Spain came a step closer to its first coalition government in modern times on Sunday when Pedro Sánchez, the country’s caretaker Socialist prime minister, secured the slimmest possible majority in a parliamentary vote on a new administration.
The 166 to 165 vote in the 350-member chamber of deputies was not enough to install the coalition Mr Sánchez wanted between his Socialists and the radical left Podemos party, because he needed an absolute majority of MPs to be confirmed in office on Sunday.
But under the provisions of Spain’s constitution, the vote will now be repeated on Tuesday, when Mr Sánchez will need only a relative majority — more MPs in favour than against — to begin a new term as prime minister.
The two-day parliamentary debate was rancorous, with Pablo Casado, the leader of the main centre right opposition, labelling Mr Sánchez a “sociopath”, and dubbing the prospective coalition “a nightmare government . . . The most radical in our democratic history.”
At one point in his speech, Mr Casado threatened to take the prime minister to court over government policy on Catalonia, the most divisive issue in Spanish politics. The right, which accuses the Socialists of going too far in accommodating Catalan separatists, wants Madrid to eject the region’s pro-independence government from power instead.
In response, Mr Sánchez denounced his rightwing opponents as a “coalition of apocalypse”.
“Spain is not going to be broken; the constitution is not going to be broken,” the prime minister said. “What is going to be broken is the block on a progressive government democratically chosen by the Spanish people.”
The goals he set out for the administration included the partial reversal of labour reforms that conservatives argue transformed Spanish competitiveness but which the left says damaged workers’ rights. Other priorities were a higher effective rate of tax for big corporations and more action on cutting emissions, reducing child poverty and combating gender-based violence.
The prospective government is possibly the most contentious since Spain’s return to democracy more than 40 years ago, not just because it would include Podemos, which Mr Sánchez himself had resisted ahead of an inconclusive general election in November, but because of the key roles played by Catalan and Basque separatists in the parliamentary votes.
The one vote margin of support for the proposed coalition was only possible because of the abstentions of the Catalan Republican Left, or ERC, the biggest Catalan separatist party, and of EH Bildu, a far-left Basque secessionist party.
The fragmentation of Spain’s old political order means that no fewer than 19 parties are now represented in the chamber. This impelled the Socialists to strike deals with a series of small regionalist parties to win support for the coalition — and agree a road map on future negotiations over Catalonia to secure the ERC’s abstention.
That accord was put under pressure on Friday when Spain’s central electoral commission ruled that Quim Torra, the leader of Catalonia’s regional administration, was ineligible to remain in his post because he had been found guilty of using public buildings to display political symbols.
Even as tensions increased between Barcelona and Madrid, the ERC decided at the weekend to maintain its agreement with the Socialists and allow Mr Sánchez to take office.
In comments that echoed calls made by separatist politicians — outraging rightwing parties — Mr Sánchez said the Catalan issue should not be settled in courtrooms, but addressed by politics.
“We have to return to the only possible path: politics — dialogue, negotiation and agreement,” he said.
In October, the Spanish supreme court handed down prison sentences for sedition to nine separatist leaders, including Oriol Junqueras, the leader of the ERC, for their roles in the illegal 2017 Catalan referendum and declaration of independence.