Back to the polls in Spain

King Felipe VI this week made official what has been clear for a while: that no new Spanish government can be formed before the constitutional deadline, and that therefore the parliament will be dissolved on Monday and fresh elections held, scheduled for 26 June.

Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez was presented to parliament as prime minister-designate on 2 March, but failed by a large margin to win a vote of confidence. That set the clock ticking, with two months being allowed for a government to be formed. For some time now it’s been obvious that the parties were no longer trying seriously, but just marking time until Monday and trying to position themselves for the coming election campaign.

The manoeuvring since December’s election has been complex, but the underlying parliamentary mathematics aren’t difficult to follow. Here are the seat totals, with 176 required for a majority:

People’s Party 123
Citizens 40
Socialists 90
Podemos & allies 71
Autonomists 26

I’ve listed the parties not quite in ideological order, but in (decreasing) order of their commitment to preserving Spanish unity (or Castillian hegemony, depending on which way you look at it). The People’s Party (centre-right) and Citizens (centrist) are totally opposed to further concessions to Catalonia and the Basque Country; the autonomists, otherwise ideologically mixed, are of course strongly in favor.

In between are Podemos (radical left), who would support holding a referendum on independence for Catalonia (although they say they would advocate a “no” vote), and the Socialist Workers’ Party  (centre-left), who are against a referendum but less intransigent on the issue than the parties to their right. (I’ve counted the two far-left MPs in with Podemos.)

These positions rule out certain combinations. The People’s Party won’t deal with Podemos, and neither the People’s Party nor Citizens will deal with the autonomists.

That leaves only three possible majority combinations:

  1. 1. Grand coalition between centre-right and centre-left. That would probably embrace Citizens as well, but they wouldn’t be needed for a majority.
  2. 2. A Socialist government supported by both Citizens and Podemos – although it’s unlikely that the latter two would actually sit in cabinet together.
  3. 3. A narrowly based government of the left, with Socialists, Podemos and enough of the autonomists to get up to a majority.

The People’s Party wanted 1. So did Citizens, although it would render them irrelevant. The Socialists apparently wanted 2, although the most they were able to do was forge a deal with Citizens. Podemos wanted 3; so, probably, did most of the autonomists, but no-one seemed keen to talk to them.

The People’s Party, headed by caretaker prime minister Mariano Rajoy, had the simplest task; since only the Socialists could give it a majority, its strategy was to just wait and hope that, with other options exhausted, the Socialists would ultimately embrace a grand coalition.

Three-way talks between the Socialists, Podemos and Citizens broke down, due to the mutual antipathy of the latter two groups. But the Socialists, beset by internal divisions, were unable to settle on any alternative strategy, refusing either to play second fiddle to the centre-right or to court the autonomists.

So it’s back to the polls, with no particular reason to think that there’ll be any major change in the numbers and that the same players won’t find themselves back in the same place in a couple of months facing much the same options.

Opinion polls (helpfully collected by Wikipedia) show Podemos gaining at the expense of the Socialists but otherwise very little change. When a similar situation arose last year in Turkey the polls turned out to be wrong, and frustrated voters swung back to the largest party, giving it a majority.

No doubt Rajoy hopes that the same might happen in Spain. Fortunately, he doesn’t have the same arsenal of dirty tricks available that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan had – or, one hopes, any willingness to use them if he did.

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