Contrary to the breathless headlines on virtually every story covering last week's Spanish elections, it was not the Spanish Socialists' worst election ever. True, they lost 4 million votes, 59 seats, the election and handed the conservative PP an absolute majority for the first time in history. But this was an election the PSOE expected to lose. No governing party would have survived having to make the cuts that the debt crisis forced them to; let's not forget this was the 5th European government to fall victim to the crisis. And it's not over: the outgoing Zapatero government cut €10 billion but to meet the target deficit of 4.4% of GDP next year, the new Rajoy team will need to find up to €30 billion in cuts and taxes that will be wildly unpopular. This is not a bad time to go into opposition.
Still, the party faces challenges on its road back. They need leadership badly and the party will be electing a head in February; Rubalcaba, the party's sacrificial lamb of a candidate, can't be blamed for the election but he is too associated with the government blamed for the crisis. Others come with baggage: Carmé Chacon, former defense Minister, said recently "Let's see if anyone dares say that a Catalan woman cannot lead the Socialist Party," but the disqualifying word in that sentence may be 'Catalan'. Other regional leaders like Tomas Gomez or Jose Antonio Griñán are not doing well electorally on their home turf. The best candidate by far, Patxi Lopez of the Basque Country, has made it clear he's not interested in the job.
Equally though, they need a credible program. Both the PSOE and the PP virtually ignored the indignados movement but one not need embrace the youthful protesters to understand that the lack of faith in the future resonates with both the young and the middle class. Providing a response to that, once the immediate turmoil with the euro and the bond markets is past, will be the key to future electoral success . The PSOE, and this is true of much of the European left, is going to have to come up with a credible take on managing and encouraging growth in what is likely to be a prolonged period of stagnation. They cannot over-promise in terms of spending or social programs, tempting though that is for a party trying to get elected, but need to offer a plan of both cuts and sensible expenditures like long term investment in infrastructure, targeted education investment, reforming the dual labor market and pension system in ways that will eventually create jobs.
To do that, they are probably going to need to rethink their relationship with the trade unions and push for reforms to the collective bargaining structure and severance payments that helps those with jobs covered by agreements, but do not allow a substantial reduction in the unemployment rate or create conditions for external investment. This is not an easy thing to do, of course, especially for a party on the center-left. But these kinds of electoral defeats are precisely the time when parties have an opportunity to regroup.
So what was the PSOE's worst election? 1979. They had expected to win and were thrown into chaos when they did not. What followed was a reconfiguration of the party, a purge of much of the left, a move toward the center and a platform that allowed them to come to power in 1982. Clearly the challenges they face now are different, as are the policy prescriptions to move the country forward. But this election does not mean that the PSOE need be consigned to a period of long-term opposition if they take advantage of what the defeat offers them.