By Robert Hart
Nearly four months have passed since Spain voted in a general election, but Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has still not been able to form a new government.
The hiatus is causing frustration at home and concern in the European Union, which is already on edge over a populist resurgence in other key member states.
In Italy, a bitter row between the country’s two ruling parties over immigration and a high-speed rail line threatens the break-up of the coalition, with the hard right, anti-immigration League party bidding to take control.
Germany is suffering a surge of right-wing violence. And, of course, there is the ongoing melodrama of Brexit, with the United Kingdom stumbling towards an exit from the EU by October 31.
So the last thing Europe wants is political stalemate in Spain, where Sanchez is one of the EU’s most enthusiastic supporters and has made clear he wants his country to play a dynamic role in Community affairs.
Socialists win, but not by enough
As expected, in Spain’s April 28 poll Sanchez’s Socialist (PSOE) party comfortably won the most Congress seats. But also as expected, its 123 seats fell well short of the 176 needed for an absolute majority in the 350-seat house.
The obvious way forward was for Sanchez to seek a deal with the leftist Unidas Podemos party, which had slipped to only 42 seats. But prolonged talks failed to secure the necessary backing as Podemos pushed for a coalition government and rejected Sánchez’s offer of a few second-tier cabinet positions.
Sanchez can expect solid opposition from the conservative Popular Party, with 66 seats; the centre-right Cuidadanos, with 57; and now the anti-immigration Vox party, which took 24 seats to become the first hard-right group to sit in the Madrid parliament since the time of dictator Francisco Franco.
Sanchez is unlikely to get much help from Catalan parties that forced the April elections by voting down Sanchez’s budget bill late last year. Those parties were angered by a lack of progress in their drive to separate from Spain, which provoked a major constitutional crisis.
If Sanchez somehow agrees terms with Podemos, he could achieve the magic 176 number with the backing of smaller regional parties.
But if no agreement is reached by September 23, parliament will be automatically dissolved and Spain will face another general election in November, its fourth in as many years.
Sanchez wants to use his party’s standing at home to wrest key areas of power for Spain in the European Parliament.
The PSOE’s domestic strength was reflected in its success in elections to the Strasbourg parliament in May. The party won 32.8% of the Spanish vote, the largest share of any of its continental partners apart from the Portuguese Socialists. It made Sanchez a candidate to lead talks over key institutional roles on behalf of the social-democratic parties.
Juan Rodríguez Teruel, a politics professor at the University of Valencia, said the election result “will allow Sanchez to present himself as the most powerful moderate head of government in any major European economy. The results complete PSOE’s comeback in Spanish politics.”
“Spain is back”
In another euro-boost to Sanchez, his Foreign Minister Josep Borrell is set to become the new EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, starting in November.
“Spain is back,” Sánchez commented, noting that Borrell’s new job was held by another Spaniard, Javier Solana, between 1999 and 2009.
But all the positives of Sanchez’s personal standing at home and in the EU will mean little if in a third vote in September he cannot reach political deals needed for him to form a new government in Madrid that can command an overall majority in parliament.
Angelos Chryssogelos, an associate fellow at Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs, was speaking in April right after Spain’s election, but his words still ring true today:
“I would expect Sánchez to remain prime minister for a while given that all the other opposition parties are in disarray right now. But I fail to see how this or any other stable Spanish government will be formed to carry the country forward for a full term in the foreseeable future.”
Robert Hart was a correspondent and regional editor for Reuters for more than 35 years, reporting on the Vietnam war, West Germany during Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and as bureau chief in Spain for five years in the 1990s. In between he was Asian News Editor based in Singapore and Latin America Editor, based in Buenos Aires during the military “dirty war” of the late 1970s. You can read Hart’s recollections about his assignment to Vietnam in our recent series on the 1960s.