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Work yet to be done

The PSOE has laid out a social-democratic program at a political conference without internal divisions

The political conference of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) has been debating a vast reform program aimed at recovering the party's social-democratic identity, which was blurred by the maneuvering of former Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and the 2011 electoral defeats. The PSOE wants a strong role for the state as a way to protect the victims of the crisis, proposing a substantial increase in the efficiency of the tax system rather than simply raising rates. The party also wants to write the principles of public healthcare and the secular nature of the education system into the Constitution, so that the rewriting of rights considered to be sacred by the left will not be as easy as it seems to have been under the current Popular Party (PP) government.

With this path now chosen by the PSOE, some are rightly pointing out that it is by no means clear who is going to lead the party along it. The Socialist leadership has opted to cross one bridge at a time, avoiding the risk of reducing the conference to a parade of candidates for the post of prime minister. The first days have seen a show of unity around the secretary-general, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, and the proposal of primary elections.

If the party were to risk letting the people choose its main candidate, it would mark an unheard-of experiment in Spain. As the polls show, the PSOE is currently being ostracized by the electorate. If the aim is to mobilize voters, the option of holding real primaries may prove to be effective. Spending the entire conference pitting prime ministerial aspirants against one another would have entangled the party in the most facile of options, canceling the plan for primaries entirely, or reducing it to a formality. A last-minute amendment downscales the entry requisites for candidates, thus reducing the control wielded by the party apparatus, while rejecting the attempts to precipitate the date of the primaries. Thus the plan to involve hundreds of thousands of people in a process hitherto reserved for party members is still going ahead.

More problematical is the scant attention given by the Socialists to the issue of the regional system, with the argument that a group of regional "barons" already settled it in June. To leave the federal proposal practically out of the conference is explicable only in terms of the fear that further discussion would widen the rift between the national party, the PSOE, and the Catalan branch, the PSC. This risk was addressed by the Andalusian regional leader, Susana Díaz, with a call for unity and the abandonment of ambiguous rhetoric, warning that one party alone cannot resolve the regional issue in Spain. The fact that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is refusing to touch Articles 1 and 2 of the Constitution does not actually close the door on the federal state that has been suggested by the Socialists.

In short, the PSOE conference may have laid the groundwork for a certain political-ideological rearmament, or amount merely to a catalogue of intentions. This will depend on whether their messages can dispel the climate of skepticism. One thing lacking, for example, is a concrete alternative economic policy.

The PSOE's problem is how it can reestablish contact with the leftist electorate, without yielding to demagogy and populism. The conference is only the first step toward rechanneling one of the central currents of Spanish politics. And this rectification must begin with recognition that all of this work is yet to be done.

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