9 March 2016

Government gridlock still destabilising Spain


Spain’s government is starting to look like one of those Victorian mind games that involves crossing a river with a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage, making sure none of them get eaten.

Spain has been locked in this mind-bending stalemate since the parliamentary elections in December, in which 35 percent of the electorate voted for parties that did not exist in the last elections – and it hasn’t had a government all that time. When you look at the numbers, it’s easy to see why. The aim is to build a coalition of 176 seats, a majority in Spain’s 350-seat Parliament. The players are as follows:

Popular Party (PP), establishment-right, led by former (and acting) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, 123 seats

Socialist Party (PSOE), establishment-left, led by Pedro Sánchez, 90 seats

Podemos (We Can), radical-left, led by Pablo Iglesias, 69 seats

Ciudadanos (Citizens), radical-centre, led by Albert Rivera, 40 seats

Pro-independence Catalan and Basque nationalist parties, 25 seats in total

Now for the tricky bit. The Popular Party, despite the name, is universally distrusted and hated among the other parties. Mariano Rajoy’s most obvious coalition partner would be the pragmatic centrists Ciudadanos, which would give him 163 seats – not a majority, but workable. But Ciudadanos’ charismatic leader Albert Rivera has refused to work with Rajoy, on the basis of his unpopularity and the allegations of corruption surrounding him, so Rajoy would have to step down. Understandably, the man who led Spain through the recession and who heads up the party with the most seats is reluctant to step aside.

Pedro Sánchez has taken this as his chance to lead the Socialists to power. Last week, he argued passionately for Spain’s MPs to back him in a coalition with Ciudadanos. With 130 seats, this would have left him well short of a majority, but Sánchez hoped Spain’s smaller parties, including Podemos, would either support him or abstain from the vote, allowing him to become Prime Minister and lead a minority government.

Podemos had other ideas, and Sánchez’s initiative failed miserably.  It was the first time in the history of Spain’s democracy that a candidate for Prime Minister has failed to win a vote of confidence. Spain is now back to square one.

Mathematically-aware readers might be wondering why Sánchez chose to attempt a coalition with Ciuadadanos, rather than with the left-aligned Podemos, which would have added up to 159 seats. If only it were so simple. Pablo Iglesias led Podemos from obscurity to triumph on a platform of anti-establishment, anti-austerity left-wing radicalism. While both Podemos and the Socialists hate Rajoy and the Popular Party, Podemos’ line has been that Spain needs change. That change doesn’t include propping up one of the bloated establishment parties, so a deal between Sánchez and Iglesias was always going to be tricky.

To complicate matters further, Podemos is the only major party to support a referendum on Catalan independence. (If you thought those 25 nationalist seats were up for grabs by one of the establishment parties, think again.) It is not clear whether this is down to an ethos of demanding change, rejecting everything the establishment stands for, supporting localism in general, or a cunning political ploy to appeal to disengaged voters. But whatever Podemos’ reasoning, it puts any unionist party which wants to negotiate with Iglesias in an impossible position. It also puts the party directly at odds with Ciudadanos, which, prior to going national a year ago, was founded as a pro-union Catalan party to oppose the separatists. Iglesias has essentially manipulated the system so no coalition can include both Podemos and Ciudadanos, and it seems his party will vote against any coalition in which it is not included.

So PP has the most seats, but no one will work with it. PSOE could win with both Podemos and Ciudadanos, but those two won’t work together. Or PSOE could court Podemos and the Catalan nationalist parties, but that would alienate the majority of PSOE voters and go against one of the party’s key objectives: to keep Spain united. And a grand coalition of PP and PSOE is completely out of the question, given the animosity between Rajoy and the Socialists. Still following?

The result is that Spain’s parliament is looking exactly how the misguided pollsters predicted the UK’s would look after the May general election: disliked right-wing establishment party (Tories) slightly ahead, possibility of a left coalition between traditional left-wing party (Labour) and insurgent left-wing party (the SNP), with some confused centrists unsure of who to support (the Lib Dems). And just as the British pundits speculated on whether the Queen would have to get involved, so the Spanish King is in charge of determining when to call fresh elections. On Monday, following Sánchez’s second failure to win a vote of confidence, King Felipe VI urged the parties to keep negotiating, and gave them an additional two months to break the impasse and try to make a deal.

That will mean Spain is left government-less for a total of five months – not quite challenging Belgium’s 598 days without a government, but still far from productive. Given the fractured electorate and the parties’ deep aversion to one another, it is not clear that new elections would do anything to resolve things. Meanwhile Spain is still facing an uncertain GDP growth rate, debt of 100.7 percent of GDP, and an unemployment rate of 20.9 percent.

There is simply no way to make the electoral maths add up, no way to make the wolf and the goat play nicely together and get everyone across this river safely. If Spain’s government were an actual boat, it would be sinking.

Rachel Cunliffe is Deputy Editor of CapX.