MADRID — For Spanish Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez, the path out of political deadlock increasingly looks like a coalition government with the far-left Unidas Podemos — the first of its kind in the modern era.
But is Spain — rocked by the most unstable and polarized political climate it has seen for decades — ready for a left-left tie-up?
The two parties don’t have a good track record: Sánchez’s Socialist Party (PSOE) and Podemos, led by Pablo Iglesias, already tried and failed to form a new government earlier this year, following an inconclusive national election in April. The attempt ended in rancor and a very public falling-out.
And yet, two days after the latest election in November, the Spanish prime minister turned to Podemos again. This time, the two parties struck a deal to form a coalition government, on the assumption they could gather enough support.
Whether the two parties will be able to secure a majority is still unclear. Sánchez’s PSOE won 120 seats in the 350-seat parliament — three seats fewer than it won in April — and Podemos has 35. Although the two appear to have the backing of several small regional parties, they still fall short of a workable majority.
“Podemos has become more moderate and I think the area of possible complementarity and collaboration between [Podemos and the Socialists] is significant.” — Robert M. Fishman, professor of political science
With the opposition on the right apparently intent on voting against Sánchez, PSOE has opened talks with the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which has 13 seats and whose abstention could ensure a successful investiture vote.
Since striking a deal with Podemos in November, Sánchez has cooled talk of facing an investiture vote by Christmas even as members of parliament took their seats in the new legislature in early December.
“I don’t want to put a date on it,” the acting prime minister said at the U.N. Climate Conference in Madrid last week. “I don’t know if it should be on December 12, December 20 or January 8, I don’t know. I think the important thing to highlight is that Spain needs a government as soon as possible.”
If there is no guarantee of a successful investiture, there is even less guarantee of a smooth ride for a pioneering coalition government if it comes to power, with business and political leaders on the right lining up to attack the government-in-waiting.
The question is an existential one, and part of a new “culture war” in Spain, according to Robert M. Fishman, a professor of political science at Madrid’s Carlos III University.
“[This is] an era of polarization,” said Fishman. “Not only over conventional political objectives, but also over really very fundamental understandings about what the political system is made up of and who the legitimate players are.”
For Podemos, a partnership with PSOE would be its first taste of power on a national level.
The party, founded at the tail end of the economic crisis in 2014, originally struck a chord with voters for its fierce line against austerity, corruption and the political “caste.” Since then, it has defined itself more explicitly as a leftist party and formed an electoral platform with the United Left (IU) as Unidas Podemos. It has dropped some of its more radical policies and governed in regions and city halls across Spain.
“Podemos has become more moderate and I think the area of possible complementarity and collaboration between [Podemos and the Socialists] is significant,” said Fishman. “The social concerns and underlying ideologies of the two parties overlap significantly.”
According to Spanish media reports, Podemos has agreed to drop its election manifesto pledge to introduce a bank tax and may also ditch a plan to cap property rental increases. Sánchez’s PSOE, meanwhile, has agreed to boost social spending and roll back limited parts of an existing labor reform. In a nod to the markets, Sánchez has already announced that his economy minister, Nadia Calviño, a former director general for budget in the European Commission, will play a prominent role in the new administration.
The newspaper El País described the economic policy being discussed by the two parties as “the pragmatism of European social democracy of recent times with a Keynesian twist.”
The 10-point coalition agreement signed in November by the two party leaders, hugging and smiling for the cameras, lays out broad goals for the future government, including job creation, fighting climate change and promoting gender equality. Podemos is poised to control three or possibly four ministries; Iglesias himself would hold one of three deputy prime ministerial posts.
That’s quite a ways from where the two leaders left things last summer, when mistrust between the two parties was so blatant that Sánchez publicly refused to allow Iglesias to form part of his Cabinet and said he “would not be able to sleep at night” if members of Podemos held key ministerial posts.
At the time, Sánchez cited the Catalonia crisis as a particular cause of concern, due to his differences with Iglesias on the issue.
Podemos supports the region’s right to self-determination and a referendum on secession, a key demand of Catalan nationalists. PSOE refuses to acknowledge any such right, claiming self-determination is not enshrined in the constitution.
Last month, the two parties disagreed over a controversial law Sánchez’s PSOE had designed to clamp down on nationalists’ attempts to create a so-called digital Catalan republic.
Although Podemos opposed the thrust of the bill, it eventually abstained in the parliamentary vote, allowing it to be approved. It was a move that is likely to flag the party’s approach to the Catalonia issue as the junior partner in a coalition government.
“There were two options,” Iglesias said afterward. “It either went straight through or we got some concessions […] We abstained. We were pragmatic.”
Rough ride ahead
But if Sánchez and Iglesias have managed to bury most residual antagonism in the hope of avoiding yet another election, there has been a virulent response from other quarters to the prospect of their coalition.
Some business leaders have been openly hostile. Miguel Garrido, vice president of the CEOE business association, has described the broad aims outlined in the agreement the two parties signed as “the opposite of what the Spanish economy needs right now.”
The Catholic Church has also spoken out. The archbishop of Valencia, Antonio Cañizares, described the coalition deal as having “cultural and anthropological connotations and a vision of reality that goes beyond the economic, creating great worry.” Cañizares cited the document’s mention of euthanasia, women’s rights and historical memory as particular areas of concern.
The fact that Sánchez is currently seeking the parliamentary help of the Catalan pro-independence ERC, whose leader Oriol Junqueras is serving a 13-year jail term for sedition, is perhaps the most provocative development for the conservative establishment.
Former Prime Minister José María Aznar has warned that Podemos will be the first “communists” to be part of a Spanish government since the civil war. “They are chavista communists who have the consent and support of the [Catalan] independence movement,” he said. “And that is a situation of maximum risk.”
The potential political compromise involved in the Podemos-PSOE tie-up isn’t sitting well among some factions of the far-left party either.
Miguel Urbán, a Podemos co-founder and MEP, warned that Calviño is “a Troika interventionist in Spain” with a right-wing economic agenda. “Her objective is to reassure [the business leaders],” he said. “Our objective is to reassure those who struggle to make ends meet.”
He and others from within the party, he suggested, will be watching closely to ensure the new government does not drift to the right.
“Those who enter the government will have to fight,” he said. “And those of us who don’t will have to fight from a different trench.”
All of this suggests that the PSOE-Podemos coalition, if it is able to govern, will face a rough ride.
The opposition is likely to launch repeated attempts to undermine the credibility of the new administration, for example by claiming it has made reckless backroom deals with Catalan nationalists. The Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero faced similar opposition during his 2004-2011 government, as media and politicians on the right fanned outlandish conspiracy theories that he came to power by conniving with ETA terrorists.
“We can expect the most acrimonious legislature of Spain’s recent democratic history,” said Ignacio Escolar, editor of eldiario.es news site. “And the bar was already high.”
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