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Socialist wins key Spanish parliament vote that could pave way for new center-left government

The crucial vote Thursday was won by Francina Armengol with 178 votes against 139 for the main rightwing Popular Party’s candidate in the 350-lower house of parliament

Constitución de las Cortes
Newly elected Speaker of the Parliament, Francina Armengol is applauded during a voting session at the Spanish Parliament in Madrid, on Aug. 17, 2023Juan Carlos Hidalgo (EFE)

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Spain’s newly elected Parliament voted Thursday by a majority to elect a Socialist candidate as chamber speaker, breathing some life into acting Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s aspirations of forming another leftist government. The crucial vote was won by Francina Armengol with 178 votes in the 350-lower house of parliament, against 139 for the main conservative Popular Party’s candidate.

It was the first parliamentary vote since inconclusive national elections on July 23 left no group with an easy path to form government. Parties on the left and right have almost an equal number of seats.

It remains to be seen if Sánchez can round up the same support should he be called on by the king to try to form a government. If not, a new election could be around the corner.

Armengol won with the support of 14 votes from two separatist parties in the northeastern region of Catalonia, including seven from Junts (Together), a radical Catalan separatist party led by fugitive politician Carles Puigdemont, who resides in Brussels after fleeing Spain following his unsuccessful 2017 secession bid.

Junts were quick to point out that the vote was solely for the speaker position and did not indicate the party would back Sánchez.

But analysts agreed a new Sánchez-led government was now a real possibility.

Such an outcome “is today closer than yesterday. Steps have been taken to bring Junts closer to a favourable vote for Pedro Sánchez,” said political scientist Toni Rodón from Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University.

“Reaching this pact breaks the ice in a relationship (between Junts and the Socialists) marred by an enormous mistrust,” he added.

If that were to happen, Puigdemont, who faces criminal charges in Spain, would be in prime position to determine the course of Spain’s politics for the next four years, making it a constant cliffhanger of a legislature.

Besides Armengol, the Socialists and their center-left partner Sumar won four of the presiding council seats, as did the Popular Party, leaving the leftist bloc with a majority of five to four.

The council oversees parliament session and sets the legislative calendar.

Without Junts, Sánchez’s Socialists, the center-left Sumar (Joining Forces) and four smaller parties total 171 seats. The Popular Party, which received the greatest number of votes in the election last month, the far-right Vox party, and one smaller party can also muster the same 171 seats. To get an absolute majority, 176 votes are needed.

The defeat for Alberto Núñez Feijóo’s Popular Party highlighted its isolation in the chamber. This is mainly owing to its numerous pacts in regional and town hall governments with Vox, a party that is viewed as toxic by other groups in Parliament but which is the country’s third political force.

In the end, not even Vox voted for the PP candidate on Thursday, indicating a serious rift between the two and greatly weakening Feijóo’s chances of convincing the king he can command a government.

“In this scenario, King Felipe VI has now more reasons to ask Pedro Sánchez to be first to attempt the investiture instead of Feijóo, who had been the likely choice until now,” given that he won the greatest amount of votes in the July election, said political analyst Verónica Fumanal, of the Association of Political Communication.

But Puigdemont’s views are politically explosive for most Spaniards and giving into them could be a death trap for the leftist bloc.

The former regional president of Catalonia wants Spain’s incoming government to grant an amnesty to him and hundreds of other separatists facing legal problems for their part in his breakaway bid.

He also wants Madrid to authorize a referendum on independence for Catalonia.

The referendum is a non-starter for Sánchez, who has, however, pardoned high-profile separatists and reformed laws to give some legal relief to separatists as part of his agenda to lower tensions in Catalonia.

The next hurdle to forming a government will come in the following days, when King Felipe VI begins his consultations with the leaders of the different parties to see who has the best chance to form a government. If that candidate fails to secure the backing of Parliament, then a two-month countdown starts, after which new elections would be triggered.

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