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What snapped in Spain?

Credit: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

February 15, 2019   4 mins

Spain is on the brink of yet another nationwide election, the country’s third in less than four years.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has been under pressure to call an election ever since he ousted Popular Party (PP) leader Mariano Rajoy last summer. His governing Socialist Party (PSOE) holds just 84 seats (24%) in the 350-seat Congress, and its budget has just been voted down.

Getting its budget passed was always likely to present a colossal challenge for the Sanchez government, and so it has proven: on February 13 the government lost the vote by 191 to 158 after the country’s separatist lawmakers allied with the PP to vote down the fiscal proposals. It was this that triggered the call for a snap election, slated for 28 April.

Spain was due to hold a general election next year anyway, but it was always more likely than not that the PSOE would be forced to go to the polls before then. The party ousted the scandal-hit Rajoy government in a parliamentary vote of no confidence that won the backing of 180 MPs back in 2018. The vote followed a ruling by Spain’s highest criminal court that the PP had profited from illegal kickbacks from government contracts. Yet the anti-Rajoy alliance – which Sanchez himself described at one point as the “Frankenstein coalition” – crumbled soon after the PP had been deposed.

Divisions have gradually come to a head as it has become clear that Sanchez would not soften his position against holding a Catalan independence referendum. This led separatist parties – including the Catalan Republican Left – to vote down Sanchez’s budget proposals. In doing so, they may well end up with a Right-wing government in Madrid that is even more hostile to their independence aspirations than the PSOE.

In fact, since he ousted Rajoy last year, Sanchez has improved the PSOE’s standing in the polls. A few short years ago commentators were preparing to write the obituary of yet another European social democratic party. In the 2011 election, the PSOE received the lowest vote share in its history, and less than 12 months ago, El Pais was reporting that, were a “hypothetical election” to be held, “both parties would receive their worst result in history”.

In a country that had grown tired of the financial scandals surrounding the governing PP, Sanchez’s ruthless action in toppling Rajoy proved popular. As such, the PSOE currently sit at around 24% in the polls – granted a modest improvement on the 22% it was polling at prior to Rajoy’s departure, but nonetheless the largest share for any single party.

Yet this is still less than the combined total of the two centre-Right parties, the PP and Ciudadanos (Citizens), who together are currently polling at around 40%.

Sanchez will have to hope that voters reward his government’s fiscal generosity after a decade of austerity. Earlier this year the government raised the minimum wage by 22%. It has also announced a plan to raise pensions, increase paternity leave and invest more heavily in education and social security.

A glimmer of hope for Sanchez may lie in the steady demise of the anti-establishment radical insurgent party, Podemos. The party is currently embroiled in what looks to be the early stages of a split between its leader, Pablo Iglesias, and its co-founder, Íñigo Errejón, over party lists for this year’s regional election in Madrid.

Support for Podemos has almost halved in the polls from a high of 27% in December 2014 to 15% today, putting them in fourth place, and only four points ahead of Vox, a party of the hard Right. The steady decline of Podemos – in part the victim of that familiar curse of Left-wing political parties, the factional squabble – offers Sanchez breathing space on his Left.

Yet his relationship with the separatist parties is more complex. Sanchez’s relative popularity in Spain as a whole rests partly – as it does for the leaders of all the major parties barring Podemos – on his refusal to meaningfully compromise with Catalan separatists. Had Sanchez been willing to offer separatists a referendum prior to his budget the separatists would almost certainly have supported it. Yet in offering a referendum, Sanchez would invariably have lost support in the rest of Spain. Such is the dilemma for Spain’s Prime Minister.

What may work in Sanchez’s favour is the fear among many – not just on the Spanish Left – of the Right returning to power after less that a year in opposition. This is particularly true for separatist parties, towards whom Sanchez has behaved more tolerantly than his PP predecessors.

The trials of separatist leaders for their role in the botched 2017 Catalan independence referendum are going ahead as planned, but the atmosphere in Spain is markedly less febrile than it was during the PP’s time in office. Indeed, Sanchez has faced widespread protests in Madrid and other cities for his government’s attempt to open up a dialogue with separatists. He had also promised in his party’s budget (which the separatist parties vetoed) to channel 18.5% of total state spending into Catalonia, an increase on the previous 13.1%.

Yet it would be extremely foolish on the part of Pedro Sanchez to bank on separatists being willing to form a governing coalition with the PSOE. The more militant among the separatists may actually be hoping for a government that is more implacably hostile to independence, with the aim of fostering a greater degree of militancy among pro-independence voters in regions such as Catalonia. The heavy-handed action against separatists in Catalonia by the Rajoy government saw support for independence climb to nearly 50% at one point in 2017.

The smart money would be on Sanchez’s party topping the polls. But unless the situation changes drastically in the next two months, the eventual outcome may well be a coalition government of the Right.

Only a fool would write off ‘Mr Handsome’ – as Pedro Sánchez is nicknamed. Like Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Sanchez has been written-off many times in the past by establishment politicians and commentators only to re-emerge ahead of the pack. After almost a decade of austerity, fatigued voters may yet throw a spoke in the wheel of Spanish politics and return the Prime Minister who promised more money.

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.


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