After failed investiture vote, pressure on Socialists to prevent third election

Growing number of regional leaders are calling for review of party’s policy

PP chief Mariano Rajoy on Friday.
PP chief Mariano Rajoy on Friday.JuanJo Martín (EFE)

The failure of Spain’s interim Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Friday evening to garner support in a second vote in Congress to form a government extends the country’s eight-month-long political deadlock, raising the specter of an unprecedented third general election in a year.

Friday evening’s vote mirrored the outcome of Wednesday’s, with 170 deputies supporting Rajoy and 180 voting against him.

All Rajoy required on Friday was a simple majority of more yes votes than no votes. The deal reached between the PP and Ciudadanos, with support from the Canaries Coalition, guaranteed 170 favorable votes, but as in the first round, the PP failed to garner the six extra seats it needed for an overall majority.

A growing number of regional leaders feel the time has come for the Socialists to reconsider its position and reach out to other parties to try to form some kind of coalition government

Rajoy was also unable to persuade deputies from regional parties in Catalonia and the Basque Country to abstain: 11 abstentions would have been enough to reach a simple majority.

This came as no surprise given the deal signed by the PP and emerging center-right party Ciudadanos, which stresses the unity of Spain and opposes a sovereignty referendum in Catalonia.

“At least let a government be formed in Spain,” Rajoy said to Socialist chief Pedro Sánchez in Congress Friday evening before the vote, before criticizing him for “something as serious as blocking [the formation of a government]” without offering an alternative, apart from deals with “extremists.” He also accused Sánchez of serious consequences that “would not be solved with a third election.”

In response, Sánchez repeated his argument that the Socialists have no confidence in the PP and placed the blame for a third election with Rajoy.

Friday’s vote was a foregone conclusion, which is why the party’s regional leaders have been calling for an internal debate on its position of refusing to support the PP

Rajoy, whose Popular Party (PP) administration took office in 2012, winning the most votes in elections held in December 2015 and June 26 of this year, but failing to secure a majority, now has the option of making a second leadership attempt on November 1, depending on the outcome of key regional elections in Galicia and the Basque Country.

What now for the Socialists?

As the country’s second-largest political force, and having blocked Rajoy’s bid for reinstatement, the Socialist Party (PSOE) must now decide whether to retain its opposition to any kind of PP administration, or make some other move that would prevent a third election that would likely yield a similar impasse to the previous two.

The Socialist Party’s federal committee agreed at the end of last year, following December’s inconclusive election, against supporting a PP government, with or without Rajoy at the helm.

We cannot support what we want to change,” party leader Pedro Sánchez told Congress on Wednesday, and then turning to Rajoy: “The lies you have told, now and in the past, and your refusal to accept your political responsibilities, support our lack of trust in you, and that is why we will vote against you,” said Sánchez.

Sánchez, who tried to form a government after the first inconclusive election but was voted down by other forces, including the PP, ended his 35-minute address by insisting on his “categorical no” to four more years of Rajoy.

Friday’s vote was a foregone conclusion, which is why the party’s regional leaders have been calling for an internal debate on its position of refusing to support the PP.

Former Socialist Party Prime Minister Felipe González has called on the party to allow Rajoy to form a government, a view cautiously echoed by some regional leaders.

Regional Socialist Party chiefs have told EL PAÍS that there has been virtually no contact between Sánchez and the grass roots over the recent months of impasse. The picture they paint is of a leader increasingly isolated from the rest of his party. The party’s federal executive hasn’t met since July 9, “which is a long time,” Emiliano García-Page told EL PAÍS, adding: “there have been two general elections in Spain and the situation in Catalonia needs to be discussed,” referring to the confidence vote the head of the regional government of Catalonia faces in September.

“Everybody in the party was clear about what we shouldn’t do, but we now need to think about what we should do, because the country is demanding more from us,” says García-Page. His concerns are shared by the heads of the regional governments of Aragón, Extremadura, Valencia, and reportedly by Susana Díaz, the head of the regional administration of Andalusia, a long-standing Socialist Party fiefdom.

García-Page has put himself at Sánchez’s “disposal to compare the different positions in the party and to form an opinion.”

García-Page’s offer seems designed to avoid convening a meeting of the federal committee, which would require either the support of a third of its members, or for Sánchez to do so. Forcing Sánchez’s hand runs the risk of unleashing a leadership battle.

Socialist Party sources say that a meeting of the federal committee cannot be avoided, and that Sánchez will likely call a reunion before the elections in Galicia and the Basque Country on September 25.

Sánchez’s position as party leader would be weakened if the Socialists do badly in the elections; at the same time, his reiteration of the party’s position on Wednesday and Friday makes any hope of a change unlikely.

At the last meeting of the federal committee on July 9, following the inconclusive June 26 elections, it reiterated the decision taken on December 28 not to facilitate in any way the formation of a PP government. At the same time, it was also agreed that every step should be taken to avoid a third election. It would now seem that a growing number of regional leaders feel the time has come for the Socialists to either walk back from that decision or to reach out to other parties to try to form some kind of coalition government.

Sánchez and Albert Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos, reached broad agreement earlier in the year to form a government, but the Socialists and leftist party Podemos have major differences, notably over the latter’s support for Catalonia’s right to hold an independence referendum, which the Socialists oppose.

If the political deadlock continues and Spaniards return to the polls, the new campaign would begin on December 9 and last 15 days, meaning the election would fall on December 25.

But both the PP and the Socialists have said they would support a change to the law, cutting the campaign times by half. This would make December 18 the new election date.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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