Via Financial Times

For months, Pedro Sánchez, who on Wednesday was sworn in as the leader of modern Spain’s first coalition government, has struggled to put together a wafer-thin parliamentary majority.

Now the Socialist prime minister is betting that his coalition with the radical left Podemos party will be even harder to oust than it was to put into power — and that the new government will break the cycle of political instability that has taken Spain to four general elections in four years.

“Sánchez will be very hard to eject and I think he will probably pass a budget,” said Nacho Torreblanca of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Despite the fragility of the two-vote margin that ushered him into office — and the difficulty that will pose for approving legislation — Mr Sánchez has set out a sweeping programme, including increased government spending, negotiations over Catalonia and a shift in labour laws to bolster collective bargaining. 

The Spanish constitution provides him with a reason for confidence that he can survive in office even if many items on his agenda prove too much of a stretch for his fledgling coalition.

According to that charter’s provisions, a motion of no-confidence by parliament in the government can only succeed if an absolute majority of deputies votes in favour of an alternative prime minister.

As difficult and contentious as it was for Mr Sánchez to piece together a simple majority of 167 MPs to install him as prime minister, it is likely to be much more challenging for the rightwing opposition to gain the 176 votes it would need to supplant him.

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The prime minister had initially hoped to set up a minority Socialist administration. But his party’s performance at Spain’s last general election in November fell short, and he opted instead to share power with Podemos. To win Tuesday’s vote, he also needed support from a clutch of regionalist parties — as well as abstentions by Catalan and Basque separatists.

Such parliamentary manoeuvrings were hugely contentious. 

The Catalan dispute is the most divisive issue in Spanish politics in the wake of a botched 2017 independence bid that the right has denounced as a coup attempt but which Catalan separatists depict as a democratic exercise in self determination. Memories are also still strong of the hundreds of murders carried out over four decades by Eta, the now-disbanded violent Basque separatist group.

In the bad-tempered debate that preceded Tuesday’s vote, Pablo Casado, leader of the centre right People’s party, accused Mr Sánchez of seeking to “break” the state and of setting up a “government against Spain” that put the future of the country in the hands of “terrorists and coup-mongers”.

But Catalan separatists in particular have the ability to play a decisive role in Spain’s deeply fragmented parliament, in which both the left and rightwing blocs are far from a majority. In the past, Catalan regional politicians helped put the People’s party into power; today that seems unthinkable.

Instead, the ERC, the biggest pro-independence party, promised it would not vote against Mr Sánchez — but only after the Socialists agreed to a road-map on future formal negotiations on the Catalan dispute.

Sandra León, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III university, argues that the two big immediate challenges for the new government — the Catalan negotiations and the budget — will be intimately linked.

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“The government is going to try to get the parties that helped it take power help it push through the budget,” she said, noting the crucial role of the ERC. “Politically and practically, Sánchez has to get his own budget through.”

The Socialists have already told the ERC that if the negotiations on the future of Catalonia are to prosper, a stable government in Madrid is essential. That in turn requires passing a budget.

In Tuesday’s debate, Mr Sánchez expressed hope that the “toxic” political climate of recent days could soon be cleared — while absolving his Socialists of any blame. But some analysts argue that the polarisation of Spanish politics could bind reluctant allies to the prime minister’s side.

That polarisation was on ample display in Tuesday’s debate.

Speakers from both left and right traded allusions to the bloody 1936-1939 civil war. After the vote, Pablo Iglesias, the Podemos leader, broke down in tears of relief as his colleagues chanted “Yes we can”.

One MP, from the regional Teruel Existe party, complained of a campaign of intimidation after he announced he would cast his decisive vote for the government; as of Tuesday night he was under police protection.

Many other small parties are also concerned about the rise of the far-right Vox party, which is now the third biggest force in parliament and wants to roll back the autonomy of Spain’s regions.

Mr Torreblanca argues that groups such as the ERC and the biggest Basque regional party may now be tied to Mr Sánchez’s coalition, because they know that an alternative rightwing government would seek to recentralise Spain.

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“Their destiny is sealed to each other,” he said. “If there is a culture war and you’re in power, you do not risk an election to lose it.”