SPANISH GOVERNMENT

Spain’s governing coalition partners: ‘It can’t go on like this’

The executive is caught up in a spiral of internal strife just as the opposition is at its weakest. A minority view supports pushing out Unidas Podemos, but PM Pedro Sánchez is ruling it out

PM Pedro Sánchez (standing) with his deputies Carmen Calvo and Pablo Iglesias on Wednesday.
PM Pedro Sánchez (standing) with his deputies Carmen Calvo and Pablo Iglesias on Wednesday.DAVID CASTRO / GTRES

After just one year of life, Spain’s governing coalition is showing clear signs of fatigue. The Socialist Party (PSOE) is accusing its junior partner Unidas Podemos of behaving simultaneously like the government and the opposition. And the leftist group is charging the Socialists with failing to honor signed agreements on issues like capping the price of rent.

While there is no shared vision, ministers and political leaders from both groups agree on one thing: “It can’t go on like this.”

Last week was especially tough. It began with a clash over equal rights policy involving the PSOE unilaterally registering initiatives for congressional debate on a subject that falls under the purview of the Equality Ministry, run by Unidas Podemos. Meanwhile, the PSOE is upset that its partner reached out to other parties in a bid to prevent its own “Ley Zerolo” equality project from even being admitted for discussion in the Congress of Deputies.

Several PSOE leaders said it would be “frivolous” to break with Unidas Podemos and risk constantly losing parliamentary votes

The week ended with a heated argument over statements made by some Unidas Podemos leaders expressing support for the rapper Pablo Hasél, who was recently jailed for social media posts praising terrorism. His arrest triggered several nights of protests and street violence in Catalonia and elsewhere.

But the deeper trouble lies above all in housing, pension reform and other decisions of an economic nature that require decisions on how to spend the €72 billion from the European recovery fund. This includes deciding whether the bulk of the funds should go towards large projects that would benefit big Spanish multinationals, or towards sectors with smaller companies.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the PSOE and his deputy Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Unidas Podemos, are due to meet in the coming days to try to reduce the tension, which is affecting all ongoing negotiations and interfering with the government’s day-to-day operations, as several ministers have admitted.

But it is unclear whether a simple meeting will be enough to take the relationship in a different direction. While the party leaders still have some room for dialogue, it will be very difficult to reconcile the positions of Deputy PM Carmen Calvo and Equality Minister Irene Montero on the question of transgender rights, to name one example.

The situation has reached the point where a group of unaffiliated ministers who were appointed by the PSOE has internally suggested that perhaps the government would work more smoothly if PM Sánchez simply pushed out Unidas Podemos from the executive.

But this remains a minority opinion. Sánchez is reportedly very clear about the fact that this is no time to destabilize the government, which only has 155 seats in the 350-strong lower house of parliament, 21 seats shy of an absolute majority.

The deeper trouble lies above all in housing, pension reform and other decisions of an economic nature that require decisions on how to spend the €72 billion from the European recovery fund

In such a scenario, several PSOE leaders said it would be “frivolous” to break with Unidas Podemos and risk constantly losing parliamentary votes. As it is, the coalition has already had to seek support from other parties in the Congress of Deputies in order to pass legislation on key issues such as the budget.

Some ministers who are notably at odds with Unidas Podemos, such as Economy Minister Nadia Calviño, Social Security Minister José Luis Escrivá and Defense Minister Margarita Robles, note that now that the budget has been approved, a PSOE government without Unidas Podemos could have a long political life because the leftist group would not have a lot of leeway to vote against the former’s social initiatives.

But other government officials including Transportation Minister José Luis Ábalos and Finance Minister María Jesús Montero, supported by PSOE leaders who are familiar with parliamentary negotiations such as Adriana Lastra, disagree. They point to the math and underscore that it would be impossible for the PSOE to govern with just 120 seats and Unidas Podemos sitting in the opposition.

And that is without considering the political cost to the PSOE of being viewed as responsible for breaking up an alliance that had created a lot of expectations among progressive voters.

Meanwhile, sources at Unidas Podemos admit that the situation has become untenable and that the accumulated tension is blocking several ongoing negotiations.

The group led by Iglesias has a long list of grievances and says that the PSOE is failing to honor its commitments. The latest example is on the subject of housing. On the day that the budget deal was sealed, Iglesias and Sánchez agreed to draft a law capping the price of rent in Spain. The agreement was made public. But now, according to the leftist group, the Socialists are stepping back from their pledge and only want to offer tax incentives instead of setting clear limits on abusive rent hikes.

The Hasél controversy

Contrary to what it might seem, the controversy over the statements in support of the rapper Pablo Hasél is not the biggest problem for the relationship. Sánchez has clearly explained the different positions defended by each partner, as he does every time that a discrepancy arises on sensitive subject matter such as the monarchy. But both partners agree on the need to modify the penal code to eliminate prison terms for the kinds of crimes that Hasél has been convicted of.

It bears noting that this peak in internal tension has coincided with the worst possible week for the opposition: after performing dismally at the Catalan election, where it secured half as many seats as the far-right Vox, the conservative Popular Party (PP) announced that it is selling its national headquarters in Madrid, which have been named in an ongoing high-profile graft trial. And the liberal Ciudadanos (Citizens), which has lost 30 seats in the Catalan parliament after winning the previous election, is now caught up in an internal debate over whether it has a future or is instead entering a slow descent into oblivion.

“Our great advantage right now is that there is nothing across from us, but that’s not going to last forever,” said a minister to illustrate the weakness of the opposition. “And the big problem is Vox.”

English version by Susana Urra

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