Spain’s Political Deadlock Is Forever

The country’s snap election on April 28, its third in five years, may just be the prelude to another down the line.

From left, People’s Party leader Pablo Casado, Spain’s Prime Minister and Socialist Party leader Pedro Sánchez, Ciudadanos party leader Albert Rivera, and Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias attend a debate in Madrid on April 22 as candidates for Spain’s general elections. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
From left, People’s Party leader Pablo Casado, Spain’s Prime Minister and Socialist Party leader Pedro Sánchez, Ciudadanos party leader Albert Rivera, and Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias attend a debate in Madrid on April 22 as candidates for Spain’s general elections. (Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

In February, Spain’s embattled Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced his decision to hold an early general election on April 28, effectively putting his office up for grabs. Rendered necessary by the Socialist leader’s weak grip on power—his party holds only 84 seats in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies—this premature vote proves the country is yet again facing political deadlock. But in fact, Spain has been stuck in a rut since late 2015, when the two-party power-swapping game begun after the dictator Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 was disrupted by new parties on the left and right. At the time, the breakthrough seemed to usher in a new era for Spanish politics, but instead, the country’s main parties have become entangled in messy deal-making and unwanted compromises to form ruling coalitions. Sunday’s general election, the third to be held in Spain in the last five years, won’t change that. Instead, it will likely illustrate two new trends in Spanish politics: the centrality of the Catalan independence issue to party identity and the growing influence of the far-right party Vox.

Political paralysis forced Sánchez to call an early general election in the first place.

Political paralysis forced Sánchez to call an early general election in the first place. His minority government depended on the votes of Catalan pro-independence parties to approve the 2019 budget. They, in turn, wanted the Sánchez administration to legitimize their continuing goal of a Catalan Republic, partly by allowing a legal referendum on self-determination. But despite his initiation of dialogue with separatists, the leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (commonly known by its Spanish acronym, PSOE) is bound by the Spanish Constitution, which deems Catalan secession—or even a referendum on the possibility—illegal. Pro-independence parties thus withheld their support for the 2019 spending plan, guaranteeing its failure and triggering the early election. Sánchez would have preferred not to have to rely on their support at all, but in modern Spanish politics, a parliamentary majority is practically impossible to achieve.

At no point was this more evident than in 2016, when Spain went for 10 months without a functioning government or a prime minister. This political vacuum was the result of the general election held in December 2015, when two new parties—Podemos (“We Can”) on the left and Ciudadanos (“Citizens”), which hovers around the center-right—emerged on the national political scene, fueled by young Spaniards’ anger with a corrupt and complacent old guard and the lingering effects of austerity. It was a historic moment: The 40-year dominance of the PSOE and its archrival, the conservative People’s Party (PP), seemed to be over.

The fractured nature of Spain’s present-day politics is the result of that breakthrough. Despite dismantling the two-party system—a long overdue development—the emergence of Ciudadanos and Podemos led to six months of fruitless negotiations, during which both left- and right-wing groups tried to form a coalition, cycling through several different possible alliances. After all these attempts came to nothing, a repeat election was held in June 2016, but it was another four months before Spain finally had its new government. Depressingly for a generation of Spaniards who had voted for change, the PP resumed power, albeit stripped of its parliamentary majority this time.

Like those two general elections and their aftermaths, the upcoming vote is likely to result only in fraught negotiations. To further complicate things, there’s now a fifth element in the mix: Vox, a far-right party that secured 12 seats in the 109-seat Parliament of Andalusia, Spain’s most populous region, last December. That was the first time that a far-right party has gained regional power in Spain since Franco’s regime. Sánchez is hoping that voters will block Vox’s path to national government on April 28, bolstering the Socialists’ position in the process. But it could go the other way too, with Vox gaining ground because of its opposition to the Catalan independence movement: One of the most recent polls puts it in fifth place, snapping at Podemos’ heels with 12.5 percent of the national vote, which would give the party 32 deputies in Congress. Vox won its 12 seats in Andalusia last December with 11 percent of the regional vote.

Increasingly, Catalonia is both a wedge and an adhesive in Spanish politics, as effective in dividing parties and voters as it is in uniting them. The electoral campaigns of the PP and Ciudadanos have centered around the Catalan issue, criticizing (with considerable imagination) Sánchez’s attempts at dialogue with separatists. At a rally in Barcelona earlier this month, the PP leader Pablo Casado described a potential leftist alliance of the PSOE, Podemos, and Basque and Catalan nationalist parties as an “eight-headed Hydra” made up of “separatists, coup-plotters, terrorists, communists, chavistas, Castro sympathizers.”

Ciudadanos chose a different way to convey a similar message: In the party’s campaign video, leaders of the Catalan independence movement are seen sitting around a telephone that doesn’t ring. Why not? Because unlike Sánchez, as prime minister Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera wouldn’t even try to talk to them.

Indeed, it was principally to oppose Catalan nationalism that Ciudadanos formed in Catalonia in 2005. Since its emergence in the 2015 election, when it took 13.9 percent of the vote, Ciudadanos has had more success in parliamentary terms than Podemos, partly because of an ideological flexibility that its critics deplore. Over the last few years, this flexibility has enabled Rivera’s party to attempt or to actually make pacts with both the PSOE and the PP.

Ciudadanos is now the largest single force in the Catalan Parliament—although outweighed by a pro-independence coalition government there—and forms an administration in Andalusia with the PP, propped up by Vox. It is the most moderate and progressive voice in that three-strong bloc, as it would be if the Andalusian coalition were replicated at the national level. But in that event, Rivera’s party would risk being obscured by a PP intent on rediscovering its conservative roots. In a move designed to appeal to Spain’s most traditional voters, the PP’s secretary-general criticized Sánchez’s choice of April 28 for the election, as campaigning coincided with Easter celebrations last week. The conservatives also made concessions to Vox in the areas of education, family, and culture in exchange for the party’s support in the Andalusian Parliament last December.

The PP’s shift from the center to the far-right has been intensified by Vox’s success in Andalusia last December, but it began last July, when Casado took over leadership from former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. In his first speech, Casado declared his intention to represent “everything to the right of the PSOE,” defending a return to 1985 abortion legislation, which rendered most terminations illegal, and proposing that Catalan pro-independence parties be outlawed. His recent portrayal of Sánchez as a friend of “coup plotters” and “terrorists” is also intended to reinforce the PP’s right-wing credentials, making the party a viable alternative for potential Vox voters ahead of Sunday’s election. Even if Vox doesn’t make up part of a PP-led national government, it has already fundamentally changed the way that the mainstream conservatives position themselves on the political spectrum.

A recent poll suggests that a right-wing coalition of the PP, Vox, and Ciudadanos is indeed less likely to result from the April 28 vote than an uneasy left-wing alliance. Carried out in mid-April for La Vanguardia newspaper, this survey finds that the three-right wing parties would jointly secure between 151 and 161 seats. Even the more optimistic prediction is 15 short of the number required for a parliamentary majority. The Vanguardia poll also indicates that a left-wing alliance of the PSOE and Podemos along with Basque and Catalan nationalist parties would secure enough seats between them to form a majority. But that bloc, once in power, would again suffer from ideological differences and Podemos’s implacable stubbornness.

Podemos is no longer the dynamic force it was back in 2015. It has slipped to fourth place in the opinion polls, a drop that reflects the party’s failure to capitalize on its remarkable success in 2016, when it won 21 percent of the national vote. This is partly because of infighting between the leader Pablo Iglesias and his former deputy Iñigo Errejón, who attempted to take the leadership from Iglesias in 2017. Iglesias saw off the challenge, but relations between the two never recovered. And in January this year, Errejón announced that he was moving on and running for election on an open ticket with Madrid’s mayor, Manuela Carmena, in Spain’s regional elections in May. Podemos can ill afford such uncertainty: The Vanguardia poll predicts it will win only 11.2 percent of the vote on Sunday, just 0.2 percentage points ahead of Vox.

Errejón’s departure is a heavy loss for Podemos, especially as the party’s former deputy is more pragmatic than Iglesias. He has, for example, advocated collaborating with the PSOE to appeal to a broader voter base and gain more say in Congress. It was for this reason that he was critical of Iglesias’s decision to run for office with the Spanish Communist Party ahead of the 2016 election: For Errejón, seeking mainstream appeal—perhaps even among wavering PP or Ciudadanos voters—meant playing down Podemos’s affinity with radical left groups and emphasizing its agreements with more centrist forces.

This purist stance might appeal to grassroots supporters, but it’s keeping Podemos on the outskirts of central government.

Some of this pragmatism has been heeded. Podemos teamed up with the PSOE last autumn to draft a progressive budget for 2019, although the spending plan never saw the light of day due to the difficulties of governing with the Catalan independence forces. Yet Iglesias remains opposed to the idea of forming a coalition at the national level with centrist groups such as the Socialists, even though his party has no chance of ruling Spain by itself. This purist stance might appeal to grassroots supporters, but it’s keeping Podemos on the outskirts of central government, as Errejón maintained it would.

These recurring tensions, alternating with flashes of cross-party compatibility, are the staples of modern Spanish politics. And unless any single party secures a parliamentary majority on April 28—which would be a political miracle—they’ll continue to characterize postelection negotiations just as they did in 2015 and 2016. The cycle that started more than three years ago is about to repeat itself.

Mark Nayler is a freelance journalist based in Spain. He writes on Spanish politics and culture for southern Spain's English-language newspaper, Sur in English, and for The Spectator.