Although one likes to avoid cultural stereotyping, there still seems something very Mediterranean in the fact that it has taken Spain more than two months from its last general election to hold a parliamentary vote of confidence on a new government. Centre-right prime minister Mariano Rajoy last night sought the support of the Congress of Deputies; as was universally expected, he failed to win the required absolute majority, having 170 votes in a house of 350.
There will now be a second vote on Friday, in which only a simple majority is required.
You can read my account of the election result here, which explains the parliamentary arithmetic. Since then, Rajoy has forged an agreement with the centrist Citizens, who supported him on last night’s vote but without joining the government. The single Canary Islands autonomist is also in his corner, bringing him to 170 – six short of a majority.
If it wasn’t Spain, with its particular history and particular demons, getting those extra six votes wouldn’t be that difficult. Democratic Convergence of Catalonia, unmistakably a centre-right party, has eight seats, and the Basque Nationalist Party, also conservative, has five. Even if they both abstained, the government would win Friday’s vote.
But those parties will not deal with Rajoy’s People’s Party because of its unrepentant centralism. Progress towards greater autonomy requires a centre-left government, so the Catalans and Basques don’t have much choice.
Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez, on the other hand, has lots of options. He just seems unable to bring himself to embrace any of them. He could:
- a) Agree to negotiate a grand coalition with the People’s Party;
- b) Abstain from voting on Rajoy’s investiture, allowing him to form a minority government;
- c) Announce that he aimed to form a broad-based centre-left government with both Citizens and the far-left Podemos, and open negotiations to that effect after this week’s votes;
- d) Negotiate with Podemos and the regional parties for a narrower left-wing government, which would still have a workable majority; or
- e) Commit himself to voting against any rival government and just keep forcing additional elections until the voters somehow resolve the situation.
A respectable case can be made for each of the first four options. But Sánchez refuses to choose, and therefore is drifting by default into the fifth option, which is the least likely to win him public sympathy.
To make matters worse, Spanish electoral law provides an inflexible timetable: Rajoy’s attempt to win the vote this week sets the clock running, and if no government can be formed within two months parliament must be dissolved for an election eight weeks later. That third general election would therefore be held, inconveniently (to say the least), on 25 December, Christmas Day.
Sánchez has proposed a change in the law that would shorten the timetable by a week, but there’s no particular reason to expect the centre-right to support it – and even if the other parties combine to push it through the lower house, the People’s Party could block it in the Senate, where it enjoys an absolute majority.
The best that the Socialists have been able to offer is to re-evaluate their position at the party’s federal committee meeting in October. But unless things move with unwonted speed, it will then be too late to avert another election.
This dithering would make some sense if the economy was going down the drain or Rajoy’s position was steadily weakening for some other reason. But on the contrary, the recovery seems to be picking up speed, and public opinion is (reasonably enough) blaming Sánchez rather than the government for the continued political deadlock.
Rajoy improved his position in the last election; not enough to alter the basic arithmetic, but enough to show which way the wind was blowing. There’s no sign of opinion having shifted since then, and it’s as sure as anything can be that Spanish voters would not appreciate being again forced back to the polls.