Sunday’s general election in Spain has not resolved the difficulties in reaching a governing majority. Quite the opposite, it has made the situation worse, proving the futility of returning to the polls in search of an arithmetic solution to a problem that was, and continues to be, of a different nature. Shifting the logic of an absolute majority from the parties to the blocs has caused serious political paralysis and, simultaneously, polarized and radicalized Spanish public life. The most tangible result has been the alarming rise of the far right.
The Socialist Party (PSOE) candidate, Pedro Sánchez, continues to be the only leader in a position to forge a majority, even though he did not retain the number of seats he won in April. Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera’s refusal to reach any deals with the left condemned the viability of the previous political term from the start. It would have been much better for the PSOE to have recognized this early on, instead of pushing the deadlines in search of an electoral gain that ultimately escaped it.
An alliance with Unidas Podemos did not guarantee a stable parliamentary majority, while having to depend on the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) for government action would have been reckless, which Sánchez himself recognized in the end. It is true that the repeat election has weakened Unidas Podemos in the struggle to define the politics of the left, giving the Socialist Party a wider margin to reject the coalition government that Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has insistently demanded. But the process has come at a cost to Sánchez.
Popular Party (PP) leader Pablo Casado has emerged from this latest election in an ambivalent position. The PP’s improved results offer him an internal reprieve but at the same time showcase the limitations of his leadership. The relative stagnation of the PP under Casado can be partly explained by the group’s effort to juggle two contradictory objectives – toning down its rhetoric to attract center voters, while simultaneously accepting the political agenda of the far right, marked by ultranationalism, xenophobia and nostalgia for the Franco regime.
But it is one thing to accommodate Vox during the campaign, and quite another to rely on their support by replicating the governing formulas reached in Andalusia and in other regions and cities of Spain. Casado’s attitude toward Vox will determine whether the spiral of radicalization initiated by Catalan separatism gets tempered, or whether it continues to grow, fueled by both sides.
None of these risks would be on the table today if the most badly defeated force at Sunday’s election, Ciudadanos, had agreed to negotiate with the Socialist Party back when it had the chance, instead of attempting to become the new leader of the political right even though the numbers did not add up. The severe punishment that Ciudadanos has received at the polls does not make up for the damage that its strategy has inflicted on the political system, destroying the center ground and opening up our institutions to a force such as Vox.
Ciudadanos’ results place the potential successor of Albert Rivera, Inés Arrimadas, in a tight spot. It is to be expected that either whoever takes the helm of Ciudadanos will honor the commitment to put their representatives at the service of governability, not deadlock.
The results of the Sunday election bring the situation back to square one, and so, rather than focus on the party combinations that could form around the Socialist candidate – who remains the only one in a position to forge a majority – the important thing now is to explore the possibilities of a bare-bones governing program to get the new political term underway.
Being predisposed to negotiate the contents of such a program is thus essential in order to allow parliament to finally act on its constitutional duty to appoint a new prime minister and back government action. But it is also essential in order to restrain the outward-pushing forces that have handed a destabilizing amount of decision-making power to the political extremes. This decision-making capability should be immediately returned to the parties that are unequivocally committed to upholding the Constitution.