Socialist Party leans back leftward to return to center of voter intent

Opposition proposes break with Vatican, salary caps and limits on pardons

Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba during the Socialist conference in Madrid.
Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba during the Socialist conference in Madrid.Ballesteros (EFE)

The Socialist Party (PSOE) ended its political conference in Madrid on Sunday with the promise of a radical change of direction for a party that has been leaning ever more to the center since first coming to power in 1982. The new ideas that were the fruit of a week of internal debate were mostly embraced by the party hierarchy, but some are so unprecedented that they were vetoed immediately, in particular: the abolition of party discipline in congressional voting; and the clamor in some sectors of the PSOE for Spain to move toward a republic.

» Executive wage caps. The ailing Spanish economy was the main thrust of the PSOE conference. The biggest novelty are proposed fiscal reforms that break with the party’s traditional line, and aim to recoup money from high earners and businesses through a fusion of income and wealth taxes, at the same time eliminating income tax for the unemployed and those earning less than 16,000 euros a year. Also on the agenda is constitutional reform to make the welfare state bulletproof, and setting up a guarantee fund similar to that of the pensions system. The PSOE also wants to introduce a salary scale that ensures no executive can earn in excess of 12 times the salary of employees.

» A break with the Vatican. The loudest applause at the conference was reserved for the PSOE’s commitment to shaking up Spain’s relations with the Holy See. The party unanimously approved tearing up the concordat of 1979, which grants the Catholic Church tax breaks and a strong influence over the education curriculum, preferring to start again “from scratch.” The party proposed removing religious education from the curriculum, and for religious classes to be taught outside of normal timetable hours. It also wants to remove religious symbolism from public events.

» The Third Republic? The cheers turned to catcalls when Ramón Jáuregui, a cabinet minister under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, read the party’s response to petitions from some sectors — particularly the PSOE youth wing — for a referendum to be held to allow Spaniards to choose between a constitutional monarchy and a republic. These were rejected outright. “The PSOE reiterates its tradition of republican politics but believes that the constitutional consensus on the subject of the monarchy should be maintained. An alternative agreement is not possible in our current social panorama.” But the PSOE will, he added, “ask that the monarchic institution give maximum respect to the sharing of powers and that it respond with efficiency, austerity and transparency in its constitutional functions.”

» Open primaries. “The two key decisions, what our project will be and who will lead it, will be taken by the citizens. It is the most important change within the PSOE for many years,” said María González, secretary for voter turnout, social networks and innovation on unveiling the party’s plan for open primaries. The PSOE is expected to decide at its next federal committee meeting whether to open voting for leadership elections to the entire party membership for the first time. Party barons have mooted the holding of leadership elections in the summer or fall of 2014.

Also discussed was an initiative to combat corruption with a policy of “one person, one salary,” while introducing a code of conduct that obliges a party member to step down if they are processed by the courts. All public office-holders will also have to publish details of their finances, including bank accounts, tax returns and public agendas. The PSOE also promised to curb the “revolving door” of politicians moving to companies in the private sector that might have benefited from their decisions.

» Voting discipline. The party hierarchy dismissed calls for the abolition of voting discipline, whereby all deputies are obliged to toe the line in Congress, but did embrace the idea of giving deputies greater freedom in general during debates by reforming the congressional rulebook. Electoral reform was also ruled out, although the leadership made clear it admired the German system, which consists of two votes per person, one for proportional representation and another to directly elect constituency candidates.

» Prohibition of extremists. The PSOE also stated its intention to seek the prohibition of extremist and xenophobic parties via a reform to the Political Parties Law. Germany already has such legislation but in Spain the ruling Popular Party (PP) is against the idea.

» Limits to pardons. Government pardons in Spain are regulated by a law dating from the 19th century and recently have proven very controversial. The PSOE will not seek to eliminate them but to convert them into an exceptional measure only to be used when the sentencing court is also in favor. Corruption cases will be excluded entirely, as the PSOE is still under a cloud over Zapatero’s decision to pardon Banco Santander executive Alfredo Sáenz in November 2011, when he was acting prime minister after the PSOE had lost the general elections.

PSC and PSOE in line

PERE RÍOS, Barcelona

The Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) on Monday expressed its satisfaction at the outcome of the PSOE party conference at the weekend, during which the national directorate agreed to consider the federal alternative to Catalan secession preferred by Pere Navarro’s grouping.

The PSC leader received a warm ovation when Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba said that the Socialists would move forward on the Catalan question “together.” Some elements of the PSOE had championed a split from the Catalan branch over their differences, which led to the PSC going against the party line in Congress.

“It is well known that we have differing opinions and that [the PSC] is not going to change its stance,” said PSC spokesman Jaume Collboni, adding that the PSOE’s acceptance of a federal reform is an historic step and will take time to be absorbed. “I understand that there are people who want to proceed little by little.”

Despite the PSC’s discreet role at the conference, Collboni said that the regional party had been active in the debate over the party’s future plans.

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