Spanish politics

In gridlocked Spain, caretaker PM explores an unlikely Plan B

Pedro Sánchez is meeting with leaders of right-of-center parties to determine their willingness to endorse him if his deal with a Catalan separatist party ultimately fails

Pedro Sánchez (r) and Pablo Casado in Madrid.
Pedro Sánchez (r) and Pablo Casado in Madrid.Andrea Comas / EL PAÍS

Political negotiations to form a government in Spain following the repeat general election of November 10 are entering a complicated week.

The caretaker prime minister, Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party (PSOE), has already secured a preliminary deal for a governing coalition with the left-wing anti-austerity bloc Unidas Podemos, and has been seeking support from the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) to get confirmed in office. Spain’s King Felipe VI on Wednesday nominated him as the candidate with the best chance of being endorsed by Congress.

The ERC, which picked up 13 seats in the 350-strong lower house, is willing to consider abstaining at an investiture vote to appoint the new PM, but only if Sánchez agrees to create a “negotiating table” to address what it describes as Catalonia’s “political conflict with the state.”

The PP describes the talks between Sánchez and ERC as “auctioning off the country”

The separatist party’s leader Oriol Junqueras was recently sentenced to 13 years in prison over his role in the failed secession bid of 2017, and on Thursday of this week the EU Court of Justice is expected to deliver a judgment on whether Spanish authorities should have acknowledged his status as a member of the European parliament (MEP) after winning a seat at the May 26 European elections. The ERC is also holding a congress this weekend that will determine the party’s strategy going forward.

Plan B

In case a deal with the ERC should ultimately fail, Sánchez is exploring an alternative majority with his party’s traditional rival, the conservative Popular Party (PP), and with relative newcomer Ciudadanos (Citizens), which started out as a liberal party but shifted to the right ahead of the November election, where it suffered a stinging defeat.

Together, these three parties hold 221 seats, well in excess of the 176 required for the absolute majority that Sánchez needs to secure at the first round of the investiture vote. Failing that, there would be a second round where only more yes than no votes are required.

Ciudadanos spokeswoman Inés Arrimadas has been pushing for “a grand constitutional agreement” ever since she provisionally took the reins of the party after its leader, Albert Rivera, stepped down over the dismal election results: Ciudadanos lost 47 seats from the previous election of April 28, and now has just 10 representatives in Congress. Meanwhile, the far-right Vox soared from 24 to 52 lawmakers, contributing to the political gridlock in a country that has had four national elections in as many years and could be facing a new one soon if no deal emerges.

Sánchez is scheduled to meet Arrimadas on Monday in Congress in what will be their first one-on-one meeting. This lack of prior shared history represents an advantage, as Sánchez and Rivera’s relationship was very poor in a way that went beyond the purely political, as sources in Ciudadanos have acknowledged.

While Arrimadas, who is likely to be confirmed as the new head of Ciudadanos soon, does not appear to have a good opinion of the PSOE leader, her party’s dismal election performance has prompted her to change strategy and seek an agreement to get Sánchez appointed, where Rivera actively shunned such a move.

But Arrimadas is expected to ask Sánchez to drop his preliminary deal with Podemos and his talks with ERC, and instead attempt the grand alliance between the PSOE, PP and Ciudadanos. This is not something that Sánchez is currently contemplating, as the PP is not expected to accept such a deal.

Instead, Sánchez wants to see how far Arrimadas is willing to go and whether she would contribute Ciudadanos’ 10 votes so that the Socialist leader does not have to rely on the separatist ERC. So far, this does not seem likely: “We absolutely rule out the possibility of Ciudadanos violating its principles [by having Podemos leader] Iglesias as the deputy PM and giving birth to a government that will require a jumble of acronyms [to get legislation passed],” said Arrimadas on Wednesday, noting that even an alliance of the PSOE, Podemos and Ciudadanos would still require 11 extra votes to reach the required majority.

PP: third election?

Meanwhile, PP chief Pablo Casado will meet with Sánchez “out of institutional loyalty” and to reiterate that the conservative party will not be facilitating a Socialist government. In recent weeks, the PP leadership has hardened its position on Sánchez, describing his attempts at government-building as “shameful” and describing his talks with the separatist ERC as “auctioning off the country.”

Instead, Casado says he is willing to help the new government pass laws by supporting national initiatives on Catalonia, the pension system, gender violence, defense and infrastructure. The PP leader also appears ready to back the budget plan, although it would be difficult for a Sánchez-led administration to come up with a project that might please both its partner Podemos and the PP.

Conservative leaders have already talked about “a third election” that would be entirely “Sánchez’s responsibility.”

English version by Susana Urra.