On January 13th, the new Spanish Parliament, the Cortes, met for the first time following the election of December 20th which gave significant numbers of seats to two completely new parties formed since the previous election, the left wing Podemos (“We can”) and the centre-right anti-corruption Ciudadanos (“Citizens”). The emergence of one, let alone two, new nationwide parties winning substantial numbers of members of parliament, is a rare event in Europe (or outside Europe). The only other example in a large European country this century is the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) in Italy. The formation of new parties, despite making government formation more difficult is in the opinion of InsightEU, a positive development which has the potential to re-invigorate democracy. The ability of the two parties to continue to flourish is therefore important for Spain and indeed for the EU as a whole. To do so they have to steer a difficult passage between being simply a protest party determined not to sully itself with real life compromise and treating the pilloried establishment parties with the modicum of respect needed for any negotations and being sucked into coalitions where they have to share responsibility for government and its inevitable failures and in a worst case scenario come to be seen as complicit in a system which they have been able to do little to change. M5S has avoided the latter but at the cost of remaining essentially a protest movement. But the Italian electoral system has meant that M5S is in any case an opposition party. In Spain the electoral result on December 20th and the refusal of the leader of the established Socialist Party (PSOE) to form a coalition with the party governing Spain until the December 2015 election (and still the provisional government) the right-of-centre Popular Party (PP), mean that the two new parties’ choices will be key to determining whether a government can be formed and win a vote of confidence or whether as must happen if no government is formed within two months of parliament reconvening, another election is called. In the latter event it would be likely that voters would move towards the PP as the largest party and therefore the one most likely to provide a majority government.
Sub-plot in Catalonia could prevent progress in Madrid
Pedro Sanchez came back from an early Janurary visit to Portugal extolling the recently formed coalition there between the Portuguese Socialist Party and two parties further to the left including the Portuguese Community Party. Sanchez has called for a left wing coalition in Spain, as was suggested as a likely outcome in our post of December 24th, but this now looks very difficult. The Catalan nationalist parties, which have just formed a new regional government, are set on their demands for a referendum on outright independence. Podemos favours such a referendum but the PSOE has promised to oppose it. Thus a coalition including the PSOE and the Catalan parties is impossible, while one including both the PSOE and Podemos looks very difficult. Not only is there the inevitable mistrust between two parties competing for the left wing vote, but there is also the whole issue of the future survival of Spain as a nation. Moroever, without the Catalan parties, Ciudadanos would have to be included to make a majority in the Cortes.
Can Podemos compromise enough to allow for new government?
It is to be hoped that Podemos is willing to modify its position on a referendum in the near term. It would be very unfortunate if a new party formed to combat the injustices of a 21st century economy were to be diverted onto the path of supporting nationalism of a kind little different in essence from the 19th century nationalist movements. There is some right and wrong on both sides of the referendum argument. On the one hand, the Spanish establishment needs to understand that if the majority of Catalans feel over a long period that they are not respected in Spain and are thwarted from fulfilling reasonable expectations as resulted from the constitutional court’s overruling of an agreement with the previous PSOE government for increased devolution, this will undermine the legitimacy of Spain. On the other hand, where pro and anti independence opinion is quite evenly divided and also volatile, a referendum which gave a little over 50% to a pro-independence question on one day but could be different if held a few years earlier or later, is a very flimsy basis on which to overturn the 524 years of unity since the merger of the Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile in 1492.
Whatever the pros and cons of the argument for Catalan independence it is almost irrelevant to the issues of inequality and lack of opportunity which affect all parts of Spain (as indeed many other countries).
Ciudadanos appears more willing to take the risks of entering a coalition government than Podemos. A possible way forward, though not one likely to guarantee a government to last the four-year parliamentary term, would be a minority coalition between the PSOE and Ciudadanos backed from outside government by Podemos, in return for meeting the two immediate demands that Podemos has made: a halt to banks repossessing homes from those unable to meet mortgage servicing commitments and free medicines for the elderly. Such demands should be possible to meet without endangering the credibility of Spain’s fiscal policy.