Why Pedro Sánchez’s key investiture debate is happening over a holiday weekend

There have been few attempts by the Socialist Party to justify the unusual timing of the upcoming votes in Congress, but the risks of its deal with the Catalan Republican Left loom large

Caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Unidas Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias.
Caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Unidas Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias.Jaime Villanueva

On January 7, all things being equal, Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party (PSOE) will be voted back in as prime minister by politicians in Spain’s lower house of parliament, the Congress of Deputies. The caretaker prime minister is counting on the support of his own party, of left-wing Unidas Podemos, with whom he will govern in coalition, a smattering of smaller groups and the essential abstention of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC).

The deal that Sánchez has struck with Unidas Podemos is a solid one, meaning that the first coalition government that Spain will have seen since its return to democracy at the end of the 1970s will have strong foundations. But the abstention of the ERC is by no means so sure. The group’s national council will today have to give its final approval to paving the way for a PSOE-Unidas Podemos government, amid much noise from the pro-Catalan independence sector in the northeastern Spanish region, which is struggling to see the advantages of such a deal for the secessionist cause.

The first coalition government that Spain will have seen since its return to democracy will have strong foundations

Sánchez won the November 10 repeat election but, as at the previous vote in April, fell short of an absolute majority. Since the polls last year he has been seeking the support of other parties to be voted back in to office. Sánchez quickly closed the coalition deal with Unidas Podemos, but talks with ERC have been long and arduous, and of course have been complicated by the fact that the party’s leader, Oriol Junqueras, is currently in jail for his role in the 2017 unilateral secession attempt.

The first investiture debate has been tabled for Saturday and Sunday, with the second debate and final vote – at which just a simple majority, more yes votes than no, is needed for Sánchez to prosper – scheduled for Tuesday. In between is Kings’ Day, a national holiday, and the day when Spanish children are traditionally given their Christmas presents. January 5 is a day usually dominated by Kings’ Day parades throughout Spain, rather than key political debates in Congress.

There has been little effort on the part of the PSOE to justify this unusual scheduling, apart from the well-worn argument that Spain “needs a government that is working flat out as soon as possible.” That’s what government sources have been saying, after nearly a year of a caretaker administration. What’s more, failure to form a government could push Spaniards to their third elections in a year – the fifth in five years.

Failure to form a government could push Spaniards to their third elections in a year – the fifth in five years

Assuming that the ERC abstains at the second, key vote on Tuesday, Sánchez will become prime minister once more, having first come to power in the summer of June 2018 thanks to a successful motion of no confidence he filed against then-Popular Party (PP) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Sánchez will be sworn into office and immediately form his Cabinet, which has already been finalized. It will include members of the PSOE, independents with links to the party and politicians from the ranks of Unidas Podemos. It is highly likely that the first Cabinet meeting will be held on January 10, according to government sources. If there was a rush to hold the investiture debate, there will be no justification for a delay for the first meeting of ministers.

No one is openly voicing their fears that there could be some kind of unexpected obstacle to events playing out as they are expected to, most likely related to the Catalan independence movement. But this reality is something that Socialist sources admit to in private.

The contents of the deal between the PSOE and ERC that will be voted on today are, for now, secret. One thing is known, however: if an agreement emerges on the political situation in Catalonia after talks are held between the central government in Madrid and the regional government in Barcelona, Catalans will have a chance to vote on it.

The pressure that other pro-Catalan independence parties could exert on the ERC is worrying the Socialists

Criticism of this future consultation of residents of the northeastern Spanish region about hypothetical agreements that would defuse the so-called “political conflict” will be the ammunition that is used by opposition parties during the investiture debate. Groups such as the PP, far-right Vox and center-right Citizens will be able to choose their targets: either the coalition deal with Unidas Podemos, or the negotiations with pro-independence ERC in order to secure its abstention.

Sánchez will not count on the support or abstention of the other pro-Catalan independence parties in Congress: Together for Catalonia (Junts per Catalunya) and the far-left CUP. But the pressure that both of these groups could exert on the ERC is worrying the PSOE.

The Socialists are hoping that the ERC will withstand the pressure from other sectors, and abstain come the crucial vote on January 7. This is why the caretaker government is in such a hurry to get the debate out of the way – despite the public holiday falling in the middle.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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