An Iberian update

Time for an update on the three recent elections on the Iberian peninsula.

Portugal

The first significant election for 2016 was the vote a week ago for a new president of Portugal. The Portuguese president, although directly elected, is supposed to be just a ceremonial head of state like our queen or governor-general, but the incumbent, Aníbal Cavaco Silva, didn’t quite behave that way last year.

Faced with an election that deprived the centre-right government of its majority, Silva cited policy concerns to keep the prime minister in office even after the opposition left-wing parties had agreed on a majority coalition. That led to some overblown rhetoric about the death of Portuguese democracy. But eventually, once parliament had made its wishes clear, Silva did the right thing and appointed the centre-left leader, António Costa, to head a new government.

In light of that, you’d think Portuguese voters might have been wary of electing another former centre-right politician as their new president. Not so. Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, supported by the centre-right parties, won a clear majority on the first round, with 52.0% against nine rivals, of which leftist independent António Sampaio da Nóvoa did the best with 22.9%.

Whether that’s because the voters quite like the idea of keeping a balance of power at the top, or whether they just didn’t much like any of the alternatives, is impossible to tell. Rebelo de Sousa takes office on 9 March, so we’ll see then just how he manages relations with his left-wing government. Prior to the election he told Euronews “I won’t create any problem, any instability, any criticism of government action.”

Spain

Six weeks out from the Spanish election, and the country is still waiting to discover the shape of its new government. It’s just as well no-one believed the BBC when it said “Spain has two months to form a new government” – in fact the clock starts to run on the two months only after a prospective government is presented to parliament, and there’s no sign of that happening for a while.

The basic parliamentary arithmetic is fairly straightforward. The incumbent People’s Party has the largest bloc of seats, but it can’t reach a majority without the support of either the centre-left Socialists – possible but not looking likely – or the radical left party, Podemos, which is out of the question. The Socialists and Podemos together could probably put together a majority with the support of assorted leftists and regionalists, but prospects for that also seemed discouraging at first.

But it became more likely last week when Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias changed his tune and announced that he wanted to form a coalition with the Socialists, in which he was willing to serve as deputy prime minister. Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez, however, is less than enthusiastic and has been moving towards negotiations at a glacial pace.

Centre-right prime minister Mariano Rajoy, still in office in a caretaker capacity, has declined the king’s offer to present a new government to parliament. His strategy is clear; he proposes to wait until his opponents have exhausted other options and will be willing to agree on a grand coalition – or failing that, fresh elections.

Sánchez is the one who has to decide which way to go: whether he wants to try to construct a left-wing government, as his counterpart did in Portugal, or whether he is willing to let Rajoy continue in office.

Catalonia

While Spain remains in political limbo, its would-be separatist region of Catalonia has finally got a new government.

An early election last September returned a legislative majority for the pro-independence forces. The joint ticket Together for Yes won 62 seats, plus another ten for the leftist Popular Unity Candidates (CUP), as against a combined 63 seats for the four anti-independence parties.

Premier Artur Mas interpreted that as a mandate to press ahead with moves for independence, as well as for himself to continue in office. The problem was that Mas is from the centre-right, and the CUP, although agreeing with him about independence, regarded his pro-austerity policies as unacceptable.

Three months of deadlock ensued, until in early January, with the threat of a fresh election looming, Mas agreed at the last minute to step aside in favor of another member of his party, Carles Puigdemont. He was duly confirmed in office by the regional parliament.

When a new government finally establishes itself in Madrid, one of its first priorities will be to talk to the Catalans. The sensible course would be to offer a proper referendum, in return for a recognition in Barcelona that winning 48% of the vote does not confer a mandate to set up a new country. But don’t hold your breath.

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