Moves initiated on September 12th by Spanish King Felipe VI to meet with political leaders accelerated the political drive to solve the impasse that has frozen Spanish politics since April of this year. Now it seems Spain is headed to its fourth general election within a single four year term. With no new government officially in place, caretaker Socialist (PSOE) Premier Pedro Sanchez now has until Monday – the 23rd of September – to secure support to be elected president, or else parliament will be dissolved and fresh elections will be held in November.
The Spanish King, officially the head of state, concluded meetings with leaders of all major political parties yesterday evening, to decide whether Pedro Sánchez could secure the necessary support to win a parliamentary vote and form a government, thereby avoiding the need for another keenly fought election that polls suggest could lead to a further impasse. Nonetheless, and much to the disdain of Spanish voters, it seems a new visit to the polls may be next on the agenda, unless a last minute deal can be hashed out amongst political parties by tomorrow – Thursday the 19th.
An official statement by the Royal Palace said that the King had verified that no candidate had the necessary support for parliament “to grant him his confidence”, meaning that if an investiture vote were called, Pedro Sánchez would most definitely lose. While a small window remains for an agreement to be struck between parties, the term for an investiture officially ends at midnight on September 23rd, after which – and if no candidate has gained the confidence of parliament – the Spanish King will call fresh elections.
While Sánchez’ party won most seats in April’s election, they remain 53 seats short of a parliamentary majority. The most likely source of support was thought to be the left-wing Unidas Podemos party and allies, who could deliver 43 seats. However, interparty talks quickly became rancorous and failed to deliver an agreement. Sanchez cited a ‘lack of trust’ behind the inability to form a coalition with the party of Pablo Iglesias, who had proposed a trial coalition which could govern until the country’s budget is approved, after which it would offer to leave government while continuing to offer parliamentary support.
In July, Sanchez lost an investiture vote to confirm him as the new premier. Podemos negotiators claimed the Socialists were only interested in an election manifesto and governing alone. Meanwhile, some within the PSOE have also expressed reservations about facing an election campaign after such a crippling impasse. Andres Perello of the PSOE Executive warned, “I prefer a bad coalition to good elections”.
If an agreement does not transpire and parliament is dissolved, the election would be fought on November 10th against a backdrop of looming political and economic uncertainty, including nothing less than the October 31st Brexit deadline and the expected verdict in the trial of twelve Catalan separatist leaders currently facing the courts on serious charges, including sedition.
With the centre and moderate right of Spanish politics eviscerated in April’s elections due to the Partido Popular’s (PP) disastrous performance, mostly at the hands of the far-right Vox party, options to the moderate right are scant for Sanchez as he searches for the partner he needs. The civil-war divide with the PP remains unbridgeable so the only other alternative is the moderate right Ciudadanos, who now find themselves in a position of considerable leverage.
Having previously dismissed any possibility of a coalition overture, on September 16th the Ciudadanos leader, Albert Rivera, said that he could facilitate, through vote abstention, Pedro Sanchez’s investiture as president, under certain conditions in alliance with the PP. This centre-right pact would require for President Sánchez to commit to not increasing taxes, as well as other conditions relating to the government in Navarre and the Catalan separatist crisis.
Sánchez replied to Rivera’s proposal via a formal letter. Although he did commit to not raise taxes, there were clear divergences relating to the other two points. A tweet from Ciudadanos, yesterday afternoon, made it clear that a possible alliance was – for the time being – off the table. “Pedro Sánchez’s response to our state solution is a joke”, said the post, adding that Albert Rivera demanded that Sanchez rectify and “live up to the Spaniards”. After his meeting with King Felipe VI, however, Rivera hinted that an agreement was still a possibility. “If Sanchez rectifies, there is still time for this country to get under way. Call me”, he said.
In the meantime, Pablo Iglesias’ party confirmed their intention to abstain during the vote, unless a coalition government is in the cards. However, this abstention – alone – will not suffice.
Addressing the press after the Palace’s announcement, Sánchez said he had tried by all possible means to form a government “but they have made it impossible for me”, alluding to “conservative forces” and “a leftist political force”. Pablo Casado, the leader of the PP, for his part criticised Sánchez, saying that the PSOE had not tried to reach an agreement “with any political formation”.
The involvement of the King in political negotiations is a further hallmark of the current instability engulfing Spanish politics. The latest consultations mark the seventh time that King Felipe VI has met with political leaders in this context in the five years of his reign. In stark contrast, his father, King Juan Carlos I called just ten similar meetings in the 39 years of his reign, which stretched back to the reestablishment of modern Spanish politics following the Franco era.
If the monarchy’s intervention, or the proposal of a Ciudadanos/PP alliance fails, then the country will face an election which is unlikely to heal the divides within Spanish politics. Both the PSOE and the PP have lost ground to radical movements on their respective left and right flanks, and while polls suggest further turmoil at the ballot box, another election could see modest gains for established parties, a possible sign of voter fatigue.
A recent poll published in the ABC newspaper, carried out by GAD3, found that the Socialists could increase their seats by up to fourteen in a new vote, but that would still leave them a long way short of a majority, while the PP could gain up to sixteen seats.
According to the poll, Vox and Podemos have most to lose in a new election, which could also hit Ciudadanos hard. The figures suggest that fresh election results might mean that the PSOE would not require support from Catalan nationalists to form a government, but would require support from Basque elements and also Unidas Podemos, which could prove very difficult considering the recent acrimony between the two parties.