It is now more than ninety days since Spain went to the polls, yet the country is still without a new government.
The intervening three months has seen endless rhetoric, performative outrage, bitter recrimination, pro-independence and anti-amnesty demonstrations, but little in the way of substantive progress towards forming a new administration.
To begin with, more than a month was taken up with opposition leader Alberto Feijoo’s failed effort at investiture. That it was a doomed process from the get go was evident to all and sundry, not least to Feijoo himself, who simply used the process to posture, buy time and shore up his leadership, in the wake of disappointing election results that left his putative right-wing coalition six seats short of a majority.
From the moment the hardline Catalan separatists Junts per Catalunya emerged as kingmakers from July’s vote, Feijoo’s project was dead in the water. Once upon a time, not so long ago, Basque and Catalan separatists were amenable to making deals with Feijoo’s Popular Party in return for regional concessions.
However, since Vox have made themselves indispensable to any right wing majority, (a far right party who wants to ban all secessionist political formations), such deals have become unthinkable.
With Feijoo bowing out, current caretaker prime minister Pedro Sanchez, the only candidate with any realistic hope of stitching together a parliamentary majority of 176, was officially called on by the king to attempt to do so.
While Feijoo was going through the motions of investiture, Sanchez quietly made overtures to the six different political entities whose support he will need to renew his progressive coalition for another four years.
He has publicly stated on a number of occasions his absolute belief that there will be a new government, thus avoiding a return to the polls. However, the initial optimism within the PSOE, in the wake of its better than expected election results, has been tempered in recent weeks by the reality of just how difficult reaching agreement with separatists will actually be.
The first baby step towards putting together a government was completed only this week with the signing of a new coalition agreement between PSOE and their radical left junior partners, Sumar, which will form the nucleus of any putative progressive administration. The document included some eye-catching policies, such as the reduction of the working week to 37.5 hours, and was announced to much fanfare, with both parties keen to demonstrate momentum towards government formation.
However, a slick, public presentation can’t disguise the fact that a PSOE/ Sumar deal was never seriously in doubt, and represents by far the easiest piece of the government formation puzzle. The hardest piece, hammering out a deal with Catalan separatists, Junts per Catalunya and the ERC, appears to have gotten a whole lot harder in recent weeks, as both parties have put aside their considerable differences to up the ante on Sanchez.
The secessionists are now demanding official recognition of Catalonia and the Basque country as “nations” in their own right, in addition to a widespread amnesty for those involved in the independence debacle of 2017, and an agreed referendum in the lifetime of the next parliament.
For Sanchez and many in his party the holding of a referendum is simply a bridge too far. Even in the unlikely event that Sanchez agreed to one, it would potentially be very difficult to implement.
The vote held in 2017 was struck down as unconstitutional by the constitutional court, a ruling unlikely to change, given there is no mechanism for complete secession in a document that forms the basis of Spain’s federal system of autonomous communities.
In terms of how the negotiations may play out over the coming weeks, at least one leading Catalan political analyst, Joan Esculies, is of the view that “Junts will maintain its line of referendum or nothing. I think we will go forward to an electoral repeat”.
Up to recently the conventional wisdom had been that when push came to shove, Junts would hoover up as many concessions short of a referendum as possible, before finally voting Sanchez back into power, rather than risk a second election which could see a considerably more hostile right wing coalition win office.
With the deadline for Sanchez’s investiture vote fast approaching, this hypothesis is looking ever more dubious. Whatever the eventual outcome, there is one thing of which we can be sure, the negotiations will almost certainly go down to the wire.