SPANISH POLITICS

In wake of inconclusive elections, key governments are still up for grabs in Spain

Center-right Ciudadanos is under growing pressure not to do deals with the far-right Vox, which could allow the left to form a government in the Madrid region and elsewhere

Acting PM Pedro Sánchez voting on May 26.
Acting PM Pedro Sánchez voting on May 26.ULY MARTIN

After months of political campaigning, which have seen the divisions between the two main blocs on the right and left of Spanish politics deepen, two unexpected moves – from former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who was running for mayor of Barcelona, and from the leftist candidate for Madrid regional premier, Íñigo Errejón – have shaken up the stalemate that has been left behind in many areas by the April 28 general election and the May 26 regional and municipal polls. Two weeks of frenetic negotiations between Spain’s political parties now await.

After decades of a two-party system, Spain is coming to terms with a new reality: gone are the days when the conservative Popular Party (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE) would take turns in office. Now there are a wealth of mainstream groups: left-wing Podemos, center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens), far-right Vox, left-wing Más Madrid and pro-Catalan independence groups such as the Catalan Republican Left (ERC).

This Italian-style situation has been brewing for years now

This Italian-style situation has been brewing for years now, but it has been consolidated with the recent election results. It is also putting a spotlight on those who are offering Italian-style solutions, such as the Spanish-born Valls, the Ciudadanos candidate for Barcelona City Hall. He is offering his votes to the incumbent mayor, former campaigner Ada Colau, in a bid to keep control of the council out of the hands of pro-independence candidate Ernest Maragall. In the case of Íñigo Errejón, formerly of Podemos but who ran for the Madrid regional government with the Más Madrid party, he is offering to do a deal with Ciudadanos and the PSOE in order to keep the PP and Ciudadanos from relying on the support of far-right Vox to form a government both in the regional assembly and city council.

While the PSOE are very pleased about these two potential moves, Ciudadanos is increasingly uncomfortable with the way events are shaping up. The PP is also concerned about potentially losing Madrid, one of the jewels in the crown of Spanish politics, and the place from which party chief Pablo Casado is hoping to strengthen his position – he led the party to a disastrous result at the April 28 general election after shifting to the right – and launch a strong opposition to acting PSOE Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

Ciudadanos chief Albert Rivera and his top negotiator, José Manuel Villegas, have left no doubt that they want to remain in the right-wing bloc. Ahead of the recent polls, Rivera had vowed never to do a deal with the PSOE, and showed particular animosity toward Sánchez. He feels that he has been vindicated with that strategy, having taken 57 of the 350 seats in Congress at the general elections. Speaking on Thursday on state broadcaster TVE, Villegas explained that the party’s strategy is the same as the one it adopted after the inconclusive regional elections in Andalusia in December of last year: force Vox to support the formation of a Ciudadanos-PP government, without granting any concessions to the far-right party.

Ciudadanos is increasingly uncomfortable with the way events are shaping up

But this time around Vox has greater demands, and at least wants to appear in a photo with Ciudadanos, a party that was born in Catalonia out of opposition to the pro-independence drive, but which has since made the leap to the national stage. For Ciudadanos, any such meeting with Vox would not be to negotiate a deal to form a government, but rather to present them with the deal previously reached with the PP. The clear red line for Ciudadanos is that Vox cannot actually enter into municipal or regional governments. This appears feasible given that the party, which is led by former PP politician Santiago Abascal, has not made this one of its demands.

The Socialists are very happy with the move made by Errejón because it is forcing Ciudadanos to clarify its position given that it now has a clear alternative to getting into bed with Vox. Meanwhile, the PSOE is suffering its own internal tensions, given that the Unidas-Podemos group in Congress wants a coalition government and ministries for itself, rather than simply signing up to supporting Sánchez with its votes. As such, any movement that opens up the possibility of Ciudadanos lifting its self-imposed cordon sanitaire against the PSOE is welcome.

Since the outcome of the April 28 general election, which saw the PSOE take the most seats but fall well short of a majority, the party has been concerned that its only option to form a national government and pass legislation is to rely on the 42 votes from Unidas-Podemos, which is led by Pablo Iglesias. Sánchez would be much more comfortable if he could approve some reforms with the support of Podemos, and others with Ciudadanos.

This time around Vox has greater demands to make

But for now, Rivera still appears unwilling to support the acting prime minister in Spain’s lower house of parliament, and seems determined to continue to focus on his battle with the PP for the center-right. Ciudadanos is under pressure from rivals and the conservative media alike to refuse a deal to make PSOE candidate Ángel Gabilondo the regional premier in Madrid, in exchange for their own candidate, Begoña Villacís, being voted in as mayor in the Spanish capital.

If Rivera refuses to play ball, as the current situation suggests, the PSOE and Podemos will end up back where they started: with Podemos demanding a coalition government and ministries in exchange for its support for the PSOE. But a number of Socialist leaders point to a problem. While Sánchez is more or less guaranteed to be voted back in as prime minister at an investiture vote, given that Iglesias is not in a position to force new elections, there will be dozens of votes in Congress every week, at which the 42 seats held by Unidas-Podemos will be of vital importance.

If Sánchez can’t count on the support of Ciudadanos, he can’t begin the term in a situation of confrontation with Iglesias, and as such a solution will have to be found that spares the left-wing party humiliation. “Politics is the art of what you don’t see,” one of the negotiators summed up. In the coming weeks, little will be seen but there will be plenty of movement behind the scenes. The solutions will begin to take shape on June 15, when the mayors are voted in. Until then, anything could happen.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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