Spain left wondering how a bid to form a government failed so badly

Talks between the Socialist Party and leftist Unidas Podemos should not have ended this way. So why did they?

Carlos E. Cué
Pablo Iglesias addressing Congress on Thursday.
Pablo Iglesias addressing Congress on Thursday.Jaime Villanueva

It all happened so fast that there are plenty of people still trying to understand it. Not even the main protagonists of Thursday’s events in Congress are completely clear on just how negotiations on issues that are by no means impossible to agree on could have ended so badly, with a desperate last-ditch offer from Pablo Iglesias voiced from the lectern itself in Spain’s lower house of parliament.

The Podemos leader was basically accepting the latest conditions from the Socialist Party (PSOE), but with a kicker: he wanted control of the €6 billion allocated to active employment policies, which involve training and career advice for the unemployed. But it was too late. Far too late.

By Thursday, the position of the Socialists was set in stone

The negotiations between the PSOE – which won the most seats at the April 28 election but needs additional support to form a government – and the anti-austerity party Unidas Podemos started off badly. The two groups – the former a historical party that has taken turns in power with the conservative Popular Party (PP) since the return of democracy in the late 1970s, and the latter a relative upstart that emerged from the 2011 citizen protest movement known as 15M – never appeared like partners, but rather rivals. And someone was going to lose.

As such, there was an important defeat for one of the sides at the beginning of the talks: Pablo Iglesias agreed that he would stand aside and not demand a high-ranking role in government, something the politician took as a humiliation. From that moment on it was obvious that things were going to get very complicated. But not impossible. There were five days to go until the decisive investiture vote that would potentially see acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez voted back into power.

Many in the PSOE and Podemos were confident that the pressure of avoiding yet another general election in November – the poll would be Spain’s fourth in as many years, and the fifth this year including regional, municipal and European dates with the ballot boxes – would force some kind of deal, and sweep away the huge levels of mistrust between the two party leaders.

Pedro Sánchez after his defeat in Congress.
Pedro Sánchez after his defeat in Congress.EFE

But in the end, there wasn’t the time. In those five days the parties met four times, with one of the meetings lasting barely 20 minutes. Now the two sides are accusing the other of not really wanting to negotiate. But the truth is that they did try, albeit in talks that, according to information leaked about them, were characterized by chaotic exchanges and mistrust. Consider, for example, the fact that Sánchez and Iglesias did not actually meet in those five days of talks, apart from their tense exchanges in Congress during the investiture debates on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, where the body language was even tougher than their words. In they end they only spoke by phone a couple of times.

Not serious

Within Unidas Podemos they think that Sánchez never really wanted a coalition, and that was why he forced a negotiation that was doomed to failure. Negotiators from the party always had the feeling that the talks were not serious. The PSOE denies this, saying that they opted for talks because no one in the party wants another election. They back this claim with their last offer to Podemos: a deputy prime ministerial spot (there are two of those in the Spanish government), and control of three ministries: Health, Housing and Equality. They also believe that for Iglesias, stepping aside was such a tough thing to do that he thought he could ask for anything he wanted in exchange. Podemos, meanwhile, say that they were merely asking for a role proportional to the seats they won in Congress: 42, making them the fourth-biggest force in the chamber after the PSOE, with 123, the PP, 67, and Ciudadanos, 57.

United Left party leader Alberto Garzon speaks during the investiture debate.
United Left party leader Alberto Garzon speaks during the investiture debate.Getty Images

According to sources from the talks, it was clear that Unidas Podemos was prepared to forget about its demands to control the Finance Ministry, and that it was mainly fighting for the Labor Ministry – albeit without Social Security or the pensions system – and the Ministry for Ecological Transition. The PSOE would not yield on either point.

But the talks came back time and again to these two ministries. Podemos claims that they were told by the PSOE that they could not have the former, “because you are worrisome for the CEOE,” Spain’s largest employers’ association. The PSOE denies this and claims the reasoning was different: firstly because Podemos did not vote in favor of the most recent agreement on the pensions system, and second, because they have an approach toward collective bargaining that is too interventionist.

Growing despair

Iglesias increasingly despaired over the negotiations. In his view of things, he thought the PSOE was seeking to humiliate the party once more. At the last minute, thanks to action by Alberto Garzón, the leader of the United Left (one half of Unidas Podemos), the anti-austerity group secured the Equality Ministry, something the Socialists viewed as a major concession. But Iglesias still felt he could get his hands on the Labor Ministry.

In a surprise move, after a fruitless telephone call between the two leaders, the PSOE announced the “complete breakdown” of talks on Wednesday afternoon. Iglesias began to receive pressure from all sides. United Left, whose relationship with Podemos has deteriorated greatly, asked Podemos to accept. But Iglesias would not budge, convinced that the party was bluffing. The leaking by the PSOE of what Podemos claimed was their initial negotiating demands, but what the acting government said was their rivals’ ongoing requirements, completely threw Iglesias.

Iglesias thought the PSOE was seeking to humiliate the party once more

By Thursday, the position of the Socialists was set in stone. Iglesias continued to receive phone calls and pressure, with a number of attempts to avoid the failed investiture vote from groups such as the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and the Catalan Republican Left (ERC). But it all came to nothing. Iglesias came up with an offer two hours before the investiture debate began on Thursday, which added the Labor and Science ministries to the PSOE’s offer and gave up the Housing Ministry. The PSOE immediately rejected it. They had already assumed the fact that the vote was doomed to fail.

Iglesias called together the leadership of Unidas Podemos. IU told him to forget about the Labor Ministry in exchange for something else that the PSOE had already offered earlier in the negotiations. Science was among those options. Iglesias ruled it out. At the last minute he came up with the idea of the active employment policies – an offer he put to Sánchez from the lectern in Congress. But Sánchez didn’t even acknowledge it.

Now it appears that Unidas Podemos are prepared to accept the last offer from the PSOE with something else added in. But the Socialists say it is too late. The drums of new elections are already sounding. There are two months left to silence them.

English version by Simon Hunter.

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS