With the clock ticking on government formation, John Boyce assesses the challenges President Sanchez faces in renewing his multi-party progressive coalition for another four years
In July’s Spanish general election, widespread predictions of an overall majority for right wing parties ultimately failed to materialise. A stronger than expected performance from the left produced another hung parliament, and now raises the prospect of a long, difficult road to government formation, with a return to the polls in January a distinct possibility.
Under the conventions of Spain’s parliamentary monarchy, king Felipe VI has invited the right wing Popular Party (PP) to try to form a government. Though the PP is the largest party in parliament, even in coalition with far right allies Vox, it is four seats short of the 176 seats required to put together a parliamentary majority.
Once upon a time regional Catalan and Basque separatists parties, who routinely hold the key to parliamentary majorities these days, were happy to cut deals with the PP, but post the 2017 Catalan independence crisis, and the rise of Vox, such deals are now unthinkable.
It has created something of a conundrum for the centre right. Vox is now essential to the PPs´governing ambitions but leaves them friendless in the regions. Given this reality, the PP leader Alberto Feijoo’s attempt to form a government over the next few weeks will constitute little more than a performative ritual to buy time and shore up his leadership.
While Feijoo goes through the motions, in the run up to his almost certainly failed investiture on September 27th, the socialist party is quietly working to put together the only viable alternative to a second general election, another progressive coalition, pejoratively dubbed Frankenstein 2.0
Spain’s current caretaker government is composed of the centre left socialist party (PSOE) and their radical left junior partners, Podemos. Together they formed the nucleus of the previous minority administration, twenty odd seats shy of a majority.
They frequently relied on up to six smaller parties, including Catalan and Basque separatists, to pass legislation. The so-called “Frankenstein coalition” was the result of an increasingly fragmented political landscape, in which single party majorities are a thing of the past.
Mathematically the weakest administration since Spain´s return to democracy, the key to its longevity was separatists´s fear of the alternative; a coalition between PP and Vox.
Negotiations to renew this progressive coalition will be even more complicated than in 2019, requiring the lead party PSOE to stitch together an agreement with six other political entities, the radical left Sumar, PNV and EH Bildu (both Basque separatists), two Catalan separatists parties (Junts per Catalunya and the ERC) as well as the tiny Galician nationalists of the BNG.
Each party has their own particular demands, and all are armed with the knowledge that they are indispensable to the formation of a new government.
Back in 2019 disagreement between PSOE and their leftist coalition partners, Podemos, over the creation of the first formal coalition in Spain since the 1930s led to a second election. Now that the rubicon of coalition has been crossed, political agreement should be more straightforward this time out.
In the wake of disastrous recent local election results for Podemos, itself a confederation of various radical leftist groups, their most popular minister Yolanda Diaz, created a new unity platform, Sumar, encompassing Podemos and a wider array of leftist and regional groups.
Diaz has a better working relationship with Prime Minister Sanchez than Podemos’s previous leader, Pablo Iglesias, and though the current caretaker minister for labour has a reputation as a tough negotiator, forging an agreement with Sumar will be one of the easier of the herculean negotiating tasks that Sanchez faces in the coming weeks.
For Diaz, the task will be made all the easier by having excluded Podemos’s two most controversial figures, equality minister Erene Montero and Podemos parliamentary spokesperson Pablo Echenique, from the list of candidates before the election took place.
Algún día pagarán por su traición a España. @KRLS, te sentaremos en el banquillo y la cárcel será el único lugar donde os podáis reunir.@Yolanda_Diaz_, recuerda que, colaborar con un prófugo, te hace cómplice.
— Javier Ortega Smith (@Ortega_Smith) September 4, 2023
Basque nationalist party (PNV)
Though a centre right party on economics, the PNV was part of the so called investiture coalition back in 2019, its seven seats in the national parliament proving crucial to Pedro Sanchez’s election as prime minister.
The party has allied itself very closely to the minority socialist government over the last four years, becoming one of the administration’s most reliable allies in passing legislation. In fierce competition with its nationalist left wing rival, Bildu, the PNV has been anxious to show that it can deliver at national level, and win enhanced autonomy for the Basque region.
Its key demand this time round will be the transfer of social security competencies to the devolved Basque parliament. Having suffered an electoral setback in the July general election, the party will be anxious to cut a deal and avoid a return to the polls.
Less than 15 years after Basque separatist militants ETA, announced an unconditional and “definitive cession of its armed activity”, EH Bildu, a coalition of leftist groups linked to the former paramilitaries have finally eclipsed the PNV, heretofore the dominant secessionist force in the for more than a hundred years.
Though not formally part of Sanchez’s investiture coalition (their abstention rather than a vote in favour was required), they have also been reliable allies for PSOE, at times generating considerable discomfort on the right wing of the socialist party. Even before the election, Bildu had pledged to support the socialists should the numbers stack up, an intention the party quickly confirmed after the vote.
Ideologically more compatible than the PNV and harboring an intense hatred of Vox, agreement with Bildu will be the least of Sanchez’s task as he seeks to stitch together Frankenstein 2.0
The Galician nationalist bloc is a small left leaning political grouping from the north west autonomous community of Galicia, long dominated by the PP, who recently won a fourth straight overall majority in the regional parliament there.
BNG won their first and so far only seat in the national parliament in 2019, and retained it in July’s election with a substantial increase in votes. The party advocates for Galician independence from Spain in the same way its more well known nationalist brethren do in the Basque country and Catalonia.
The party has been an unwavering supporter of the socialist party and in return for specific concessions for its region, will likely remain so in the event of a new coalition government
When it comes to the Catalan separatists, Sanchez’s labours become considerably more challenging. The leftist Republicans suffered a huge setback in the July vote, losing almost half their seats, as left leaning voters opted for the so called “voto util” (useful vote), choosing the socialist party over the ERC in order to block a potential PP/Vox majority.
The ERC will be wary of getting too close to the socialists this time out but will likely get on board the progressive train to avoid a second election, and if some specific demands are met.
These include increased investment the regional train services and a re-balancing of what they view as an unfair budgetary arrangement between Catalonia and the rest of Spain
Junts per Catalunya
By far the most onerous negotiating task for Sanchez will be to secure the seven votes of more hard line right wing separatists of Junts per Catalunya. The party was not part of the previous coalition arrangement, and has not cut a single deal with the socialists in the last four years of government.
The situation is further complicated by the position of the party’s former leader, and ex-president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, who remains exiled in Belgium after fleeing in the wake of the failed independence referendum in 2017.
The recent loss of immunity initially conferred on him by the EU as a MEP prompted the Spanish judiciary to apply for his extradition to Spain to face charges relating to the 1217 vote.
Junts have already demanded amnesty for Puigdemont and a legally binding independence referendum in the lifetime of the next parliament as the price of its support. For Sanchez the first is difficult but doable, the second simply impossible.
However the socialist party remains optimistic that these demands of a negotiable starting point, and that when push comes to shove, Junts will reluctantly facilitate Sanchez’s investiture rather than risk being blamed for handing the PP and the reviled Vox party another bite at the electoral cherry.