Spain’s Sánchez gambles on election to break political logjam
One by one, Spain’s political chiefs appeared on television screens this week to explain that the country’s fourth election in four years was all someone else’s fault.
Invective and accusations flew as King Felipe VI decided that no party leader had the prospect of winning a parliamentary majority, putting the country on the path to a November 10 poll.
After the king’s announcement on Tuesday night Pedro Sánchez, the caretaker prime minister, scolded his rivals for not respecting the result of Spain’s last vote, in April, when his Socialists came top with 29 per cent.
Leaders of those other parties accused Mr Sánchez of not wanting to work with them, and of plotting a new election all along.
The recriminations highlight how, after 40 years of political stability, Spain has become one of Europe’s more ungovernable countries. Politics has fragmented between the established parties and their upstart rivals.
Mr Sánchez, who failed to form a stable administration based on the Socialists’ 123 seats in the 350-member Chamber of Deputies, hopes to edge back towards the old two-party system by increasing his share of the vote in the November poll.
But the danger for the prime minister is that the political paralysis he seeks to end could instead be reinforced.
“Sánchez loves risky bets,” said Lola García, a journalist and analyst. “He wants to recover the Socialists’ traditional space, from the centre to the left.”
Mr Sánchez is not unique in his ambition. Both his Socialists and their traditional rivals in the centre right Popular party expect to win back ground from the insurgents who have transformed Spain’s politics since the financial crisis.
Those newcomers include the far-left Podemos and the pro-market Ciudadanos parties — each of which came close in previous elections to overtaking the Socialists and the PP respectively — and most recently, the far-right Vox, which won 10 per cent of the vote in April.
The problem for the Socialists and the PP is that, while the rerun election may nudge the electorate back to casting “useful votes” for established parties, it is highly unlikely to usher in the old days when the two established parties alternated in power.
Since the December 2015 election in which Podemos and Ciudadanos stormed into parliament, no party has come close to an absolute majority.
People close to the Socialists say Mr Sánchez hopes relatively small shifts in support can reduce his reliance on the far-left. Meanwhile, people connected to the PP say that Pablo Casado, the PP’s leader, is all but certain to improve on April’s result — the worst in his grouping’s history — but has little prospect of doing well enough to form a government.
“Another vote probably won’t change things too much overall, although it could increase the vote of the established parties,” said Toni Roldán, a former economics spokesman of the pro-market Ciudadanos party. “We will probably end up in the same place — an unstable and possibly shortlived Socialist-led government.”
Both established parties want to win back votes from Ciudadanos, which came within a percentage point of the PP in April’s election but has since fallen back by about three points in the polls.
The Socialists also hope to garner votes from Podemos, whose hopes of becoming the country’s leading leftwing force have faded as the economy has recovered from the financial crisis. Meanwhile, the PP is trying to regain support from the far-right Vox.
Socialist party workers have been buoyed by polls showing their group gaining up to 3 percentage points, to around 32 per cent. That would still be far short of a majority but could provide enough seats for the Socialists to govern with Podemos’ support, while increasing Mr Sánchez ’s leverage.
The prime minister has insisted since failed negotiations with Podemos over the summer that he wants the radical party’s support for a “progressive” programme, but will not admit it into government.
“Sánchez wants to govern alone,” said Ms García. “A coalition with Podemos would push him too much to the left for his liking and damage his appeal.”
But much could go wrong for the Socialists in the two months before the election.
“The three big factors are going to be whether abstentionism hurts the Socialists disproportionately; whether the parties on the right get into a bidding war that leaves the centre ground open for Sánchez; and Catalonia,” said Antonio Barroso, an analyst at Teneo, a consultancy.
In particular, the election could be shaped by sentencing in October in the trial of separatist Catalan leaders facing charges including rebellion and sedition.
In the past, it was Catalan votes that helped shore up minority governments led by the two big parties.
But now the Catalan question is the most polarising question in Spanish politics and there is no prospect of such support in parliament.
The call for a firm response to Catalan separatism has also become a rallying cry on the right.
“I don’t know if Sánchez’s people are taking proper account of the problem Catalonia could pose for their plans,” said Ms García, suggesting that another inconclusive election would weaken the prime minister and could prolong the political impasse. “Ultimately, no one is going to get a majority.”