Another Leftist Coalition Government in Spain, Though Just Barely
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First Published in: Dec.05,2023
Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s incumbent prime minister, was sworn into office for the third time on 17 November 2023. He once again heads a minority coalition government. This time, it includes the prime minister’s Socialist Party (PSOE) and Sumar (Sum or Add Up), a new left wing political platform launched by Yolanda Díaz, the incumbent and continuing labour minister and second deputy prime minister.
While clear continuities exist, there are important changes regarding the junior party partner in the coalition. Sánchez’s previous cabinet, formed in 2020, included the radical left Unidas Podemos (United We Can), an alliance of Podemos and the United Left, the latter centred around the Spanish Communist Party. After much public discord, the weakened Podemos joined the Sumar alliance for the July 2023 parliamentary elections. Yet none of Sumar’s five ministerial posts (out of 22 total) in the new government went to Podemos. While Díaz hails originally from the United Left, Sumar is a more moderate ally for the Socialists, at least in terms of the likely tone and style of its government representatives. It remains to be seen how the disgruntled Podemos, with 5 of Sumar’s 31 seats in the Congress of Deputies, will affect governance and Díaz’s nascent platform. Continuing the practice on the political left of gender parity or majority women cabinets, the new government has 55 percent women ministers, four of whom are also deputy prime ministers. This government also confirmed Spain as a world leader in minority cabinets. Since Spain’s return to democracy in 1977, 75 percent of its cabinets have been minority ones, meaning the party or parties in the cabinet do not control a majority of seats in the parliamentary chamber to which the government is responsible. While Spain is used to making these cabinets (mostly) work, this may be the most complicated governing scenario to date. The leftist government faces a political right that is strong, angry, and mobilized—though this both challenges and serves as a buttress that could fortify the new government. The conservative Popular Party (PP), led by Alberto Núñez Feijóo, won the most votes and parliamentary seats in the July election, two percentage points and 14 seats more than the Socialists, yet far from a majority. As was already clear when the election returns came in, the PP candidate could not cobble together enough votes in parliament and failed in his attempt to become prime minister in September 2023. He received the votes of the PP, the far-right party Vox (Voice in Latin), and two representatives of right-leaning regional parties. Feijóo’s defeat was, in part, due to his party’s proximity and expected governing alliance with Vox. The political right is also strong in local and regional governments in Spain. Following the May 2023 subnational elections, the Popular Party leads 11 of Spain’s 17 powerful regional governments—in five it governs jointly with Vox. The Socialist Party only leads three regional governments. And the PP has a majority in Spain’s upper, though weaker, chamber of parliament, the Senate. The right has questioned Sánchez’s legitimacy, persona, and alliances stretching back at least to 2018 when he replaced PP Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whom parliament removed in a constructive vote of no confidence. Sanchismo has become a popular buzzword the right uses to capture its disdain for the prime minister. Nonetheless, the anger and mobilisation on the political right, particularly from Vox and its supporters, but also from the PP and its supporters, peaked once it became public that Sánchez and the PSOE would support an amnesty for those involved in the 2017 Catalan independence push, despite Sánchez’s prior opposition to an amnesty and his claim that it would be unconstitutional. An amnesty was part of a deal to gain the support of pro-independence Catalan parties, ERC and Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia), for Sanchez’s election as prime minister. The controversial leader of Junts, Carles Puigdemont, who resides in Brussels to escape Spanish judges, and would be the main beneficiary of an amnesty, has forewarned that the party’s support for the new government depends on clear advances in the devolution of central state powers to Catalonia and the recognition of the Catalan national identity. Amid significant societal division over the agreement, far right groups, in Trumpist style, engaged in violent protests in front of the PSOE’s headquarters. Protesters frequently showed support for Francoism and denounced what they considered to be a coup-d’état by the parliamentary majority. The extremist tone has put the PP in an uncomfortable position – it has attempted to calibrate its response via numerous demonstrations, expressing firm opposition while also trying to avoid being linked to the autocratic values visible at other demonstrations. The agreement with Junts also met with unprecedented criticism in judicial circles, particularly furious because the agreement mentions alleged lawfare, in reference to what Catalan nationalists view as an excessive legal response to the Catalan push for independence and its leaders. In contrast, most of the electorate that supported the parties of the new majority are relieved that the right-wing forces did not take control of the Spanish government, even though 40 percent of the PSOE voters are against this amnesty. To pass legislation (and survive), the government will need to consistently forge agreements among the government partners and with a diverse set of regionally based parliamentary allies. The latter include Catalan separatists on the left (ERC) and right (Junts), the centre-right Basque Nationalist Party, the Basque left-wing separatist EH-Bildu, the Galician nationalist and left-wing BNG, and the centre-right Canary Coalition. The government has almost no margin. Jointly these parties’ votes add up to 179, only three votes over an absolute majority. The Catalan Junts, with seven seats, is the most significant wildcard. While relative majorities of more yes than no votes are sometimes sufficient in Spain’s parliament, the opposition sums 171 votes. The most relevant ministers that have surrounded Sánchez since he became prime minister remain in the new cabinet, ensuring continuity in the main policy areas (finance, security, external affairs), although the influential minister of economy, Nadia Calviño, is expected to leave the executive in the coming weeks to become President of the European Investment Bank. The newcomers are expected to provide loyalty and a leftist hue to the government agenda, seeking to maintain their voters’ support in a polarised environment. This may be particularly significant in the new legislative term since the new executive will face more dilemmas when negotiating the policy agenda with its parliamentary partners. It will need to rely more on right-wing parties (PNV and Junts) than the prior government. Policy contradictions among the government’s allies will necessarily arise as many of them (PNV and EH-Bildu, Junts and ERC) are electoral opponents that will compete in the regional elections in the Basque Country and Catalonia in the coming months. We’ll need to wait and see how well the Spanish prime minister can live up to the spirit of his book, published four years ago, Manual of Resistance.
government spain pedro sánchez spain prime minister socialist communist party democracy elections
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Bonnie N. Field is Professor of Political Science in the Global Studies Department at Bentley University in Massachusetts, USA, and co-Editor of the journal South European Society and Politics.
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