Lion in front of Spanish Congress of Deputies

Spain's Constitutional Deadlock

Published: 18 November 2019

Spain’s fourth General Election in as many years has again failed to produce a majority government or even an obvious and viable coalition. The Socialists remain the largest party but with only 120 out of the 350 seats. In order to be installed, a prime minister needs an absolute majority in the first vote. Failing that, a majority of MPs voting suffices in subsequent votes. If all efforts fail, then two months after the first vote, a new election must be called.

Spanish politics revolves on two axes: right vs left and centre vs periphery. Since the transition to democracy some forty years ago, parties of the centre-left (Socialists) and centre-right (Popular Party) have alternated as majority governments or as minority governments with the support of smaller parties. There has never been a formal coalition. Now, the left is divided, with the rise of Unidos Podemos, an amalgamation of parties competing to the left of the Socialists. It was the refusal of Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez to make a coalition with Unidos Podemos that caused the failure to form a government after April’s elections. This time, it took them only hours to agree on a deal but, as both parties had lost support, it was not enough even for a credible minority government.

The right has been fragmented by the rise of Citizens, originally formed in Catalonia to oppose Catalan nationalists, then running as a liberal party across Spain before moving to the right. Their refusal to consider coalition with the Socialists was another factor in the failure to form a government in April. This time around their support collapsed. At the same time, the extreme right entered parliament for the first time since the restoration of democracy in the shape of Vox, as explained in Robert Liñeira’s blog.

On the centre-periphery axis, there are nationalist parties in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia and a variety of regionalist movements. For the first three decades of democracy, moderate nationalists from Catalonia and the Basque Country would regularly give their support to both Socialist and Popular Party governments in exchange for concessions on devolution and finance. This has become more difficult as these nationalisms have radicalized and Spanish parties themselves have become more intransigent. The Popular Party, especially, has become more centralist under competition from Citizens and Vox, which want to roll back devolution.

In Catalonia, the historic Convergència i Unío has been transformed into a pro-independence party currently competing as Junts per Catalunya (together for Catalonia). The Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Catalan Republican Left) has long supported independence but, since the constitutional crisis and prosecutions following the referendum and attempted secession in 2017, has been seeking an accommodation. This election saw Catalan nationalists, gaining a majority of the seats in Catalonia albeit with just 43 per cent of the popular vote. With its leaders in gaol or exile, there is no prospect of them being involved in making a new government, although  Esquerra may abstain and allow the Socialists to take office, in return for action to defuse the Catalan crisis.

Basque nationalism has historically been divided between the moderate Basque Nationalist Party and radicals now grouped in EH/Bildu. Between them, they won just half the vote and 11 out of 18 seats in the Basque Country, with the moderates predominating. Moderate nationalism now dominates at all levels, including elections to the Basque parliament, the provinces (which have the tax powers) and local government. The Basque Nationalist Party could well give support to the Socialists in return for assurances over devolution. They are currently trying to revise their devolution statute, but have stuggled to win over the radicals and the Spanish parties to a compromise.

If politics at the periphery make forming a new Spanish government difficult, those at the centre do not help either. The Popular Party, Citizens, Vox and elements within the Socialists have sought to exploit the Catalan crisis for political gain. Any accommodation with even moderate Catalan and Basque nationalists is denounced as a betrayal or even treason. The Spanish model of territorial accommodating its nationalities, once a factor for stability, is now in crisis. The results of this election have not made matters any easier.

Image credit: Andrés Santamaría 'The Lion'

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