12 April 2016

Over three months after the inconclusive general election on 20 December, Spain is still without a new government. The clock is ticking, and the deadline for Spanish MPs to vote in a new Prime Minister will expire on May 2. Three more weeks, but Spain has almost no options left to avoid re-run elections.

Where are we at?

The Socialist Party (PSOE), the left-wing Podemos and the centrist Ciudadanos last week held their first three-way meeting to discuss government formation. Unsurprisingly, they failed to make any headway. After the meeting, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias announced that he would ask party supporters – in an online survey that will take place from Thursday to Sunday – whether they want him to sign up to the government pact sealed by PSOE and Ciudadanos a few weeks ago. The outcome of the online poll is expected to be announced next Monday.

In the meantime, however, PSOE’s lead negotiator Antonio Hernando has given the clearest indication yet that Spain will need to go to snap elections in the summer. He told reporters,

The time of offers is over, and what we have established is that Pablo Iglesias is not reliable. There will be no more offers and counter-offers with Iglesias and Podemos.

He also insisted that PSOE has no intention of entering negotiations with the centre-right Partido Popular (PP) of caretaker Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

In such a context, the numbers in the Spanish parliament can never add up. Nonetheless, King Felipe VI will make one last try to break the deadlock – as he will hold talks with political leaders on 25-26 April.

Could things still change?

I can currently see three – admittedly very narrow – possible ways out of the impasse.

First, Podemos supporters could back the PSOE-Ciudadanos pact in the upcoming online survey. However, that would essentially mean voting openly against their party’s leader Pablo Iglesias. Previous examples of similar online polls launched by Italy’s Five-Star Movement leader Beppe Grillo on his blog make me inclined to think this is unlikely to happen.

Second, Rajoy could decide to take a step back and put forward someone else from his party as new PM – in what would be the ultimate bid to convince PSOE to at least let PP form a minority government. Again, this also looks unlikely to happen at this stage. Nonetheless, such a move – and the mediation of the King – could prompt Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez to change his mind. At the end of the day, all recent opinion polls suggest that PSOE would lose the re-run elections anyway. Some of them even show PP increasing its lead compared to last December. As the deadline approaches, Sánchez and the PSOE leadership could start questioning whether facing snap polls as early as end-June is the most rewarding choice.

Third, the King could try and propose a ‘consensus candidate’ for new PM (remember Mario Monti?) – with a view to forming some kind of interim government. Indeed, this would raise many questions. Where would this person come from? Can we expect Spanish parties to come together and back such a solution, given the animosity that has characterised both the election campaign and the post-election negotiations? Would such a government really be put in a condition to do anything meaningful in terms of economic policy and reforms? But I am pretty sure this is an option King Felipe VI is mulling over.

Repeating the elections may not put an end to political uncertainty

Having said all this, re-run elections remain the most likely scenario. They would take place on June 26, and it is far from clear that they would deliver a radically different outcome. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, the wait-and-see strategy adopted by Rajoy over the past month or so could actually pay off in terms of narrative for a second election campaign. He would be able to claim that his rival Sánchez wasted the country’s precious time due to his obstinacy in trying to force PP out of power – despite the latter winning the most votes and seats back in December.

Conversely, PSOE would likely face questions as to why it flatly rejected the left-wing alliance proposed by Podemos and instead sealed a pact with Ciudadanos – a party that Sánchez himself had previously snubbed, by describing it as some sort of youth wing of PP. As regards Ciudadanos, the party led by Albert Rivera could point to the efforts it made to build bridges between PP and PSOE throughout the negotiations. Podemos would most certainly use all of the above to pitch themselves as the only real force for change in Spanish politics – the main target being PSOE voters disappointed by the party’s reluctance to muster a fully-fledged leftist coalition.

Generally speaking, it would be legitimate to expect another acrimonious election campaign – with all parties blaming each other for having to repeat the elections – potentially leading to more rounds of tricky government formation talks after the June 26 vote. In other words, whether re-run elections would really put an end to political uncertainty in Spain is anybody’s guess at this stage.