A new election looms in November
PROPOSALS AND COUNTER-POPOSALS continued even as Spain’s political leaders were speaking in the Congress of Deputies on July 25th. But in the end mistrust triumphed. The attempt by Pedro Sánchez, the acting Socialist prime minister and winner of an election on April 28th, to achieve a parliamentary majority through a coalition with Podemos, a further-left outfit, failed by 124 votes to 155, with 67 abstentions. Mr Sánchez has until September 23rd to try again. If not, Spain will face a fresh general election—the fourth in as many years—on November 10th.
With only 123 seats, the Socialists needed Podemos’s 42 seats, as well as those of Basque nationalists and small regional parties, to get over the line. Mr Sánchez offered Podemos a deputy prime-ministership for social policy and the ministries of health, housing and equality. But Pablo Iglesias, Podemos’s leader, held out for more. He wanted five ministries, including labour. Minutes before the vote, he withdrew that demand, saying he just wanted control of active labour-market policies (such as worker training). It was too late, and anyway those policies are largely in the hands of regional governments. Despite some internal dissent, his party ended up abstaining
“Agreement hasn’t been possible,” said Mr Sánchez. “The problem was never the programme.” Rather, he told the Congress, it was that Podemos wanted “to enter the government in order to control the government”.
Few look good in this stalemate. After the election, Mr Sánchez devoted himself to European politics; he was far too slow to issue a programme on which to negotiate. He seemed to take agreement with Podemos for granted. Mr Iglesias was right when he said that “it’s very difficult to negotiate in 48 hours what you didn’t want to negotiate in 80 days.” But by overplaying his hand, Mr Iglesias will attract most of the opprobrium. It is the second time in three years that his intransigence has blocked the formation of a government of the left.
Given that an agreement seemed so close, it should theoretically be easy for Mr Sánchez to try again in September (the August holidays are sacrosanct in Spain). It probably won’t be. Neither he nor Mr Iglesias made any attempt to conceal their contempt and anger with one another. And there is another factor. Esquerra, a Catalan separatist party abstained from today’s vote. But it has said that it will find it hard to do so again in September, when the verdict will be imminent in the trial of 12 separatist leaders for their illegal declaration of independence in 2017.
Spain has not had a coalition government since democracy was restored in 1977. As Mr Sánchez acknowledged, it was never going to be simple to reconcile two very different left-wing traditions. The Socialists, founded in 1879, are pragmatic social democrats; Podemos, an upstart founded in 2014, encompasses several versions of communism. The prime minister’s problem is that Spain’s current combination of political fragmentation and polarisation left him with no other option. Two right-wing parties, the People’s Party and Ciudadanos, rejected his plea to abstain.
A fresh election carries risks. Mr Sánchez could do better than in April, if leftish voters opt to punish Podemos. Ciudadanos, many of whose voters are more moderate than its leader, Albert Rivera, is set to lose ground. Polls also suggest that Vox, a new far-right outfit which won 24 seats in April, is fading. But it may not prove so simple. The Socialists benefited from a high turnout in April, partly because of fear of Vox. They cannot rely on their supporters making such an effort again. That is why the Socialists said their offer to Podemos remains on the table. The politicians have plenty to contemplate as they swelter on the beaches next month.