Steven Forti – Spain: Bye bye Mariano Rajoy, good luck Pedro Sánchez

Steven Forti brings us up to speed concerning the latest political developments in Spain.

Steven Forti is Researcher at the Instituto de História Contemporânea of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa and Professor at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Translated by BRAVE NEW EUROPE

A veritable political earthquake. An unexpected upheaval. A victory for the Social Democrat Pedro Sánchez. Spain turns left unexpectedly, aligning itself with the Portugal of Costa and the Greece of Tsipras, while the national-populist winds blow stronger and stronger in Europe, especially after the formation of the government between League and 5 Stars in Italy.

The day after the approval of the 2018 budget, in which the rightist prime minister Mariano Rajoy thought he had ensured that he would remain in government until the end of the parliamentary period, the judicial ruling in the Gürtel case suddenly changed Spains political landscape. Termed by the court as an “effective structure of institutional corruption” in which Rajoy’s People’s Party, considered a “lucrative participant”, was the protagonist: 351 years in prison for 29 defendants, including the former treasurer Luis Bárcenas and other local leaders of the PP. A few days earlier, Eduardo Zaplana, a former minister with Mr Aznar, had also been imprisoned. The popular people were now inundated with cases of corruption.

It was then that Pedro Sanchez took the initiative and proposed a motion of no confidence. In Spain, it must be constructive: it is not enough to distrust the government in office; those who present it, if they obtain an absolute majority of the votes in the Cortes (Spanish parliament), automatically become prime minister. And so, incredibly, it was. And that in a week, when no one would have bet a peseta on the socialist leader.

Sánchez has proven to be a kind of phoenix. This was the case after his defenestration as Secretary General of the PSOE in October 2016, when, during the long political impasse experienced by the Iberian country, he was denied the right to oppose the formation of Rajoy’s government. Forced to resign, abandoned by all, he had rolled up his sleeves and alone managed to win the party’s primaries and regain its leadership. Then came the Catalan crisis, and Sánchez, who up to then had defended a left-wing proposal in favour of the multi-nationality of the Spanish State, had joined ranks with Rajoy’s PP and the neo-liberal nationalist Ciudadanos, approving the imposition of a federal administration in Catalonia. Ater that Sánchez had disappeared from the political radar, with the rise of Albert Rivera’s Ciudadanos that all polls saw as the clear winner in the event of a general election in Spain. Everything has changed in a few days: Rajoy has lost his mandate to govern Spain and resigned from the presidency of the PP. Ciudadanos is distraught, not knowing what to do, while Sánchez finds himself unexpectedly in the Moncloa, the residence of the Spanish prime minister.

The first steps of the new social democratic government have been positive. A progressive, pro-European, and feminist Cabinet: 11 women out of 17 ministers. An epoch-making change. And what’s more, prestigious figures, with a wealth of experience behind them, such as the former Director General of the Budget of the European Commission Nadia Calviño (Economics), the lawyer Dolores Delgado (Justice) or the veteran Carmen Calvo (Vice President, Equality), but also the former President of the European Parliament Josep Borrell (Foreign Affairs) and Judge Fernando Grande-Marlaska (Interior). A clear message to Brussels as Salvini and Di Maio’s Italy move closer and closer to the Visegrad group.

But it’s not all roses. The PSOE did not seek a broader coalition and can only rely on 85 deputies in parliament, the Cortes of Madrid, when the absolute majority is 176. Sánchez will therefore have to look for the votes, as was done in the motion of censure, of no less than seven other parties: not only Unidos Podemos, the Valencians of Compromís and the confluences linked to the party of Iglesias (En Comú Podem; En Marea), which add up to 71 deputies, but also, and above all, the Basque nationalists (the 5 of the Basque Nationalist Party and the 2 of the abertzal left of EH Bildu) and the Catalan independentists (the 9 of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya and the 8 of the Partit Demòcrata Europeu Catalá).

It will not be easy. The right wing is already calling it a “Frankenstein government”, a mishmash with no future. But  Sánchez wants to remain prime minister, proving that he is an alternative to a government of the right. Pablo Iglesias is aware of this and, for this reason, he has repeatedly asked Sánchez to include Podemos in a coalition government, but obtaining a niet from the PSOE, which does not want to bind itself too much to the formation of Iglesias. Everyone is at risk. Everyone is betting. However, it was the only option for the left, with Spain turning strongly to the right. And Iglesias was right to strongly support Sánchez. The PSOE can now regain consensus by governing well, in view of elections that could be brought forward by necessity or even by choice (the legislature would end in the spring of 2020), while Podemos, if it manages to fulfil the role of a constructive opposition and push the new socialist executive to the left, can regain votes and political initiative. The first test will be the European elections of the spring of 2019, when Spain will also hold elections in all the Municipalities and in 13 regions out of 17.

It will be necessary to verify whether the PSOE will be able to implement policies for the redistribution of wealth and a real change in the country. A difficult undertaking considering that Sánchez has only half a legislative period at his disposal, that the 2018 budget was drawn up by the Rajoy government and that the presidents of the two chambers are from Rajoy’s PP. There is therefore very little room for manoeuvre. One of the crucial issues will be the Catalan question. The speeches made by Mr Sánchez during the motion of censure augur well for the future. There is a will for dialogue and reducing tensions. And it seems that even the Catalan independentists, who voted in favour of Sánchez, have seized the opportunity for a new phase of dialogue. However the socialist leader will have to overcome the internal resistance of his own party, the vociferous opposition of the PP and Ciudadanos – who already call Sánchez a “traitor” who is conspiring with those who want to “break up Spain” – and the Catalan people who support their government’s policy of gaining independence, represented by the former President Carles Puigdemont, who is in Berlin waiting for a decision by the German courts on the request for extradition to Spain.

Political intelligence, common sense and luck will be needed by all, circumstances that Machiavelli considered requisite for the Prince’s triumph. Otherwise, at the next elections Ciudadanos will win the elections and a government of change in Spain will remain just a dream.


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