No surprise this morning to learn that the failure to form a government in Spain is now official. King Felipe VI has declined to put forward any other candidate to try to win a vote of confidence, so parliament will be dissolved for an election to be held on 10 November, a little more than six months after the last one.
This is the same process as was followed in 2016, but with less justification: the parliamentary arithmetic then was genuinely difficult. This time, the left of centre parties have a majority between them, but they have nonetheless failed to agree on forming a coalition.
Also like 2016, a fresh election is unlikely to change the fundamentals. The opinion polls show little movement since April. As I said on that earlier occasion, “Voters could be excused for saying ‘Don’t keep asking us – we’ve told you what sort of parliament we want, it’s your job to construct a government out of it.'”
So far, so much like Israel, which held its second election for the year on Tuesday. In Israel, however, the sands seem to have shifted, and the sort of shakeup that seemed unlikely earlier in the year now seems very much on the cards. Could the same thing happen in Spain?
It seems to me that there are three things to keep in mind in this sort of situation, when the voters are asked to solve a parliamentary deadlock:
- Results don’t usually change much: unless something extraordinary has happened, not many voters are going to change their minds in a few months.
- Nonetheless, sometimes just a small change can be very important (as, for example, in Turkey in 2015).
- The importance of such a change is twofold: arithmetical and psychological.
With that said, let’s remind ourselves of the Spanish parliamentary numbers following the April election:
Vox (far right) 24
People’s Party (centre-right) 68
Citizens (centre) 57
Socialists (centre-left) 123
Podemos (far left) 43
Assorted autonomists 35
A majority is 176 seats. So leaving out the obviously impossible combinations, the following are the minimum options for getting there:
(a) far right + centre-right + centre + some autonomists
(b) centre-right + centre-left
(c) centre + centre-left
(d) centre-left + far left + some autonomists
It has to be one of those four – there are no other available possibilities. Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez has been attempting (d), without success. He would probably be equally happy with (c), but Citizens have ruled it out; Sánchez has refused to consider (b), and (a) seems out of the question as long as the right sticks to its aggressive centralism.
Could an election create a fresh option? It’s possible. If there’s a shift from left to right, the People’s Party might just get to a majority with the support of both Vox and Citizens. But it would have to be a substantial shift, and there’s no sign of it in the polls.
Alternatively, a shift leftwards might give the Socialists enough seats to form government with either Podemos or the autonomists, instead of needing both. But that also seems unlikely, and it’s not clear how much help it would be anyway – the problem so far seems to have been Sánchez’s negotiating skills rather than the number of his partners.
What the Socialists are really hoping for is not an arithmetical change but a psychological one. If a fresh election shows that they are making gains and their rivals are falling behind, it may concentrate the minds of the other party leaders and make them more amenable to a deal.
That’s where the contrast is with Israel. There, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who failed to assemble a new coalition following April’s election, was hoping for a small but decisive shift in the parliamentary arithmetic that would produce a far-right majority without having to rely on the troublesome secularists of Yisrael Beiteinu.
In that he has clearly failed: Yisrael Beiteinu has improved its position and is now more powerful than before. But Netanyahu has lost out on the psychological level as well. In April his Likud party led the field, albeit very narrowly; this time, it has lost its plurality to the centre-right Blue & White.
That of itself doesn’t change the arithmetic of coalition-building, but it changes perceptions, and new options may open up as a result. We’ll have a look at those on Monday, when results should be final.