The formation of a new government in Spain is going to depend on a long arm-wrestle between the Socialist Party (PSOE), the winner of Sunday’s general election, and the leftist Unidas Podemos, which came in fourth place.
There is a lot at stake for both of its leaders. Pedro Sánchez is ecstatic about a victory that puts the PSOE back in the lead after losing the last three elections. The win will probably allow him to remain in office, where he arrived in June of last year after leading a successful no-confidence vote against Mariano Rajoy of the Popular Party (PP).
Sánchez wants to try to lead a minority government all by himself on the strength of his 123 seats in Congress. But this is not enough to get himself reinstated – it takes 176 deputies for an overall majority – and Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has clearly stated that this time he is not ready to provide free support for Sánchez as he did after the no-confidence motion.
This time, Iglesias wants to be part of government, although he knows it’s going to be a long battle to get there. The Socialists are in no hurry, and everything seems to indicate that little progress will be made on this front until after the local, regional and European elections of May 26.
Fresh in everyone’s mind is the fact that Spain was forced to hold an election in June 2016, just six months after the previous one, because of the failure to produce a parliamentary majority to form a government. Spaniards are hoping that this latest vote – held ahead of time because of the government’s failure to secure support for the 2019 budget – will not result in similar deadlock.
But Spanish parliament today is even more fragmented than it was in 2016 following the emergence of Vox, a far-right party that secured 24 seats on Sunday. The PP came in second with 66 seats and Ciudadanos (Citizens) third with 57. While a PSOE-Ciudadanos coalition would be enough for a majority, the center-right party says it refuses to team up with Sánchez. And even a PSOE-Podemos alliance still falls short of the 176 threshold, which means further support will be required from smaller, regional groups – potentially including the Catalan separatist parties.
Relations between Sánchez and Iglesias are better than ever. Practically all relevant matters of the last few months have been negotiated smoothly and discreetly. Both leaders even managed to close a detailed budget deal containing dozens of progressive measures, a feat that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. The budget plan fell apart due to lack of support from the Catalan separatist parties in Congress, but the initiative showed a way forward for a leftist government in Spain, much like in Portugal.
But the shared interests stop at a governing coalition. Sánchez is very comfortable with the single-party minority government that he has headed for the past 10 months. The feeling in La Moncloa, the seat of government, is that the fact that the prime minister was able to choose all of his ministers freely has contributed to the smooth running of government affairs. Sánchez does not want to lose that control. Besides, a governing coalition with Podemos represents a problem for other potential partners such as the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) or the Canaries Coalition.
Iglesias wants the exact opposite: a place in government and a say in the make-up of the Cabinet. Many at Unidas Podemos feel that the loss of 35 seats on Sunday is partly due to the group’s recent support for the Sánchez administration. For instance, the decision to raise the minimum wage to €900 was the brainchild of Podemos, yet it was Sánchez who benefited the most politically, because many citizens viewed it as a government initiative, and Podemos is not in government.
There is no question that both want to reach a deal. The question, rather, is how much each is willing to yield. Podemos cannot afford to withhold support for Sánchez’s reinstatement bid, as its voters would not understand such a move. Sánchez needs 53 seats for an absolute majority, and Podemos has 42 of them, which it is not going to give away for free.
Coalitions are normal
Podemos notes that governing coalitions are the norm in other European countries, and even in Spain’s Valencia region, where the winner in Sunday’s regional elections, Ximo Puig of the Socialist Party, has already offered top positions to members of Podemos and the regional Compromís party.
Meanwhile, Ciudadanos has made it clear it has no interest in joining the PSOE in what would be the only coalition that does not require support from third parties. Instead, its leader Albert Rivera is hoping that his party’s upward trend – on Sunday it gained 25 seats from 2016 – will continue on May 26. If the party beats the PP in key places like Madrid, Ciudadanos could replace the conservative party as the Socialists’ main rival at the next general election.
In the meantime, everyone is taking a break. The Friday Cabinet meeting has been moved to today because of the May 1 public holiday, when many politicians will go off on vacation until next week. Soon after that, a new campaign will begin for the May 26 vote. And after that, parties will finally get serious about reaching governing deals. It’s going to be a long power struggle.
English version by Susana Urra.