3 March 2016

The clock has started ticking

Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), yesterday failed in his first bid to be voted in as new Prime Minister – as he lost a confidence vote in the lower house of the Spanish parliament by 219 to 130. The outcome was totally unsurprising but nonetheless significant, as it has set the clock into motion. Spanish MPs now have until May 2 to elect a Prime Minister, or re-run elections will have to be called.

Sánchez will get a second chance tomorrow evening, when a simple majority – more votes in favour than against – will be sufficient. However, as things stand, he lacks the necessary support to achieve even that. Should the Socialist leader also lose the second confidence vote, we would be entering uncharted waters. It would be the first time a Prime Minister-candidate fails to be voted in by MPs after a general election since Spain’s return to democracy.

King Felipe VI would have to pick another candidate, although in theory he could propose Sánchez again. There would be further talks among parties, another investiture debate, other confidence votes, and so forth – until the early May hard deadline.

Acrimonious debate makes it hard to envisage a breakthrough

The acrimonious tone of yesterday’s debate makes it hard to envisage a breakthrough in government formation talks. Mariano Rajoy, caretaker Prime Minister and leader of the centre-right Partido Popular (PP), essentially used his speaking time to ridicule Sánchez and his attempt to put together a government – accusing the Socialist leader of “wasting everyone’s time” with a “farce”. Given that PP would ultimately need PSOE to play ball if it is to stand any chance of forming a government, the fact that Rajoy opted to burn bridges rather than building them made him come across as someone who is already in election campaign mode.

Sánchez also came under attack from Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, who strongly criticised him for striking a deal with the centrist party Ciudadanos rather than seeking to build up a left-wing coalition.

Overall, the deadlock looked harder to break than ever.

Who is afraid of new elections?

However, assuming that Sánchez is defeated again tomorrow, the prospect of re-run elections would certainly become a factor in government formation talks over the coming weeks. Having ruled out a left-wing alliance (as that would imply relying on Catalan separatist parties), PSOE would have to decide which one it deems the lesser of two evils: fighting an election campaign in which they would be attacked from both flanks by PP and Podemos, or supporting a PP push to form a minority government – which looks like a guaranteed way to lose voters to Podemos. This because PSOE’s preferred option – an alliance with Podemos and Ciudadanos – continues to be out of the question as both newcomer parties see each other as incompatible.

PP is in a slightly better position. At the end of the day, it won the most votes in the December general election – and could therefore use the election campaign to blame PSOE for not letting the party with the largest representation in parliament form a government. However, the recent streak of corruption allegations could have an impact in the event of new elections – not least because it could be harder for Rajoy and his party to persuade voters that it is just a matter of ‘isolated cases’ and ‘rotten apples’ rather than a systemic failing within PP.

In any case, Rajoy has signalled that he would want to try and form a government if Sánchez failed to do so. At that point, though, he would almost inevitably face questions over his own role. Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera, for instance, already said that he sees Rajoy as unfit to lead a reformist government – given that, by definition, he embodies continuity with the past. Would Rajoy be prepared to hand his job to someone else from PP if that could make a deal easier?

As regards Podemos, I already explained why I believe the party led by Pablo Iglesias stands to gain the most from re-run elections. Yesterday’s debate was a further step towards their ultimate goal: replace PSOE as the largest left-wing party in Spain. Therefore, I would expect Podemos to keep playing hardball all the way through.

Two months is a very long time in politics and many things can change, but the chance of a government being formed looks tiny right now. It looks increasingly as if Rajoy’s inadvertent prediction at last month’s European Council may well come true. Re-run elections would, however, not take place until June 26.  This would mean over six months under a caretaker government and no guarantee of a less fragmented outcome. A wave of political uncertainty Spain could have done without.