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Why Yet Another General Election for Spain?

July 31, 2019

Spain's Socialist party PSOE and the leftist Unidas Podemos party failed to form a coalition government and now new elections loom if new talks go nowhere. It looks like PSOE's lack of interest in a leftist coalition was the reason for the failure, says Sebastiaan Faber

Spain's Socialist party PSOE and the leftist Unidas Podemos party failed to form a coalition government and now new elections loom if new talks go nowhere. It looks like PSOE's lack of interest in a leftist coalition was the reason for the failure, says Sebastiaan Faber



Why Yet Another General Election for Spain?

Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

Spain’s government could be heading for its fourth general election of the past four years. Last week, the caretaker government of Socialist Party leader Pedro Sanchez failed to come to an agreement with the leftist Unidas Podemos Party. The dispute between the center-left Socialist Workers Party of Spain, or PSOE in its Spanish initials, and the Unidas Podemos Party faltered on how many ministers and which ministries Podemos would be allowed to control. The decision now rests with King Felipe VI, who has until September 23rd to allow for new negotiations for a coalition government before parliament is dissolved and new elections are called. The last elections were held on April 28th of this year when no political party won an absolute majority, but the PSOE won a plurality of seats, and thus had the opportunity to form a coalition government with other parties.

Joining me now to discuss Spain’s political impasse is Sebastiaan Faber. He’s Professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College and author of the book Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War. Welcome back to The Real News Network, Sebastiaan.

SEBASTIAAN FABER It’s great to be back.

GREG WILPERT Give us a brief idea as to why these negotiations fell apart from your perspective. What were the disagreements about and why could no agreement be reached?

SEBASTIAAN FABER There’s a couple of strange things that happened in this whole process of negotiation. As you just said, the elections were at the end of April and so the parties had almost three months to negotiate an agreement between then and the vote that happened this past week. And yet, the actual negotiations only occurred during the last couple of days. For a long time before that, nothing really happened. There was no real contact between the parties. And nothing resembling an actual negotiation with two parties sitting down, each with their position trying to find the middle ground, happened. So there’s a couple of questions: why it took so long for the parties to do this and why they waited for this very last minute? The initiative, most people agree, was really the Socialist Party’s to take. So it was the Socialists who waited strangely long with sitting down with Unidas Podemos.

One reason they waited at least a month is because at the end of May, there were regional and municipal elections as well as European elections. So it kind of made sense for them to sit out those elections and then start negotiating seriously at the end of May or beginning of June, but that didn’t happen either. Why they took so long to negotiate is a question that some people are connecting to potentially some bad faith on the part of the Socialists. And the big question being asked now is, did the Socialists actually want a coalition with Unidas Podemos or did they just pretend to have one, pretend to negotiate steering toward a failure of negotiation in order to blame Unidas Podemos for the failure of negotiation and force a repeat of the elections?

One way to think about this is, in the process of this process of negotiation, different competing interests were at play. One of course is the interest of the country. The country, for any party on the left, has a strong interest in having a progressive government especially in a Europe where the right, especially the radical right is on the rise everywhere, but there are also party interests. And for the Socialists, Unidas Podemos is an electoral rival even though ideologically they have a large amount of overlap. The Socialists are slightly more centrist. Unidas Podemos is slightly more to the left. They have strong shared political programs, but they are electoral rivals in a context in which Unidas Podemos has been declining electorally.

A couple of years ago it was a big threat to the Socialist Party. It looked like it might be able to overtake the Socialist Party. These last elections showed a decline for Unidas Podemos and an important rise for the Socialists. So it could well be that the Socialists hoped to stage a failed negotiation in order to blame Podemos in order to go in stronger for the next repeat of the elections. Another hypothesis is that the Socialists really didn’t want to ally themselves with Unidas Podemos to their left, but are really more looking for a centrist for a kind of big coalition that crosses the aisle to the right— either with the Partido Popular, the Popular Party, the longstanding conservative party, or with the more recently created Ciudadanos, or Citizens Party, which has a more neoliberal and lately a more nationalist, a right-wing nationalist profile.

So to make a long story short, the negotiations failed. There are strong indications that the Socialists entered the negotiations in bad faith and hoped for the failure that it eventually became. Interestingly, in these past couple of days before the final vote, Unidas Podemos was willing to cede much more than the Socialist ever imagined. For example, Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the Socialist Party, at one point said look, we’re happy to enter into a relationship with Podemos as long as Pablo Iglesias, Unidas Podemos’s leader, is not part of the cabinet, does not become a minister of government, which seemed like an extraordinarily bold demand to make. After all, Pablo Iglesias is the leader of Unidas Podemos. It would be only logical that he as leader would also enter that government.

Pablo Iglesias, however, the next day posted a video on Twitter in which he said, all right, I’m not going to be an obstacle for this one hope we have for a progressive government in Spain, so I’ll step aside. I won’t demand, I won’t ask for a minister post for myself. I’ll remove myself from the equation. And that really called the Socialists’ bluff. And for a little while, it seemed that the Socialists almost despite themselves we’re going to have to agree to a coalition. And yet, still toward the last minute the squabbling over what ministries Unidas Podemos would get in the government resulted in a failed negotiation and a failed vote of investiture this past week.

GREG WILPERT Now, some analysts have pointed out that Spain has a long history of having only one party or the other winning an absolute majority without the need for it to form a coalition with partners. Now there’s no real culture, in other words, for forming coalitions. This stands in contrast with a country such as Germany where coalition governments have governed almost continuously since the end of World War II. Now, is the problem with Spain’s system that it’s so fragmented now that nobody can form a government without a coalition, and that they don’t have this experience? How do you see that?

SEBASTIAAN FABER Yes. I think that’s definitely a factor. Spain is a young democracy. It became a democracy in the late 1970s after a long period of dictatorship. And it’s true, like you say, that coalition governments have not been common at all. Strictly speaking, there has been no real coalition government yet. So that’s definitely something that is a factor. The parties and the voters are not used to this process whereby parties present themselves with a program for elections and then water down that program in the process of negotiation as they enter a government with another party with different program points. So that’s definitely a factor.

That said, I want to also point out that even in the countries that have a long tradition of coalition governments— the Netherlands, Germany, for example— in recent years it’s become harder and harder to form coalition governments. It’s been harder to find parties willing, more parties are needed, and parties have been more wary of entering coalition governments because recent patterns have shown that especially junior party partners in coalitions pay a steep electoral price at the next elections for having become part of a coalition in which they haven’t really been able to push their own program quite as strongly. So in Europe as a whole, coalition governments have been harder to form.

Spain, which has never had an opportunity to do so, also lacks the experience and both on the part of the politicians— the practical experience of sitting down in the negotiation process and all that— but also on the part of the voters who in countries like Holland and Germany have developed a kind of intolerance for the idea that the party they vote for will have to reach a compromise with other parties in order to develop a government program, which is different from the electoral program with which they present themselves at the elections.

GREG WILPERT Well, I think that’s a very interesting point about in general a trend against coalitions. In Germany, it actually took almost six months to form a government the last time around. So, but what happens now in Spain? Will there be new negotiations or will there be new elections? And if there are new elections, is this good or bad for Unidas Podemos, which did not do so well as you mentioned in the last election?

SEBASTIAAN FABER Strictly speaking, the parties, any parties have until September to come up with an agreement basically with enough votes to support a candidate for the post of prime minister. That’s how it works. If by September no such positive vote succeeds, then there is an automatic calendar that kicks in and there’ll be elections on November 10th. Should it come to those elections, at this point it looks very likely that Unidas Podemos will continue to decline, will continue to lose voters and lose seats. And the Socialist Party, according to a poll that came out today, stands to win. Some say quite a bit in new elections despite its questionable role in these negotiations over the past month. But the big specter, the big fear that haunts the left in Spain is that new elections may lead to a historically low turnout among the left.

Voters from the left are extremely disenchanted and frustrated with this squandered opportunity for a progressive government in Spain, so it’s likely many of them will stay home. At the same time, it is likely that many of the right will turn out. If that happens, it is a possibility that the three parties on the right gather enough votes to form a government so that Spain would switch over once again to a conservative government. This time, however, not formed only by the traditional conservative Popular Party, but with the support of Ciudadanos and with the support of Vox, V-o-x. Vox, this new party on the right, which came in for the first time in April with 24 seats in parliament, doesn’t look like it will grow much necessarily, but Vox may provide the votes necessary to form a conservative government and that would give it influence in a new government. And its program is strongly Spanish nationalist, anti-LGBTQ rights, anti-feminist, anti-immigrant, at the same time that it’s adopting strongly neoliberal economic policies. So that is a real risk that new elections would bring.

GREG WILPERT Okay. Well, we’re going to continue to keep a very close eye on what’s happening there and maybe we’ll come back to you very soon.

SEBASTIAAN FABER Sure.

GREG WILPERT I was speaking to Sebastiaan Faber, Professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College. Thanks again, Sebastiaan, for having joined us today.

SEBASTIAAN FABER My pleasure.

GREG WILPERT And thank you for joining The Real News Network.