Prof. McConnell Comments on Political Issues in Spain | St. Lawrence University Government

Prof. McConnell Comments on Political Issues in Spain

Assoc. Prof. Shelley McConnell
July 26, 2019 -- Madrid

As a political scientist, my appointment as director of the St. Lawrence University study abroad program in Spain could not have come at a more interesting time. Spanish politicians are offering a textbook lesson on the tricky politics of coalition formation in Spain’s parliamentary monarchy.

I arrived in Madrid July 6, 2019 and moved into my apartment to find electoral information from Spain’s political parties in my mailbox, sent to the former tenant. The leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE, Partido Socialista Obrero Español), Pedro Sánchez, who had been governing from a minority position, called a snap election for April 28, 2019 in which Spanish citizens voted to fill all 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies and 208 of the 266 Senate seats. This fell a month in advance of scheduled regional, local and European Parliament races held in May 2019 and the timing could have been intended to shape their outcome. Regional votes matter in Spain’s unitary but highly decentralized system which has 17 autonomous communities. Indeed just over a year ago the central government’s clashes with Catalonian leaders who endorsed separatist sentiments expressed in an unauthorized regional referendum helped bring down Sánchez’ predecessor in a vote of no confidence.

The election in April constituted an attempt on Sánchez’ part to increase his party’s share of seats in the legislature. The gamble appeared to have paid off with his PSOE winning 123 seats, an improvement of 38 seats and the first clear victory for the PSOE in eleven years. Previously Sánchez had lost control of his party but then reclaimed the prime minister’s office by forcing the June 2018 vote of no confidence against then-prime minister Mariano Rajoy of the mainstream conservative People’s Party (PP). Sánchez had recognized that Rajoy was vulnerable, embroiled in a corruption scandal as well as criticized over his handling of the Catalonia crisis.

With a 71.8% turnout that puts US elections to shame the 2019 Spanish vote might be read as a solid endorsement of the PSOE, and a resounding defeat for the PP which lost more seats than it won and came close to losing its second place spot in the legislature to the up-and-coming Citizens party (Cs, Ciudadanos).

There is just one problem  – Sánchez failed to put together a governing coalition. Negotiations between Sánchez and Pablo Iglesias, leader of We Can (UP, Unidas Podemos, known here simply as Podemos) continued through yesterday’s deadline as Sánchez sought to put together a like-minded coalition of his social democratic party with Iglesias’ democratic socialist party, which had won 42 seats. That would still have left Sánchez short of the 173 seats needed for a majority, but the hope was that if the PSOE and UP could bridge their differences they might have won over the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya) whose 15 seats could have helped them achieve a minimum winning connected coalition. But Sánchez considered Iglesias’ demands for more cabinet posts, policy changes and a more powerful position for himself as overreach given that Podemos is only the fourth largest party in the legislature, and no deal was struck before the period of investiture expired last night.

In the end, Sánchez only persuaded a single ally from a regional party based in the northern Cantabria area for 124 seats total, and in a vote of 155 nays and 67 abstentions his bid to form a government fell well short of the mark. The vote was cast largely along ideological lines with right-wing parties against and left-wing parties abstaining, including Iglesias’ Podemos, signaling that it remains open to persuasion.

The law allows a two month grace period in which Sánchez can try again to form a coalition, and speculation is that he may make overtures to the Citizens party which holds 57 seats and even the weakened conservative PP with 66 seats, moving toward the center in an effort to govern. The latter match seems unlikely, however, given Spain’s deep ideological divide, grounded in the history of the Franco dictatorship’s massive human rights violations against unionists, intellectuals and socialists prior to Spain’s transition to democracy in the 1970s. Meanwhile Iglesias has warned that Sánchez will never be prime minister again without the Podemos votes, and numerous small parties on the left have called for Sánchez to concede more to them or risk turning the leftist victory into a defeat.

St. Lawrence Government major Tyler Senecharles, who took my Comparative Politics introductory course last term, wrote me with the question that is on everyone’s minds here in Madrid: “If the reason the PM failed in creating the government is because the Unidas Podemos party abstained from the vote, what is stopping them from continuing to do this?” Indeed, some think Podemos would like to scuttle coalition negotiations and force a new election in the hope of regaining some of its lost ground. But as Tyler notes, “In the midst of the Catalonia debacle and Brexit, Spain is in no position to have no government.”

If a coalition government is not forthcoming within two months, Spain will be forced to hold new elections on November 10. What is at stake is most likely not the recuperation of Podemos but rather the prospect that Spaniards exhausted by repeated elections might say “a plague on both your houses” and abandon the more established parties in favor of perceived outsiders. A telling footnote to the election in a country still deeply divided by the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War and subsequent Franco dictatorship was the entry into the legislature of the populist right-wing party Vox. Seen by critics as holding hidden fascist sympathies, Vox has been fast rising in popularity along with populist right-wing parties elsewhere in Europe, and in April it won 10.3% of Spain’s legislative vote. In a new election Vox might make further gains in displacing the mainstream conservative PP, polarizing Spanish politics even more and tearing open the still tender wounds of the Civil War.