broader challenge facing Sumar, namely how to navigate the Spanish left’s continued participation in government as junior partner while, at the same time, avoiding its marginalization and complete subordination to the PSOE. Sánchez has arguably benefited the most from having the Left at cabinet since 2020: he has appropriated parts of its discourse and agenda while also being able to continually negotiate a balance between it and the right wing of his own party.

Even when Díaz and her left-wing colleagues in the former Unidas Podemos alliance pushed the coalition further on workers’ rights or tackling the cost-of-living crisis during the coalition’s first term, Sánchez was ultimately better placed to capitalize on such advances electorally. In fact, in last July’s general election, PSOE reinforced its dominance among lower-income and lower-educated voters.

If Sánchez exerts near-undisputed leadership over Spain’s progressive bloc, the Sumar platform passed its own founding “political-ideological document” at March’s conference. It proclaimed itself “a movement for democracy, human rights, and radical reforms, by which we mean freedom.” This intellectually brilliant text, which combines an eighty-year historical analysis of the Spanish left with a [Ernesto] Laclau–inspired wager for its contemporary ideological rearmament, was written primarily by Íñigo Errejón. The main architect of Podemos’s early left-populism, during last year’s general-election campaign Errejón became Díaz’s highest-profile media surrogate.

As labor minister, Díaz had initially stuck by a quite conventional laborism. But during last year’s election campaign, this focus was diluted.

At its core, this document can be read as a bet on the type of green-inflected, “transversal” strategies that have worked to maintain a broad electoral base for the main regional forces integrated within Sumar, such as Más Madrid, the Valencia-based Compromís, and Catalunya en Comú. It seeks to consolidate and growing the Left’s existing cross-class coalition, which is heavily weighted to younger urban professionals, through softer messaging, a pop aesthetic, and a “green-laborist” agenda that seeks to build a profile distinct from Sánchez’s pitch for social democratic stability.

As labor minister, Díaz had initially stuck by a quite conventional laborism. She referenced Clement Attlee’s 1945–51 British government as a relevant precursor for her brand of reformist social protectionism, from her successful management of the state’s COVID-19 furlough scheme to her landmark 2022 reform of Spain’s labor laws. But during last year’s election campaign, this focus on labor protections and welfare was diluted — if not erased — in favor of framings like a “right to a life project” (i.e., to the conditions needed to have good prospects for your life and career) and an emphasis on free time, equality of opportunity, and mental health.

As journalist Antonio Maestre notes, this was also accompanied by an attempt to cultivate a much “glossier image [of Díaz] based on smiley, friendly manners” and an unwillingness to engage in constant political polemics in the way Podemos ministers had done. In an energetic campaign, Sumar mixed innovative policy announcements that were designed to appeal to its base, such as the proposed universal inheritance scheme, with Barbie memes and a merciless deconstruction of Vox’s anti-feminism in the leaders’ debate.

Sumar has struggled to ensure a workable organizational arrangement, even after Podemos split away.

This turn was further reinforced by Errejón’s conference document, which brought Sumar’s discursive strategy closer to that of the early Podemos — with its agenda framed in terms of the promise of the democratization of society, the economy, and the state. Infused with Errejón’s original reading of Laclauian populism, the text argues that “the battle for freedom is the great ideological combat of our time,” with Sumar having to go on the offensive to dispute the Right’s ownership of the idea. The “right to a life project” cannot be tied “to having been born into the right family,” he argued in a recent interview. “Our adversaries’ project is one of . . . freedom for the few and arbitrariness and fear for the majority. . . . Sumar wants to be a movement for democracy and the democratization of freedom.”

Unraveling

Yet, in reality, the most heated point of contention leading up to the conference was the exact relationship between Sumar and the key regional forces integrated within it — which drowned out any meaningful discussion of the platform’s ideological and strategic coordinates. Constructed as a lean, centralized platform designed to fight the 2023 general-election campaign called at short notice, Sumar has since struggled to ensure a workable organizational arrangement among the various forces aligned to it, even after Podemos split away.

Díaz and her core team have found themselves caught in increasingly conflictual negotiations with the other parties involved in Sumar, as they seek to develop internal procedures and agree on the division of institutional appointments while also having to organize for difficult regional and European election campaigns with few on-the-ground structures.

Particularly after the election wipeout in Díaz’s home territory of Galicia, it became clear the deputy prime minister did not have the authority to secure the more integrated “broad front” organization first envisioned for Sumar — which would have sought to develop some forms of collective organic structures and a shared activism beyond those of an electoral and parliamentary alliance. Many basic organizational questions were simply put off being decided upon at March’s conference, as regional formations pushed back against any encroachment of Sumar into their territories. The platform’s plans to build its own extraparliamentary structures, however minimal, remain vague.

Indeed, in the week running up to the conference, Más Madrid threatened to boycott the event unless there was a deal recognizing its complete political autonomy and control over the Left’s project on its home turf. Díaz ultimately relented in a last-minute agreement to ensure an image of unity at the conference, in an agreement that positions Más Madrid as the “collective home” for the divided left in the Spanish capital. Yet, in turn, the Communist-led Izquierda Unida, which ran against Más Madrid in local and regional elections there, denounced the agreement as “intolerable” and as leaving it “outside” the Sumar project in Madrid.

There is now a clear sense within Izquierda Unida that it is being sidelined in the construction of Sumar, particularly after Podemos’s exit altered the alliance’s internal balance of forces. This has happened even though Izquierda Unida was instrumental in the project’s initial rollout and Díaz herself originally came from its ranks. The more green-aligned Catalunya en Comú, Más Madrid, and Compromís now outnumber Izquierda Unida two-to-one in Sumar’s parliamentary party. As one member of Izquierda Unida’s national leadership told Jacobin in the run-up to the conference: “Our weight within Sumar has been weakened since the split with Podemos.”

Yolanda Díaz has repeatedly chosen less politicized, independent candidates that project a technocratic image of a party of government — but who have little impact in the current highly polarized media landscape.

This was further confirmed in the disastrous negotiations over the joint list for June’s European elections. Díaz was left with the impossible task of satisfying each of the parties’ ambitions to secure representation in the European Parliament but, at the same time, there has been a consensus among all these formations at the unsuitability of her handpicked candidate to head the list. As with both the platform’s candidate in Galicia and her key recruits for Sumar’s general election list last year, Díaz has repeatedly chosen less politicized, independent figures that project a technocratic image of a party of government but who have had little impact in the current highly polarized media landscape.

To universal frustration, Díaz doubled down on this tactic for the European elections, choosing the little-known director of Spain’s refugee council to run against Podemos’s Irene Montero — the former equality minister and one of Spain’s most recognizable political personalities. She also further deepened her rift with Izquierda Unida, assigning it to fourth in the list — behind Catalunya en Comú and Compromís, even though it is the only force remaining in the platform with nationwide structures. In response, Izquierda Unida has withdrawn from any participation in Sumar’s new executive, with its spokesperson declaring that the platform “is not succeeding as a unifying space for the Left.” The party will now revise its exact relationship with Sumar after June’s election but insisted it would not contribute to “further atomization” by running a separate list.

Dilemmas

Writer Daniel Bernabé laments how Sumar, like Podemos before it, has proven unable to overcome a model of “ill-defined organization based on the digital charisma of a leader and a body of supporters with whom it establishes a relationship defined more by marketing than organic structure.” A series of internally diverse, left-wing projects at local, regional, and national levels have experienced initial electoral surges over the last decade in Spain. And yet, operating in an organizational void, many have very quickly come undone under external pressures and internal tensions. Sumar’s trajectory through its first year of existence suggests that it, too, has fallen into an organizational dead end, faced with the mounting contradictions of building a new political platform from the heights of government.

With Pedro Sánchez staking his claim to lead the Left, Sumar needs to stand for something distinctive.

After what looks likely to be a bruising European election campaign, the Spanish left will have to press reset and return to the original promise of Sumar — which translates as “unite” or “add together.” Díaz’s record as minister might be unparalleled on the European left, having shown herself to be a brilliant institutional actor. Yet, she has so far failed to convince as a party-political leader. Even given Podemos’s aggressive factionalism and attempts to undermine her authority, it was a major error not to publicly offer its leader Ione Belarra the opportunity to continue as minister of social affairs — a move that could have maintained Sumar’s broad-tent status.

It is also clear, however, that Sumar needs to break out of its straightjacket of respectability, with the moderation in its communications simply reinforcing the platform’s marginality on the national stage. The type of highly charged controversies that Podemos had previously engaged in from office around lawfare and media bias seemed alien to most voters’ everyday concerns during the pandemic — and were unable to spark public engagement in the way that Sanchez’s well-timed maneuver did.

Yet Sumar’s more general aversion to engaging in controversies, as well as its desire to maintain its image as a governing force, now also undermine Díaz and her ministers’ ability to gain traction on issues or go on the offensive. As Maestre notes, “Díaz and Sumar have to be able to differentiate themselves from PSOE in a radical way . . . or their future is to disappear.” With Sánchez staking his claim to lead the Left, Sumar needs to stand for something distinctive.

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