Head of Spain’s conservatives loses first bid to form a government

Alberto Núñez Feijóo only received support from his own Popular Party, the far-right Vox and two small regional groups. If he does not win approval in a second vote on Friday, acting PM Pedro Sánchez gets a chance to try

Alberto Núñez Feijóo of Spain's Popular Party addressing parliament on Tuesday.
Alberto Núñez Feijóo of Spain's Popular Party addressing parliament on Tuesday.Claudio Alvarez
X. Hermida E.G. de Blas C.S. Baquero
Madrid -

Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the leader of Spain’s center-right Popular Party (PP), on Wednesday failed to secure enough endorsement in parliament to form a government following the national election of July 23, which gave the PP the most seats in the parliament’s 350-member lower chamber, but left the party shy of an absolute majority.

As expected, at the investiture vote on Wednesday he came up four votes short of the necessary majority of 176 votes in his favor. Núñez Feijóo obtained 172 votes —137 from his own party, 33 from the far-right Vox and one each from small regional parties from Navarre (UPN) and the Canary Islands (Coalición Canaria). Another 178 lawmakers voted against the candidate, including the main governing Socialist Party (PSOE), the left-wing group Sumar, and nationalist parties from the regions of Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country.

After this first failure, which had been widely expected, the conservative leader will go to a second vote on Friday, when he will only need more “yes” than “no” votes. If he again fails to secure enough approval, acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez will get a chance to try. If no new head of government emerges by November 27, parliament will be dissolved and new elections called for January 14.

Following the vote, PSOE spokesman Patxi López said that the PP candidate “leaves the debate the same way he entered, as leader of the opposition.” One of the most relevant takeaways from the investiture debate is that a new era of cordial relations has opened up between the PP and Vox. This was evidenced by Núñez Feijóo, who on two occasions defined himself up as the representative of “11 million voters,” the sum of his own party and Vox.

Another conclusion is that the PP leader’s chances of attracting support from nationalist parties at the second vote on Friday are slimmer than ever. This is particularly true of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), whose spokesman Aitor Esteban underscored that they had made it very clear from the beginning that they would not support him. On the one hand, because of his pacts with Vox and on the other, because of the PP’s own rhetoric: “Is it appropriate for a national party to launch harangues against half the country?” Esteban asked.

An unusual debate

At the debate on Tuesday, Núñez Feijóo did not act as the formal candidate tapped by King Felipe VI to try to form a government, following established procedure. Instead, the veteran conservative politician immediately launched into an attack of the alleged amnesty talks between the acting government of Pedro Sánchez, of the Socialist Party (PSOE), and Catalan separatists who supported the failed secession attempt of 2017.

Núñez Feijóo, 62, is trying to use opposition to the possible amnesty to boost his seemingly non-existent chances of becoming the next prime minister of Spain. He started his speech by accusing Sánchez of being willing to bend to the demands of the separatists, who include fugitives such as Catalonia’s former regional leader Carles Puigdemont. The latter fled Spain six years ago to avoid prosecution, but his Junts per Catalunya party could prove critical to appointing the country’s next leader.

“I have within my reach the votes that I need to become prime minister,” Feijóo said to laughs from some of his left-wing rivals. “But I am not ready to accept the price I was asked to pay for them.”

It took almost 40 minutes — the speech stretched to 100 — for Núñez Feijóo to mention any specific governing proposals. Before that, he repeatedly warned about the danger to Spanish democracy of a hypothetical amnesty. “It would be a direct attack on essential democratic values. Outside the Constitution, there is no democracy.” Núñez Feijóo also proposed that, if made prime minister, he would push for a new law to punish “constitutional disloyalty.”

PSOE lawmaker Óscar Puente replying to Alberto Nüñez Feijóo in Congress.
PSOE lawmaker Óscar Puente replying to Alberto Nüñez Feijóo in Congress.Claudio Alvarez

Meanwhile, acting PM Sánchez did not take the podium to give a speech of his own, instead delegating that task to Socialist lawmaker Óscar Puente, who struck an aggressive tone against Núñez Feijóo. “You know that you won’t be able to govern, and you have known it since election night,” he said. “You have turned this procedure into a farce.” Sánchez’s decision to say nothing prompted shouts of “coward” by some conservative lawmakers, and Speaker Francina Armengol had to ask them to be quiet several times.

It was one of the most unlikely investiture sessions ever to be held inside the Congress of Deputies. The lawmaker Aitor Esteban, of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), summed it up thus: “This feels more like a no-confidence vote against an acting government than an investiture.”

Sánchez’s chances

Even with backing from the 33 lawmakers representing the far-right Vox, and two more from small conservative parties representing Navarre and the Canary Islands, Núñez Feijóo is still four votes short of the majority he needs. And other potential backers such as the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) have already warned that they will not consider supporting the PP candidate unless Vox is left out of the equation. The far-right party is essentially acting as a repellent for regional nationalist parties, among other things because of its defense of a highly centralized Spain that would take powers away from regional governments. Despite this, on Tuesday Núñez Feijóo made a point of thanking Vox leader Santiago Abascal for his “generous and responsible support,” even as he sought to portray himself as the leader of a reunited right.

Acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez walking into the Congress of Deputies on Tuesday.
Acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez walking into the Congress of Deputies on Tuesday.Claudio Alvarez

One of the acting government’s main fears regarding the complicated maneuver to achieve the investiture is that it might get ruined by the political struggle between two Catalan separatist parties, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) and Junts per Catalunya. The support of both pro-independence groups (17 votes) is necessary for a successful bid by Sánchez. On Tuesday, the Catalan premier and national coordinator of ERC, Pere Aragonès, explicitly said that a condition to vote “yes” to the Socialist leader would be the latter’s commitment to a legal referendum on independence in Catalonia.

Although attention has focused largely on a potential amnesty for individuals facing criminal charges over the secessionist bid of 2017 (Sánchez pardoned nine jailed leaders in 2021), the real elephant in the room has always been the so-called right to self-determination. This is the big red line that the Sánchez government has always refused to cross, considering that it is outside the Constitution.

A failure by Feijóo to form a government would automatically start a two-month period in which Sánchez could try to form a new government. If he also fails, parliament would be dissolved on November 27 and a new election would be called. It would not be the first time: there was a repeat election in November 2019 after no government emerged from the vote held in April. A repeat election was also held in June 2016 after failure to form a stable government following the December 2015 election.

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