9 February 2016

An uphill struggle

Talks over the formation of the new Spanish government are proceeding at snail’s pace. Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Socialist Party (PSOE), is facing an uphill struggle after King Felipe VI asked him to have a go at mustering a parliamentary majority to be voted in as new Prime Minister. PSOE yesterday sent around to other parties a draft government programme. In what can be seen as a clear statement of intent, neither caretaker Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s centre-right Partido Popular (PP) nor Catalan separatist parties received a copy.

The current situation can be summarised as follows:

  • Sánchez rejects any kind of pact with Rajoy. Ideally, his plan would see a Socialist-led government backed by both the anti-establishment Podemos and the centrist Ciudadanos;
  • However, Podemos and Ciudadanos see each other as incompatible. Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has gone as far as to say that his party would not even sit down with PSOE as long as the latter keeps negotiating in parallel with Ciudadanos;
  • Rajoy is waiting at the window. PP would be happy to lead a ‘grand coalition’ with PSOE and Ciudadanos, but rejects any arrangement that would see it lose the top job to PSOE.

In one word: stalemate.

Why Podemos is winning these negotiations

In my view, Podemos has played its cards really well so far – especially for a party that has often been criticised for its lack of experience. While everyone else was hesitating, Iglesias moved first and suggested he could see himself as Deputy Prime Minister in a government led by Sánchez. However, he also made it clear that PSOE had to choose: either with Podemos or with Ciudadanos.

This is a crucial move. Due to the numbers in the Spanish parliament, ruling Ciudadanos out essentially means asking Sánchez to rely on Catalan separatist parties to at least abstain in the initial confidence vote. However, this is a pretty toxic issue for Sánchez – as a number of PSOE bigwigs are categorically opposed to the idea.

Therefore, it almost looks like Iglesias is pushing Sánchez to reject his offer and go for one of the alternatives: let Rajoy form a minority government or force new elections. Either would allow Podemos to claim that the Socialists are still very much part of the old establishment and are therefore not really interested in ‘change’. Not a bad position to be in, given that the longer-term goal of Podemos is clearly to overtake PSOE as the country’s largest left-wing party.

In other words, Podemos can afford to keep playing hardball in these negotiations – as it arguably stands to gain the most from re-run elections.

Sánchez looks trapped

Conversely, after obtaining its worst score ever in a general election at the end of last year, PSOE has very little interest in a quick return to the polls. As things stand, however, Sánchez also appears to have no good options left. He can accept the offer of Podemos and run the risk of triggering an almighty row within his own party – for the reasons I explained above. Or he can backtrack, let PP form a minority government, and lose voters (fully-fledged coalition or external backing, the Socialist electorate would be unhappy to see PP stay in power). Or he can decide to force new elections, in which he would likely no longer be the Socialist candidate and PSOE would come under attack from all sides for gambling away with Spain’s political stability and international reputation – especially since opinion polls suggest re-run elections would be unlikely to deliver a radically different outcome (see for instance the graphic below, courtesy of El País).

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Can re-run elections still be avoided?

Yes, although admittedly striking a deal is looking increasingly complicated. Assuming that the current stalemate continues until the first vote of investiture in the lower chamber of the Spanish parliament (which is expected to take place at the end of February or early next month), things would be more likely to change from that point onwards. The clock would start ticking. Remember: the Spanish Constitution sets a two-month deadline from the day of the first unsuccessful investiture vote, after which parliament must be dissolved and snap elections called. Pressure would pile up, potentially pushing parties to drop some more of their ‘red lines’. In any case, be it a PP minority government with ad hoc support from PSOE and Ciudadanos or a PSOE-Podemos-Ciudadanos alliance, Spain can, at best, end up with a weak government – as I have been saying since the election results came out last December.