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After the Elections, the Difficult Task of Coalition-Building Begins

After a heated election, acting PM Pedro Sánchez spends time wooing party leaders, hoping to build a strong coalition to shore up his mandate and get back to the busy work of governing.

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As Spain’s heated elections wrapped up, acting Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, seeks to consolidate his hold on government – but he can’t do it alone. While the ultimate losers of the elections are traditional conservative People’s Party (PP), and the Catalan parties, Sánchez’s Socialist party (PSOE) won 123 seats – which is short of the 176 total needed to secure government outright. What followed was a steady balancing act of coalition building to secure a stable, majority coalition.

Sánchez is effectively trying to heal a fractured political environment, and in doing so, showing a conciliatory face to the leaders of the parties. But each of these parties has a different agenda, and they can’t, or won’t all work together, making Sánchez’s coalition-building exercise a delicate one.

To that end, Sánchez met with the leaders of Ciudadanos, a centre-right party, and Podemos, a left-wing party, last Tuesday – in a bid to forge just such a governing alliance and  “normalise institutional relations and political dialogue”. Once the parties come to an agreement, the party leaders will meet with King Felipe VI to determine which candidate, if any, has enough support from Parliament to be the next Prime Minister, subject to an investiture vote. In the past, lack of sufficient support for any candidate led to new elections six months later; though after such a clear victory for PSOE, that is very unlikely to occur this time.

Nevertheless, Sánchez’s meeting with Ciudadanos leader, Albert Rivera, didn’t yield an alliance. Had they decided to work together, that coalition would have resulted in 180 seats – more than enough to secure a majority in Parliament. However, Rivera made it clear that he will not support Sánchez, but instead prefers to bid for the leadership of the opposition. Now that the traditional, mainstream conservative PP party has suffered such a monumental loss, Rivera feels the way is open for him to take over leadership of the centre-right space in Spanish politics.

Rivera also demanded re-introducing direct rule over Catalonia via special constitutional powers, which was implemented for several months, after the region’s referendum and unilateral declaration of independence, in October 2017. Nonetheless, Rivera did offer to cooperate with Sánchez on reaching state pacts concerning education, depopulation, immigration, security, and the combatting of terrorism.

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Albert Rivera, leader of Ciudadanos, is willing to cooperate with Sánchez on matters such as education, immigration, security and terrorism. Copyright: Imaxe Press / shutterstock.com

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Despite their disastrous loss, Sánchez also met with the much-reduced People’s Party (PP) leader, Pablo Casado, to discuss ways to avoid a future fragmented parliament, which was the ultimate cause of the April 28th snap elections. In fact, Sánchez’s meeting with PP’s Pablo Casado was of longer duration – and much friendlier – than with Rivera.  With Sánchez describing the meeting as “cordial”. The two ultimately agreed to open up a permanent communication channel on the Catalonia issue. Such an agreement would have been out of the question mere weeks ago, but PP’s defeat at the ballot box has caused Casado to reconsider the options. In the run-up to the elections, Casado had called Sánchez a “traitor”, a “squatter”, and “a stand-in”, but now is amenable to working with him going forward, including on contentious issues such as Catalonia. The two also discussed pensions, gender violence, scientific research, the environment, and defence.

Casado did tell Sánchez that he would remain “very vigilant” in case there should be “any concessions” to the Catalan separatists, “either on budget issues, or devolved powers”, but he did not insist on the immediate suspension of Catalan self-rule the way Rivera did.

However, Casado also told Sánchez that his party won’t facilitate Sánchez’s reinstatement via abstention at a future investiture vote. Instead, Casado would prefer Sánchez unite with Ciudadanos to make a coalition, and not the Catalan parties. Though, considering Ciudadanos’ ambitions, Casado is likely to be disappointed.

Sánchez’s meeting with Pablo Iglesias Turrión of Podemos, was friendlier still, with them “agreeing to agree”. The government of Spain hinges on Podemos and PSOE banding together, but doing so yields them 165 seats – just shy of the 176 needed to secure a majority. That means courting the Catalan nationalists, whose withdrawal of support over the 2019 budget prompted the April 28th elections in the first place. And Sánchez has already faced criticism from the opposition during his ten-month tenure – for having won the no-confidence vote against Mariano Rajoy thanks to support from the Catalan nationalist and separatist parties, prompting the right-wing to accuse Sánchez of “selling out” to the secessionists.

While Sánchez and Iglesias agree on much, the PSOE wants to head a minority government with support from Podemos, but the latter wants a coalition government with portfolios for some of its leading party members. Neither do they see eye-to-eye on the Catalan issue, as Podemos supports a negotiated referendum on their independence, but PSOE does not. However, both parties have experience working together, including on the 2019 budget.  And both party leaders agreed to give themselves the time for a lengthy negotiation that won’t lead to concrete results until later in May, after both local and European elections conclude. At a news conference, Iglesias told the press that “we have agreed that we need to agree”.

Work is going to take a long time, it will require discretion, caution, and goodwill, from both sides (…) I’m optimistic as to how things will play out.”

And while Sánchez  hasn’t given any interviews to the press, on Twitter he did say the meeting with Iglesias was “positive and constructive”.

While no coalition is settled yet, it is possible to see the basic contours of how the new government will look. If anything, it is the structure of the opposition that is still in flux, as both PP and Ciudadanos claim to lead the opposition – though we do have hints as to which of the two the interim Prime Minister prefers. “There is going to be an open and unprecedented dispute in Spain over the leadership of the opposition”, said Pablo Simón, a politics professor at Carlos III University in Madrid.

On May 16 – coinciding with the European Parliament elections – Spain has local and regional elections, with the PSOE currently in power in five out of twelve of those regions, and the PP in four. Simón noted that both PP and PSOE have a vested interest in “keeping Ciudadanos in third place, rather than in second”.

An official, close to Sánchez, hinted that the interim PM is hoping to encourage cooperation between the government and opposition, adding, “I wouldn’t underestimate the Popular Party. It’s a great party.”

“Right and left need to find the space for dialogue that has been absent in the past decade.”

“Now there’s one big party and several small parties”, he said. “And it’s clear that Spaniards have voted for moderation.”

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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