Political polarization in Spain and the election of the Prime Minister
Leonardo Álvarez Álvarez (University of Oviedo)
The approval of the Spanish Constitution of 1978 was a consequence of a broad consensus between different political forces. However, Spain’s current difficulties electing a Prime Minister following the elections held on the 28th of April 2019 appear to illustrate that the spirit of consensus, the will to form coalitions and the necessity of ceding one’s own political aspirations is no longer a feature of Spanish political life.
The current political crisis can be explained in two ways: a) the disappearance of bipartisanship in Spain in the aftermath of the serious economic recession between 2008 and 2013, and b) the transformation of once-nationalist parties into secessionist parties. During the era of bipartisanship the election of the prime minister was possible thanks to the support of seats won by his own party in the election, on occasion added to those of one or other of the nationalist parties. The Catalan parties traditionally took part in political pacts which supported the Spanish government.
The disappearance of bipartisanship in the elections on the 20th of December 2015 as a result of the reduced number of seats won by former majority parties (the Popular Party and the Socialist Party) meant that the election of the prime minister needed the support of diverse political parties. In addition, formerly nationalist parties presented clear secessionist profiles in the 2015 election. This made it more difficult for them to continue to support the formation of a Spanish government led by parties who had, in recent years, been more aggressively opposed to the illegal self-determination referendums held by separatist parties in Catalonia.
These problems led to a situation in 2015 in which, for the first time, Spain was unable to appoint a prime minister after a general election. In the investiture process, Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the Socialist Party, did not achieve an absolute majority in the first round of voting, nor a simple majority in the second, that he would have needed in order to be appointed as prime minister. Following two months of political negotiations and failure in a succession of subsequent votes, new elections were called in 2016 in accordance with the Spanish constitution. Currently, in 2019, we find ourselves in the same scenario. Following the failure of Sanchez to win approval to be prime minister in July, the constitution allows a period of two months in order for him to attempt to gain the necessary support for a new investiture which will probably happen in September. If this attempt to elect Sanchez fails yet again, a new general election will be held in Spain in the autumn of 2019.
Nowadays there is a call for a resurgence of the spirit of consensus which inspired the creation of our constitution in 1978, and appeals to different parties to put aside their political differences in favour of the common good. However, this appears to be very difficult these days. The Podemos party, which is most closely affiliated with the Socialist Party ideologically, has stipulated a condition that is unacceptable to Sanchez: that in order for him to gain their support, they must be allowed to form part of any future government. Having lost 29 seats in the 2019 elections compared to the 2016 elections, Podemos need to remain visible at the forefront of Spanish politics in order not to lose further electoral support. For his part Sanchez understands that compared to the 123 seats the Socialist Party won in the general election, the 42 seats Podemos won are not sufficient to justify their aspirations to govern. On the other hand the secessionist parties are set to give their support to Sanchez’s election only on the condition that his government approves the Catalan secessionist process: which is anathema to him.
Faced with this difficulty of not having the support of the parties which helped to elect him as prime minister in 2018 (in the wake of the no confidence motion lost by Mariano Rajoy), Sanchez now requires the abstention of either the Popular Party or of Ciudadanos in order to be named prime minister. This would mean that Sanchez could be elected prime minister in the second round of voting by a simple majority if he were to gain the support of all 123 seats from his own party. However, after the Popular Party’s disastrous election result, Ciudadanos is hoping to seize the lead of the right wing parties in Spain. This struggle between these two parties makes it extremely unlikely that one of them would aid the election of a Socialist Party candidate.
Leonardo Álvarez Álvarez is Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Oviedo