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Spanish Election: Another Election, Another Coalition Negotiation

The Spanish party system has experienced profound changes over the last decade, something Europe Elects has covered closely (here on the Andalusian election and here on the 28-A general election). After some 30 years of stable bipartisan politics, PP (EPP) and PSOE (S&D) faced renewed competition from left-wing UP (GUE/NGL) and liberal Cs (RE). National-conservative VOX (ECR) made a dramatic appearance in the Andalusian regional election and entered the national parliament for the first time in April. Finally, UP- split off Más País, under former Iglesias’ number two, Iñigo Errejón, will also run on 10 November in a dozen of the most populated electoral constituencies. This electoral cycle has been a true reflection of the new plurality of parties. PP’s Rajoy enjoyed an absolute majority from 2011-2015, but since then 4 elections have taken place in as many years. The 10-N electoral repetition mimics the 2015-2016 period of instability and might lead, once again, to an unstable government or even another new electoral contest.

2018 vote of no confidence

The electoral repetition resembles the turbulent 2015-16 years, but the roles of the main actors are the opposite. PSOE´s Sánchez is now the candidate seeking a (at least) tripartite parliamentary coalition, and has been unable to cement such a majority since he took office in July 2018. The confidence vote that propelled him to PM was marked by the corruption scandals around ruling PP. This enabled an extraordinary majority that included the socialists, UP, pro-independence ERC (Greens/EFA), JxCAT (NI) and EH Bildu (GUE/NGL) and regionalist PNV (RE) and Compromís (Greens/EFA). The unusual circumstances led to no working majority being established, and the Sánchez cabinet was only able to function for 9 months as the failure to pass a new Budget Law triggered the 28-A election. UP had toned down its past scepticism towards PSOE and took advantage of the window of opportunity to influence the social agenda in their favour. However, the pro-independence bloc was not supportive of a budget without a parallel dialogue over the Catalan conflict being guaranteed.

The budget law should not be downplayed: Spain has not passed one this year either, something that will weigh on heavily on next year´s policy-making capacity. Nevertheless, when seeking for the reasons behind the failed Sánchez-led government, one should also look at other forces in the political spectrum. C’s Rivera has increasingly been gravitating towards the right, thus his potential as a PSOE coalition partner decreased enormously. After a period of restructuring, PP elected a new leader in Pablo Casado, from the liberal sector of the party who has performed increasingly well over the last months. On top of this, the Spanish exceptionalism ended when VOX entered parliament for the first time. Sánchez has now found it harder to count on allies beyond UP than in the past, and the polarization materialised after the 28-A election added further uncertainty to future political stability.

Transparency, egos and intra-bloc competition

A straightforward conclusion thus seems to be that the major political actors have not adapted to the new and fragmented scenario, for a number of reasons. Among them, it has been a popular stance by analysts to blame this on personal discrepancies among the main political leaders. In the run-up to the key debate last July, key members of both PSOE and UP revealed the main points of disagreement in their negotiation to an extent never seen before in Spain.

First, it was leaked that Sánchez only chose UP as its preferred ally in mid-June, almost two months after the general election and after Cs and PP had ruled out their positive vote. On June 25th, UP leader Iglesias formally asked for a coalition government and ran an internal consultation that showed overwhelming support for a formal coalition. However, Sánchez saw a hurdle in Iglesias taking a ministerial position, and continued to seek abstention by PP to decrease his dependence on UP. After Iglesias publicly announced that he would not seek a position in the cabinet, Sánchez offered a number of ministries, including the VP to Irene Montero, UP´s number two. UP finally rejected the offer, arguing that their policy-making capacity in such a government would be very marginal, and singled out Sánchez for not keeping up with what the left electorate in Spanish demanded of him.  The result would be a failed vote on July 23rd-25th, with the only support of regionalist PRC, and the announcement of new elections on September 24th.

This transparency is probably a product of years of criticism of the status quo by groups such as UP itself and has exacerbated the tension between two figures very popular within their respective ranks. Sánchez and Iglesias established their leadership after a tough internal competition and have shown great distrust towards one another. The former has been dominating popularity rankings since the end of 2017, and has not given in to Iglesias in trying to command a left-leaning majority in Spain, even when PSOE has been able to capture large chunks of more centrist voters in parallel.

Far from these personal discrepancies, other explanations point at the differences in specific policy proposals between PSOE and other parties. Clear evidence of this was provided when Sánchez publicly claimed that he would never have peace of mind had Iglesias’ party joined a government. To this regard, it stands out that coalitions between left-of-centre parties have been less straightforward than combinations including PP and Cs in recent years. One obvious example is the PP-Cs deal that, together with PSOE’s abstention, allowed Rajoy to regain power in 2016, but it has also taken place in several regional governments. This has been true even after the rise of VOX, which has provided support to cabinets in the region of Madrid, Murcia or Andalusia during the past months. It is thus not far-fetched to foresee fewer barriers to a Casado-led cabinet after the 10-N election if the result for these three political parties, in one way or another, enables it. Such a scenario, however, will first require to overcome problems such as the vast differences of support across regions in Spain.

(For an in-depth look at each party’s proposals for the upcoming election, visit our YouTube channel).

Scenarios for 10-N

Same (or equivalent) scenario: Intra-bloc movements: most notably, MP grabbing a handful of MPs from PSOE and UP and VOX moving closer to the tally of Cs (the latest polls give the RE member its worst result in 5 years). As the regional/pro-independence MPs become crucial again, the ruling on the imprisoned Catalan leaders might make a fruitful dialogue more difficult. In this scenario, and with Cs having lost its potential as a junior coalition partner, either PP abstains to a PSOE government or we are heading towards a new election. This is the most likely scenario.

PSOE increases its majority and/or the left bloc achieves an absolute majority: Without the hurdles that the Catalan parties might set and with an operative absolute majority in sight, Spain might be headed towards a centre-left government. This could take the form of the first government coalition in Spain´s history or a support-and-supply deal. After Sánchez´s momentum has been lost, this seems unlikely.

The right bloc achieves an absolute majority: This would necessarily be led by a PP with renewed strength, which stands above 90 MPs in most of the latest polls released. Some regional governments already take this form, with VOX supplying support, and it would depend on C´s strength whether this is a government coalition. No polls showcase this possibility, and with C´s losing their centrist electorate, this possibility would require an extraordinarily high abstention in the left or a game-changing electoral campaign.

(Edited by Euan Healey)