The breakdown of the negotiations in Spain

Irene Castro

leads to the fourth elections since 2015 against a backdrop weary of political wrangling

  • The breakdown of the negotiations in Spain leads to the fourth elections since 2015 against a backdrop weary of political wrangling.
  • PSOE and Unidas Podemos have unsuccessfully negotiated the formation of a stable progressive government and now fight in the wake of fierce backlash.
  • Pablo Iglesias gambles on his future after having rejected an offer, involving a vice-presidency and three ministries, that PSOE assures will not occur again.
  • The emergence of a new platform, driven by one of the founders of Podemos, causes a pre-election war on the left.

Spain will hold on November 10th, its fourth general elections since 2015 after a further failure on the part of the Social Democratic Party (PSOE) and the coalition on its left (Unidas Podemos) to reach an agreement for a progressive government headed by Pedro Sánchez. Both parties now face the challenge of mobilising their electorate in a climate of total weariness towards politics, alongside the entry of a new competitor, the Iñigo Errejón platform, whose consequences are unpredictable.

PSOE and Unidas Podemos reached the polls in April in a white-collar campaign after having collaborated for 10 months in a socialist government. Sanchez became president in May 2018 thanks to a vote of no-confidence against the conservative Mariano Rajoy, whose party had been convicted of corruption. The coalition led by Pablo Iglesias was then left out of the Government.

From this collaboration certain relevant agreements have come into being, such as the approval of the rise in the Minimum Interprofessional Salary or the increase in paternity leave, and served, to some extent, to heal the wounds after the attempted frustrated agreement to unseat the conservatives in 2016.

The understanding was reflected in the signing of General State Budgets that PSOE and Unidas Podemos can describe as “those with the most social focus in history.” However, the rejection of Catalan independence forces of the public accounts led to early elections. The situation in Catalonia was, and remains at this time, troublesome: before in the midst of the trial for the independence process and now awaiting the sentence with which its leaders face prison terms of up to 30 years behind bars.

The deployment of the electorate was considerable on April 28 partly due to uneasiness of the rise of the extreme right, which until that time had not obtained parliamentary representation. The phenomenon spreading throughout Europe has also appeared in Spain, although less abruptly than initially forecast. Vox held 2.6 million votes (10%).

Initial negotiation of a coalition government in Spain

PSOE prevailed in those elections with more than 28% of the votes cast (123 seats compared to 84 prior in the previous ones) and the PP sank to its historical low-point with 16% of the votes (thus falling from 137 to 66 deputies) while Ciudadanos, the liberal party, which has been chosen on the right in recent times, situated itself at less than a point from the conservatives. Unidas Podemos, the coalition made up of Podemos, Izquierda Unida and the Greens (Equo), alongside regional alliances, dropped from 71 deputies to 42.

Sánchez assumed that he would govern thanks to the support of Unidas Podemos, but the discussions that began between June and July suggested a more complicated situation than expected. His intention was to govern alone whilst this has been a red line for Iglesias at all times: both prior to and after the elections. Unidas Podemos claimed their entry into the Government through proportional representation, in terms of number of ministers and budgetary execution capacity, to its 3.7 million voters. The group led by Iglesias maintains that its presence in the Executive is a guarantee that it will be carried out with leftist measures and justifies it with breaches of the recent past by the PSOE, such as the refusal to establish a rental price limit system, for example.

The Socialists responded by making different offers to try to reach an agreement: they raised the possibility that the leftist group would occupy secondary positions of the Administration; later, that they proposed “independent politicians of recognised prestige of their path” and, finally, they opened the door to incorporate ministers of Unidas Podemos.

Iglesias viewed the social democrats’ offer as somewhat insufficient

Sanchez ended up accepting a coalition but put a condition: that Iglesias was excluded from the Council of Ministers. The leader of Podemos assumed this “veto”, with the requirement that the Socialists agree to have a vice presidency occupied by Irene Montero, spokesperson for Unidas Podemos. That was when the real against the clock negotiations began. The negotiating teams sat for the first time on July 20, when the date for the investiture debate had already been set for July 22.

Upon the first vote, in which the proposed candidate had to obtain absolute majority of the Congress, PSOE and Unidas Podemos arrived with wholly adverse postures. The left-wing group maintained that the offers made by the Socialists were scant. After the first parliamentary defeat, Sánchez said he would put forward a more attractive offer.

Negotiation breakdown and now an arduous campaign laden with finger-pointing

After several exchanges of proposals in which cargada Unidas Podemos could claim ministerial portfolios such as Employment or Ecological Transition, PSOE launched its final offer: a vice-presidency that would coordinate social policy, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Housing and the Ministry of Equality. They argued that they are departments with an important social content in which the formation of lefts could develop important policies in addition to having a presence in the collegiate body of the Government.

However, the outlook of the leadership of Podemos was very different. They argued that the departments reserved by the PSOE were in practice lacking content. Indeed, they argued that Housing and Equality are not even now ministries per se (they were removed from the organisational chart in 2010 as part of the cuts package) and that jurisdiction for healthcare matters correspond to the autonomous governments.

The disagreement led to the abstention of Unidas Podemos and a failed investiture for Sánchez. From that moment onwards, an exchange of reproaches and mutual accusations began that has perdured until now.

PSOE refused to renegotiate a coalition with Unidas Podemos in the face of a new investiture attempt. Sanchez said that formula had proven “unfeasible” owing to the “distrust” between the two political organisations.

The Socialists were confident that the fear of further elections in which the polls forecast a drop for the leftist group would instigate a last-minute turnaround. Furthermore, they considered that internal pressure could achieve that result. Within Unidas Podemos there were members, such as the Izquierda Unida or the Anti-Capitalist undercurrent, who were in favour of reaching a programmatic understanding and staying out of the Government.

Despite the different sensitivities, the confederal group has maintained the unity of action and has continued to demand the negotiation of a coalition from the last PSOE offer in July. Iglesias also relied on a change of position of Sanchez in the last minute that has not occurred. He did not even accept his offer to form a test coalition until the approval of the General State Budgets that could be revocable by the Socialists if it were deemed that this had not worked.

Fear of abstention and the unpredictable effects of a new force on the left

Iglesias’ followers suspect that Sanchez has avoided negotiating since he has preferred to face a repeat election with the belief that the number of seats will increase. However, the polls that oversee the parties do not foresee major changes in the distribution of each of the blocks.

PSOE and Unidas Podemos can appear at the electoral contest with the broken bridges and in a battle expected to last before the constant crossing of accusations between Sanchez and Iglesias’ backers.

The main fear of PSOE and Unidas Podemos is the abstention of the progressive electorate as a reaction to weariness towards politics. The latest surveys by the public sociological institution indicates that 34.2% of respondents feel politics lacks trustworthiness; 15.8% feel boredom; 13.3%, indifference; and 9.2%, irritation. In the electoral repetition of 2016, six months after the first and after a vain attempt to oust PP, participation dropped by almost four points. The Socialists lost about 100,000 votes and the left-wing coalition fell by approximately one million.

Now, the emergence in the national sphere of a new platform also comes into play led by Iñigo Errejón, who left the ranks of Podemos a few months ago, a party of which he was founder, after blazing disagreements with Iglesias. The impact is difficult to foresee. On the one hand, he may take votes from both PSOE and Unidas Podemos; and, on the other, he may rescue voters from abstention, what is said to be his main purpose.

A missed opportunity for the entry of the left into the Government?

Errejón stood in the elections in the Community of Madrid in May, and surpassed Podemos by more than 290,000 votes. Furthermore, it was in one of the regions in which PSOE saw reduced improvement experienced with respect to the regional elections of 2015. However, the incidence of Más País will depend on the number of constituencies in which it competes. For now, its appearance has caused an earthquake on the left since many of the usual regional alliances of Podemos bet on this occasion to compete with the new platform.

Beyond the pre-election battle and the unpredictable effect of the new formation at the polls in a system based on the d’Hondt system, the Socialists view Errejón as more pact-friendly compared to Iglesias, but predictably he would need both left-wing forces to rule.

The victory of the Socialists is taken for granted in all polls, yet the forecast of the hypothetical subsequent pacts is an unknown. PSOE stresses that it will not govern in coalition with Unidas Podemos and will be bolstered in that argument if it needs the two forces to its left that display total aversion between themselves. What is more, it believes that the pressure on Iglesias this time will be greater to facilitate an agreement. The other option that the Socialists have not discarded is that the right unblocks the situation after the November elections, as happened in reverse in 2016, when PSOE chose to abstain to allow the conservatives to govern, after having reached a programmatic agreement with the liberals. The coalition or that the right allows the socialists to govern are two unpublished formulae in Spain, where the dual-party system had reigned supreme until a few years ago.

The left hedges its future on the forthcoming elections and it all depends on how it plays its cards. On the one hand, it could gain political clout both in Spain and in Europe if it manages to obtain a presence in a coalition executive or force progressive policies of a social democratic government with external support; or, on the other, losing relevance due to its own internal fragmentation after the major successes of four years ago, where it entered the Congress with 71 deputies and more than five million votes. The outcome will depend on the polls on November 10.