- The ruling socialist PSOE party has struggled to form a stable government amid divisions between potential coalition partners and fragmentation of the traditional two-party system, underscoring Spain’s increasingly volatile political environment.
- PSOE is unlikely to secure enough support for a majority unless the Catalan social-democrat ERC party agrees to abstain in a parliamentary approval vote, however this appears unlikely because of disagreements over Catalonia.
- Protracted coalition negotiations are likely, potentially leading to another caretaker government and further elections in 2020.
Election fails to break party deadlock
Spanish Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) leader Pedro Sánchez has built a 155-seat coalition since a 10 November election after allying with anti-austerity Podemos, however, he remains 21 seats short of a majority. The result comes after months of failed coalition negotiations led Sánchez to call the early elections, which were Spain’s fourth elections in as many years.
Under the constitution, Sánchez has two attempts to get a coalition approved by a majority in parliament. After two failures he has two months to form a government before an election must be called. Parliament convened on 3 December, providing a potential first opportunity to approve the government.
Prospect of majority coalition
Sánchez is unlikely to form a majority. The PSOE won three fewer seats than in the April vote, which led to months of failed talks. Existing coalition partners were also weakened. Podemos lost seven of its 42 seats, and the centrist Ciudadanos lost 47 of its 57 seats. To find the remaining 21 seats, Sánchez will seek support from Podemos offshoot Más País and other regional parties in Cantabria, Galicia and the Basque Country. However, these parties cannot provide enough seats for a majority.
Figure 1 Seat allocation in the Congress of Deputies after April and November 2019 elections
Shift from two-party system
The fragmentation of Spanish politics and the rise of politically extreme parties has reduced Sánchez’s options for coalition partners. Spanish politics has traditionally been dominated by two parties on the left and right, but 16 different parties won seats in the November vote, underlining a changing environment since 2015 elections. The Conservative PP and far-right Vox parties, ideologically opposed to PSOE, won 51 more seats than in April, totalling 141 seats between them. The shift from left wing and centrist parties comes amid frustration with conventional parties following a prolonged political deadlock, with turnout dropping as much as 5 percent from April.
Challenges facing a PSOE coalition government
Whether or not Sánchez is able to form a majority or a minority government, any PSOE coalition faces internal challenges. What appears like a natural coalition on the left of Spanish politics is an uneasy compromise between two fractious parties, born out of joint election setback. Despite signing an interim agreement, sustained collaboration between PSOE and Podemos appears improbable, resulting in an unstable coalition unlikely to last the four-year term. Sánchez and Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias repeatedly clashed throughout 2019 over topics ranging from allocation of ministerial posts to labour reform and Catalan autonomy. This coalition, with the assistance of other parties, will find it difficult to pass legislation and avoid internal disputes.
Once Sánchez has gained support from regional parties, he will need to try for a parliamentary vote to approve the coalition. The coalition is unlikely to pass unless the Catalan separatist social-democrat ERC party agrees to abstain in a parliamentary approval vote. However, the crisis over Catalan independence has made any agreement with Catalan parties more difficult.
Despite initiating talks with PSOE, the ERC are unlikely to join a Sánchez-led coalition. Tensions between Madrid and Barcelona are high, especially since ERC leader Oriol Junqueras was imprisoned for thirteen years in October for his role in the 2017 referendum, and Sánchez toughened his stance on Catalonia in the run up to the vote.
PSOE and Podemos are unlikely to offer the ERC anything significant enough to secure its support. Their coalition has ruled out further referendums, secession or sizeable changes to Catalan autonomy. There is also potential for early elections in Catalonia dependent on a court case against Catalan regional president Quim Torra. The ERC will be reluctant to make concessions to Madrid that could see them lose support to other Catalan separatist parties if elections take place.
Political uncertainty is likely to continue into early 2020. It is unlikely that Sánchez will be able to offer enough concessions to secure the ERC’s support. He could still bring a vote to approve his government, which he attempted in July 2019, but would likely result in defeat and another election. Continued delays in forming a government could see increased support for fringe parties such as Vox, potentially putting conservative parties in a position to form a government.
Even if talks with the ERC are successful, they are likely to be protracted. Previous coalition talks took three months to reach an unsuccessful approval vote and so, along with the prospect of drawn-out ERC talks, a first approval vote may not occur until March.
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