The ongoing saga in Spain, which has been without a functioning government since last year, appears to be some way to resolution. Regional elections and a mutiny at the top of the Socialist party point to a minority PP administration.
Spanish politics have appeared to be in stasis for the best part of a year. An inconclusive election in December 2015, caused by strong showings for new parties Podemos and Ciudadanos, has led to tortuous negotiations as the ruling conservative Partido Popular (PP), and the socialist PSOE, sought in vain to form a coalition. A fresh election in June yielded similar results, with a slight improvement for the PP.
Slowly, however, the situation has altered. Since June the focus has shifted to the intransigence of the PSOE and its leader Pedro Sánchez. The socialists blocked an attempt by the PP to form a minority government with the liberal, anti-corruption party Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’). Only a handful of seats short of winning a vote of confidence in the Spanish lower house, the PP could thus portray Sánchez as denying the country, which has a mounting in tray of urgent business ranging from the economy and unemployment to separatist claims in Catalonia, a functioning government.
Pedro Sánchez’s position was an unenviable one. Anxious not to facilitate another PP term, he has nonetheless led his party to historically dire electoral performances. The PSOE has haemorrhaged support to Podemos (‘We Can’) and Sánchez was clearly concerned this would continue if he allowed Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to continue in office. The PSOE’s dilemma, however, is being repeated across Europe. Established social democratic and socialist parties have lost support to newer, more left-wing and populist, insurgent parties. Meanwhile Britain’s Labour Party has swung ferociously leftwards in its embrace of socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn. In short, Sánchez has been trying to resist a continent-wide wave of discontent that has marginalised centre-left parties.
Regional elections cause more misery for PSOE
Regional elections were held in Galicia and the Basque Country at the end of September. The PP consolidated support with victory in its Galician heartland, while nationalist parties retained power in the Basque Country. Most noteworthy was a decline in votes (from the last election in 2012) in both regions for the PSOE. Most worryingly for the Socialists, they were actually beaten into fourth place by Podemos in the Basque Country.
Sánchez forced to resign
Poor results in Galicia and the Basque Country, disappointing showings in the two general elections, and the damage being done to the PSOE by its obduracy in coalition negotiations triggered a move against Sánchez. Four time PSOE Prime Minister in the 1980s and 1990s Felipe González spoke out in the press. González stated that Sánchez had promised, during a private conversation in June, that he would abstain in a second vote of confidence, allowing the PP to form a government and ending the stalemate. González said he felt “deceived” and “disappointed”. This then led to the resignation of 17 of the 38 member PSOE executive committee and after a tense 10 hour party assembly on 1 October, Sánchez stepped down as leader.
What now for Spain?
Two scenarios that could now play out in Spain. The PSOE may pursue a similar policy in preventing Rajoy to form a government, in the hope that a new leader will improve their chances in a third general election, which would be due in December if a new administration cannot be formed by the end of October. This strategy, however, ignores a number of facts. Opinion polls currently show a similar voter intention to the June outcome, which would renew the cycle. Despite its lack of government, Spain’s economy has been growing this year and its stubbornly high unemployment figures slowly declining. The improving economic data marginally play into the hands of the PP, although as long as the latter figure is high, alternative economic narratives, like those offered by Podemos, will attract voters. The PP’s key weakness is corruption. Ciudadanos will demand cleaner government as part of a coalition arrangement, which may increase voter trust, or just as likely undermine it if further scandals are exposed in the established parties.
For now the most likely outcome is that the PSOE will choose to lick its wounds and regroup, allowing Rajoy to form a minority government. This in itself will be fragile and the PP can expect to come under pressure from Podemos, separatists, potentially a disgruntled coalition partner in Ciudadanos, as well as new corruption scandals. Recent events have changed the parliamentary calculus, but Spain is still far from a stable government.