To continue the theme I started with a previous “return to blogging” post, I will give my opinion regarding some recent past events in my sphere of interest.
As predicted by many people, the Spanish elections in December proved that the emergence of two new political parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos has heralded in a new chapter in Spanish politics. As it turned out, for better or for worse, none of the four main parties managed to gain enough parliamentary seats to be able to elect a Prime Minister.
The Partido Popular (PP) got 123 seats (28%), the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) got 90 seats (22%), Podemos got 69 seats (20%) and Ciudadanos got 40 seats (13%). The voter turnout was 69%.
To their credit (snigger, snigger), the PP under the leadership of the previous Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, declined the King’s invitation to even give it a try. The PSOE, now headed by Pedro Sanchez, have now accepted the challenge, but all indications are that they are not going to succeed either.
Spanish Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez wants a month to convince other parties to help him build a coalition and break the deadlock resulting from December’s elections. If he fails to become prime minister, Spain will probably vote again in June.
“I am serious about this,” the leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) said on Tuesday night, after conservative incumbent Mariano Rajoy, who came first in December but without a majority, declined for a second time to try and form a government.The PSOE leader said he would seek support from Left and Right — the radical protest movement Podemos (We Can) and the centrist Ciudadanos (Citizens). But the former refused to prop up Rajoy for another term and the latter’s support wouldn’t be enough to return Rajoy to power.
Lucía Méndez, chief political analyst for El Mundo newspaper, said Sánchez would deserve the Nobel Prize if he managed to form a government.
Here are some of the obstacles he’ll face in his attempt to move into the prime minister’s official residence, the Moncloa:
1) The numbers
The Socialists have just 90 seats in Congress, their worst result ever and 86 short of an absolute majority. Sánchez would need the support or abstention of either of the two other largest parties — Rajoy’s PP with its 123 MPs or Pablo Iglesias’ Podemos, which has 69 — to be anointed prime minister.
Rajoy is unlikely to do anything to help the PSOE as he is betting his political survival on Sánchez’s failure. He is hoping for a mutiny inside the PSOE which might facilitate a ‘grand coalition’ of the two biggest parties, or fresh elections. The prime minister has also made it clear that he would not be willing to step down as party leader to make a grand coalition possible.
Iglesias has apparently been more helpful, but less transparent. He has publicly offered to help Sánchez build a coalition, while making the conditions so difficult that he may actually be betting on new elections too, in the hope of advancing his strategy of undoing the PSOE’s historic hegemony of the Spanish Left.
2) Radicals in the cabinet
Iglesias linked his offer two weeks ago to help the PSOE form a government to demands that he get the post of deputy prime minister, as well as key ministries (defense, foreign affairs and the economy, among others) for Podemos. This constituted a violation of the ponytailed leftist leader’s promise never to join a cabinet led by one of the “corrupt” establishment parties.
Giving Podemos such prominence would be indigestible for large portions of the Socialist party, not to mention the Spanish business world. It would make it impossible for Albert Rivera’s business-friendly Ciudadanos to join such a coalition, which Iglesias has virtually ruled out anyway, saying his party and Ciudadanos are incompatible.
In that case, the PSOE and Podemos would, mathematically, also need the support of Basque and Catalan nationalist parties — but Sánchez, like Rajoy, is adamantly opposed to the pro-independence Catalan government’s secessionist plans.
3) The shadow of new elections
The main political parties have acted as though December’s election campaign was still going on, voicing their differences in public instead of negotiating to help form a stable government — apparently in the belief that a return to the ballot box is likely and that seeking compromises with other parties could harm their electoral chances.
Two of the four key players — the PP and Podemos — seem to think they would fare better in new elections, which is borne out by most opinion polls over the past four weeks. The conservatives could benefit from tactical voting by supporters of Ciudadanos, fearing the advent of a leftist coalition. Podemos could try and build an election alliance with the small leftist party Popular Unity.
New elections, however, would likely result in even more fragmentation of Congress, and at the same time the Spanish people would do anything to avoid a third general election.
4) The Catalan question
Iglesias has promised the Catalans a binding referendum on independence, knowing this is a red line for the Socialists. There is a chance he could conveniently forget this commitment — but his leftist regional allies are unlikely to. Nearly 40 percent of Podemos’ seats in Congress are derived from pre-electoral pacts with regional parties in Catalonia, Valencia and Galicia.
Pro-independence Catalan parties, who have 17 seats in the national parliament, have historically cooperated with PP and PSOE governments to ensure the governability of Spain, and they might still be needed to make a coalition workable. However, now that the Catalan regional assembly has mapped out an 18-month route to independence, the Socialists might find it difficult governing thanks to the support of movements committed to breaking up the Spanish state.
Catalonia is also one of the main obstacles to any cooperation between Podemos and Ciudadanos. The latter was born in 2006 in Catalonia as a party committed to keeping the region in Spain and it adamantly opposes a binding referendum on secession. It is difficult to see how Sánchez could bring these two parties together under one roof.
5) The Socialist old guard
Felipe González, the PSOE elder statesman who was prime minister from 1982 to 1996, voiced his opposition to a pact with Podemos in a front-page interview with El País, Spain’s biggest newspaper, last week. Calling Podemos “pure Leninism 3.0,” he accused Iglesias’ party of wanting to destroy democracy with policies akin to its friends in Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela.
González, the most influential character in PSOE’s modern history, is not alone in his disdain for Podemos. The Socialist old guard fear losing their hegemony of the Left to the youthful anti-austerity protesters — who snapped at the PSOE’s heels in the December election, winning 20.6 percent versus the Socialists’ 22 percent — in much the same way that Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza displaced the Socialist PASOK party in Greece a year ago.
The old guard believes the right approach to Podemos is less carrot and more stick.
6) The Socialist hinterland
Sánchez has powerful enemies inside his own party who want him to fail, the most prominent being Susana Díaz, the head of the regional government in Andalusia, a Socialist stronghold which delivered a quarter of PSOE votes in December. Díaz was highly critical of Sánchez’s election performance, accusing him of failing to attack the corruption cases within the PP, and the crisis in the Spanish economy, to topple Rajoy.
Last Saturday, the PSOE leadership rescheduled until May 21 the party’s federal congress, the occasion for electing or replacing the secretary general (Sánchez’s party position). By then, it will be clear whether Sánchez’s coalition-building efforts have succeeded or failed. If it’s the latter, he had better watch his back.
Adding to the pressure on Sánchez, the regional party bosses want the right to veto any agreement with the other parties. He may have outmaneuvered his opponents by extending that right of veto to approximately 200,000 card-carrying PSOE party members, rather than just the leadership.
7) El País and the establishment
El País, which was born during the transition to democracy in the mid-1970s and exerts a great deal of influence, especially on the Spanish Left, has warned repeatedly against a coalition between the PSOE and Podemos with the support, tacit or explicit, of Catalan pro-independence forces.
In a recent op-ed, the paper called Sánchez “naïve” for aspiring to become prime minister after achieving the PSOE’s worst ever national election result. For El País, his offer to let party members veto any coalition deal was “populist,” irresponsible and reveals a lack of leadership.
Some powerful establishment voices, on the other hand, are advocating openly for a German-style grand coalition between the PSOE and the PP. They include ex-cabinet ministers from both parties, such as José Bono and Eduardo Zaplana, and corporate figures such as Juan Rosell, who heads the main national business lobby. If their voices prevail, Sánchez is unlikely to be the consensus candidate acceptable to both Socialists and conservatives. Rajoy has signaled his availability for the job.
The problem, of course, is that coalitions are proving to be difficult to form. Both the PP and PSOE are being accused of some or other serious wrong-doing in the past (which is true) and the new parties do not want to be seen hob-nobbing with the very crowd for which they had nothing but criticism and contempt for, only a few months previously. In addition, all of the four main parties are each making demands that they state to be non-negotiable and this had effectively stalled the creation of any coalition.
In my opinion, I think that this is a good thing, although it has angered many Spaniards who believe that compromises should be considered in order to break the impasse. The problem with marginal politics is that compromises never lead to anything good. When times were good and there were no difficult and hard decisions to be made, coalition governments got by and the general citizenry did not really care less.
Today, things are different. European politics, generally, is on a knife edge. The Eurozone cannot re-invent itself into a proper functional and successful economic area. The greater EU project is on the brink of break-up with tensions developing in all sorts of fields. Added to this explosive mix is the ongoing high unemployment rate in the Southern European countries and the new pressures being caused by a large influx of migrants into Europe. The old “head in the sand” attitude is just not going to solve anything any longer.
I hope that all of the Spanish political parties stick to their guns and that Spain is forced back to the polls to give things another shot. It must be like tennis….you keep going until there is an outright winner. Unless this is the case, the Spanish will be doomed to suffer a government that will not be able to solve anything and we will be back to just marking time for another couple of years until the next election.
It is at times like this that real, true and trustworthy politicians have the opportunity to emerge and, hopefully, surprise the electorate. No more compromises. No more lying and double-dealing. No more wheeling and dealing behind everyone’s backs. No more promises that can not and will not be met. Come on guys. Step up to the plate and give it your best shot. Stop ducking and diving. It’s going to be now or never.
The Catalonian independence question that looked like a stick of dynamite with its fuse lit, fizzled out towards the end of the year when Artur Mas, the long-standing Catalonian premier stood down (was pushed out?) and was replaced by a new man. The feeling among Catalonians is now evenly split 50/50 and this has tempered any radical proposals being pushed forward by the regional government. Independence is still stated to be their goal but have placed an 18 month timeline on achieving this. It is also possible that the Catalonians realize that a shake up in the national political scene might play into their hands and have decided to take a slightly lower profile with their independence demands. Some also speculate that full independence may rather translate into a demand just for greater autonomy and fairer treatment with the funds given back to the region by the central government. We will see what happens in the future.
As I and many others predicted some months ago, the third Greek bailout has solved very little in Greece and the economic situation there continues on its slow death spiral. The citizens are still largely subdued about their fate, although the odd public protest about some or other new hardship is becoming more common.
The socialist coalition took over the government in Portugal and the political scene there appears to have replicated what happened with Syriza in Greece. The new politicians are playing the same tunes only with a different orchestra. There is no news of any impending miracle economic turnaround, probably because one will not be happening, at least not in the near future.
The news is ominously quiet about how things are going in Italy. Rumours abound that the Italian banks are teetering on collapse, a la Greece. So I guess that “the powers that be” consider that the least said about that likely event is the best policy.
So that is a quick round-up of where we stand in Southern Europe at present.
Oh, I nearly forgot! Yanis Varoufakis has got his new project up and running: the “Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (The EU will be democratised. Or it will disintegrate!)”….their words, not mine. Here you can read what this is all about.
I am still in two minds about this idea. It looks and sounds good and the PR is appealing. The end goal is reasonable and desirable and it should be what every forward looking European should want. I am just not sure whether this project can achieve its objectives….it is a hellishly high mountain to climb and I salute Yanis for trying. I am tempted to throw my lot in with them whilst covertly pursuing my other idea for the EU and the Euro (does anyone know of a cheap wrecking ball for sale anywhere?). I will let you know how I get on with this conundrum.