What began as a power play in one of Spain’s smaller regions last week has snowballed into a series of unexpected moves and counter-moves that are changing the country’s political landscape.
In the most recent development, Spain’s second Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias, who is the leader of the leftist Unidas Podemos party, on Monday morning said he is quitting the Socialist Party-led coalition government in order to run as the Podemos candidate in an early election announced for the Madrid region.
Iglesias said he made the decision “to prevent the far right from taking over the institutions.” He added that he will be reaching out to Íñigo Errejón, leader of the leftist Más País and one of the original founders of Podemos, to make a joint run for the regional premiership in order to defeat the incumbent, Isabel Díaz Ayuso of the Popular Party (PP).
In a Twitter message, PP president Pablo Casado reacted to the news by presenting it as a choice between “communism or freedom.”
Madrid early election
A court this weekend paved the way for the early election in the Madrid region on May 4. The surprise announcement about the new vote was made last week by Díaz Ayuso, who also sacked every government official from Ciudadanos (Citizens), the junior partner in the coalition that governs the powerful Spanish region. This includes her own deputy premier Ignacio Aguado, who said on Monday that “the Madrid region was doing well. [...] Isabel, your whim will only bring tension, confrontation and paralysis. You’ve really created a mess.”
Díaz Ayuso’s move was widely viewed as an attempt to prevent the opposition from taking down her government with a no-confidence motion, as it came just hours after such a bid was made in the southeastern region of Murcia, where the PP is also in power.
In Murcia, lawmakers for Ciudadanos and the Socialist Party (PSOE) on Wednesday filed a motion of no-confidence against the government. This was followed just hours later by a similar motion by the PSOE against the PP-Ciudadanos government in the region of Castilla y León. Fearing the same thing in Madrid, Díaz Ayuso called an election, which legally voids any subsequent no-confidence motions.
Nevertheless, the PSOE and Más Madrid rushed to register two no-confidence motions against Díaz Ayuso in an effort to stop the snap election from taking place, while the regional assembly simultaneously appealed Ayuso’s decree dissolving the legislature. But on Sunday the regional High Court ruled against this request, opening the door for an election on May 4.
And in a new twist, three of the six Ciudadanos lawmakers who had signed the no-confidence motion against the Murcia government had a sudden change of heart. Without their support, the attempt to oust the PP from power in the southeastern region is doomed to fail. That is, unless three lawmakers who were ejected from the far-right Vox party were to lend their support to the cause. One of them, Juan José Liarte, said on Monday that “I am leaving the identity of the next premier of Murcia up in the air. For now I cannot tell you more.” Socialist leaders say they will not be getting in touch with Vox lawmakers. The motion will be debated later this week.
The political chaos was such that on Friday, two different new governments were announced in Murcia, one in the morning and one in the afternoon (see bottom box).
As a result, Ciudadanos is now facing the real possibility of disappearing as a party, after emerging on the Catalan political scene in 2006 and later expanding nationwide on the strength of a message of change in a country that was struggling with a prolonged economic crisis and a string of political corruption scandals.
The emergence of Ciudadanos and the leftist Podemos ended the two-party system in Spain. Unstable alliances have since forced Spaniards to go to the polls on numerous occasions: there have been four general elections in a period of under four years, two of them in 2019.
After flirting with both the PP and the PSOE, Spain’s two main parties, Ciudadanos is now mired in a crisis and facing a new election in a key region where it has just been kicked out of government. Its leaders believe that other political parties will now try to take away all its voters in a bid to make the party disappear altogether.
“We know that they’ve set their sights on Ciudadanos,” said Ignacio Aguado, who until last Wednesday was the deputy premier of the Madrid region. “They want to wipe the political center off the map so they can do what they will with us and bring back the Spain of the two opposing sides, but we won’t allow them to do that.”
Aguado said that the PSOE, the PP and the far-right Vox want to absorb the party, mirroring the process that led to the disappearance in 2019 of the small social-liberal Union, Progress and Democracy (UPyD).
On Thursday, less than 24 hours after calling the election, Madrid premier Díaz Ayuso appeared to be aiming for just that, when she stated that she was hoping to attract Ciudadanos voters in order to bring the center-right under the PP’s wing.
In a February poll by the Center for Sociological Studies (CIS), more than 83% of respondents who said they voted for Ciudadanos at the 2019 general election also said that they are likely to switch allegiances depending on which party sounds more convincing come election day. Only 3.7% expressed unwavering party loyalty. Additionally, 28.2% of Ciudadanos voters said they might consider voting for the PP, 6.2% for Vox and 5.9% for the PSOE.
Strategists from those three parties are aware of the electoral booty that’s at stake: 625,000 people supported Ciudadanos at the Madrid regional election of 2019, leading to 26 seats in the regional assembly, the third-largest presence.
Meanwhile, Spain’s central government – run by the PSOE in coalition with junior partner Unidas Podemos – is still puzzling over what went wrong in Murcia: what seemed like a flawless operation has turned into a complete fiasco where everything that could possibly go wrong, did.
On paper, it looked simple: the PSOE and Ciudadanos were teaming up to evict the PP from power following a series of scandals, including the fact that many Murcia officials jumped the line to get early coronavirus shots.
It could have been the first of more joint projects between both parties: the PSOE heads a minority government at the national level and a stable relationship with the moderate Ciudadanos would have opened a lot of doors. Until now, the Spanish government has been relying on Catalan separatist parties for support on key issues such as the national budget.
But now that three Ciudadanos lawmakers have backtracked on their support for the no-confidence motion, the PP is set to remain in power in Murcia, and Madrid is headed for an early election that could reinforce the conservative power’s hold in a region it has governed since 1995.
Some Socialist leaders feel that this is the worst possible time for an election in Madrid. The PSOE views a leftist victory in the region as difficult, though not impossible. If Ciudadanos ends up imploding and merging with the PP, defeating the reinforced right could prove even harder. And polls suggest that the left-wing Unidas Podemos could struggle to obtain even 5% of the vote.
Early polls suggest Ayuso could return to the premiership with Vox’s support, but the PSOE is hoping that its own voters will get behind Socialist candidate Ángel Gabilondo – a veteran party official who will be running for the third time.
One day, two governments
At 11am, the secretary general of the PSOE in Murcia, Diego Conesa, and the regional coordinator for Ciudadanos, Ana Martínez Vidal, made a joint statement after registering their no-confidence motion against the PP. Expecting to become the next regional leaders – Vidal was to be the premier and Conesa her deputy – the pair said there was “no time to lose” and set out their agenda, which would include a return to in-person school classes, reducing poverty and improving the quality of democracy in the region.
At that point, there were 17 lawmakers for the PSOE and six for Ciudadanos behind the motion, representing an absolute majority in the Murcia assembly. But three of the latter, led by Valle Miguélez, were about to betray their party. By 2pm, there was a new announcement: the PP would remain in power, and the three Ciudadanos lawmakers were being given government positions.
English version by Susana Urra.