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Spain’s new Government is “a-changin”?

Published: 19 June 2019
Author: Luis Moreno

Luis Moreno, Research Professor at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), looks at the unfavourable parliamentary arithmetic facing Prime Minister Sánchez and his PSOE party.

At the time of writing these lines, very few people --if any-- know whether Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), will be able to form a Government with the approval of the new Parliament elected after the General Election of April 28th. He needs the backing of an absolute majority of the 350-member Chamber of Deputies. The numbers, so far, do not add up for Sánchez to attain the support of the required minimum of 176 MPs. If this is the case, and in order to achieve office, he would require in a second parliamentary vote a simple majority of voting MPs (Note: Some of the latter are members of Catalan secessionist parties who cannot vote as they are on trial by the Spanish Supreme Court). As of today, the threshold number for this second vote is 173.

The sum of the 123 social democratic PSOE MPs, plus those 42 of the leftist Unidas Podemos, the 6 of the Christian democrat Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), with whom the PSE-PSOE have an institutional agreement in the Basque Country, and 2 Valencian and Cantabrian MPs reaches 173. The sum of all other parliamentary groups opposed to Sánchez is also 173. Speculation is running high as to whether the Catalan independentists of ERC (Catalan Republican Left) and JpC (Together for Catalonia), or the UPN (anti-Basque nationalism, Union of the Navarrese People) would abstain and, in so doing, allowing Sánchez to break the numerical stalemate of 173. The reader might wonder about these various ideological intersections which prima facie do not strictly correspond to the traditional Right / Left political cleavage.

The fragmentation of the Spanish Parliament (Lower House) provides plenty of hypothetical scenarios. Tactical bargaining and pork-barrel politics, as happened in some party negotiations after the recent local elections, are on display in ways unknown in Spain since the times of transition to democracy after the death of General Franco in 1975.

As examples, let us briefly recall the cases of the Madrid and Barcelona city councils after the local elections of May 26th. In the former, and despite that a left-wing electoral platform formed around Manuel Carmela, Mayor since 2015, won the popular vote collecting 31% and 19 out of the 57 members of the council, the alliance of the Centre-Right / Right / Far Right bloc represented by the parties Ciudadanos, Partido Popular, and Vox managed to win the Mayor’s office for the PP candidate. In Barcelona, the incumbent Ada Colau was able to retain his position as Mayor despite that his left-wing electoral platform (Barcelona en Comú in alliance with the Spanish Podemos) came second as the most voted electoral list in a neck-in-neck race with independentist ERC. A post electoral agreement with the Catalan PSC (Catalan Socialists Party), and three votes from the Ciutadans-Ciudadanos list headed by the French ex-premier, Manuel Valls (now residing in Barcelona) illustrates the flexible and changing nature of Spanish politics these days. 

We can recall Bob Dylan’s verses in his celebrated song, “The times they are a-changin”: “Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call, don’t stand in the doorway, don’t lock up the hall...” However, something new and untried in Spanish politics has to further materialise so that the ongoing situation could result in a desirable consensus for a future constitutional reform. Alternatively, new elections appear as an option which cannot be discounted. The frustrated challenge put together by Ciudadanos (now with 57 MPs in the Lower House), Partido Popular (66), and Vox (24) could translate into a climate of political restlessness in a country struggling with electoral fatigue.

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