Spain Seeks Stability After General Election

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the PSOE and Pablo Iglesias of Unidas Podemos meet following their agreement to form a coalition in the Congress of Deputies. | ZIPI (EFE)

The results of Spain’s general election on November 10 are on track to bringing long-awaited political stability to the country that has now gone to the ballot box four times in the last four years.

The election saw the ruling center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), led by incumbent Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, win 120 of the 350 seats in the country’s Congress of Deputies. The center-right People’s Party came in second place with 89 seats, while the far-right Vox came in third with 52 seats. The far-left Unidas Podemos won 35 seats, and the centrist Ciudadanos, now the smallest of Spain’s five major national parties, won 10 seats. The remaining 44 seats were won by various minor parties and parties that only operate in specific regions of Spain.

Shortly after the results were broadcast, Sánchez and Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, announced that their parties would form a coalition government to ensure majority support in the Congress. Their announcement was seen as a major step toward the formation of a long-awaited stable government in Spain, which had experienced a string of inconclusive election results in 2015, 2016, and April 2019. Indeed, the Sánchez organized the November 2019 election largely because he had been unable to reach an agreement with Iglesias after the April result.

The planned PSOE-Podemos coalition, however, will have fewer seats than it would have had if it formed after the April election – the PSOE lost three seats from April to November, and Podemos lost seven. Why would a worse election result allow Sánchez and Iglesias to form a government that they had previously deemed impossible? To answer this question, we must look back to the beginning of Spain’s current period of political unrest.

Until 2015, Spain’s national politics were defined by a two-party system, with the People’s Party and the PSOE garnering near-total support from the country’s center-right and center-left voters, respectively. However, the ongoing effects of the Great Recession and numerous corruption scandals damaged the popularity of both major parties, and the approval rating of then-Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the People’s Party plummeted.

In the December 2015 election, both the People’s Party and the PSOE incurred major losses, while the newly-created parties Ciudadanos (C’s) and Podemos made substantial gains to effectively end the two-party system. Although the People’s Party maintained a plurality in the Congress, Rajoy no longer commanded a majority and was unable to form a successful coalition government. However, coalition-building attempts by other party leaders – Sánchez of the PSOE, Iglesias of Podemos, and Albert Rivera of the C’s – also failed, leading Spain’s King Felipe VI to call for a new election in June 2016.

In the new election, the People’s Party made modest gains, and Rajoy was able to secure another term as Prime Minister with support from the C’s. Rajoy’s government, however, was short-lived – in May 2018, he lost a vote of no confidence after revelations that the People’s Party had profited from an illegal accounting and finance structure marked by bribery, money laundering, tax evasion, and fraud. Sánchez, who had proposed the vote of no confidence, became prime minister and called for a new election in April 2019 to secure his new role. Rajoy subsequently resigned as leader of the People’s Party and was replaced by Pablo Casado.

The April 2019 election saw the PSOE and the C’s make substantial gains at the expense of the People’s Party and Podemos, while the far-right Vox party emerged as an alternative for disaffected People’s Party voters. However, Sánchez and the PSOE fell short of a majority in the Congress, turning to Iglesias and Podemos for support in a coalition government. As in 2015 and 2016, Iglesias refused the offer, citing the PSOE’s failure to meet a number of his policy demands. Unable to secure majority support for a PSOE government, Sánchez found himself calling for yet another election to occur in November.

Although the most recent result boosted the People’s Party and Vox at the expense of the PSOE, Podemos, and the C’s, Sánchez and Iglesias appear to have developed a newfound resolve to form a stable government and end years of political uncertainty, as exemplified by their coalition deal. Despite the longtime rivalry between two party leaders who were long unable to agree on the terms of a left-wing political alliance, widespread public dissatisfaction with political instability and reluctance to hold yet another election seem to have spurred Sánchez and Iglesias to overcome their political differences.

Moreover, the losses of the PSOE and Podemos in the November 2019 elections and the rise of the right-wing Vox have convinced Sánchez and Iglesias that holding another election anytime soon could result in further losses for the left, with the two leaders preferring to establish a stable government in the meantime to boost their popularity before voters head to the ballot box again. Opinion polls suggest that the coalition is exceedingly popular among PSOE and Podemos supporters, with over 90% of each party’s membership approving the deal.

The PSOE-Podemos coalition, however, is not yet finalized. For Sánchez to secure a full term as prime minister, he must receive the support of a simple majority of at least 176 of the Congress’s 350 deputies. As the PSOE and Podemos together only control 155 seats, at least 21 deputies from minor or regional parties must consent to the coalition. Más Pais, a small, left-wing party that split from Podemos earlier this year, has already agreed to support the coalition, and a number of regional parties may vote in favor of the deal as well. If Sánchez succeeds, he will lead Spain’s first coalition government since the country transitioned to democracy in 1977.

Although some uncertainty remains surrounding the approval of the PSOE-Podemos coalition by the Congress, the agreement reached by Sánchez and Iglesias marks a significant development in Spanish democracy. Sánchez and Iglesias have already demonstrated that the country’s major political parties can resolve to come together after years of political division, and if the Congress votes to approve their deal, they will demonstrate that multiparty coalitions may become the new normal in Spain’s political system.

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