Here’s How to Finally Solve Spain’s Governmental Standstill

A coalition between Pedro Sánchez’s Socialists and Albert Rivera’s Ciudadanos could prevent a fourth election in as many years—but voters are unlikely to buy it.

Pedro Sánchez, leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), holds a meeting with the leader of Ciudadanos, Albert Rivera, at La Moncloa Palace in Madrid on May 7.
Pedro Sánchez, leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), holds a meeting with the leader of Ciudadanos, Albert Rivera, at La Moncloa Palace in Madrid on May 7. GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

In 1913, Winston Churchill—at that time the political head of the British Navy—said of the Conservatives and Liberals, “in both parties there are fools at one end and crackpots at the other, but the great body in the middle is sound and wise.” With slight modifications, Churchill’s ideal government is precisely what Spain would benefit from today. But rather than a Conservative-Liberal partnership, which would comprise Pablo Casado’s People’s Party (PP) and Albert Rivera’s centrist newcomers Ciudadanos, meaning Citizens, this type of coalition would see Ciudadanos join with Pedro Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), which won the general election on April 28 but fell short of a parliamentary majority.

The PSOE leader must form some kind of coalition to begin governing again. A partnership with Rivera’s liberal, reformist party would have one key advantage over any other coalition: It would possess 180 seats, four more than the 176 required for a majority, meaning that Sánchez would not need the votes of Catalan separatist parties to pass legislation. His dependence on these parties caused him no end of trouble during his first term as prime minister and ultimately brought it to an abrupt end when his proposed budget was blocked by Catalan nationalist parties. Just as importantly, a PSOE-Ciudadanos coalition could also prevent the ascension of Vox—a new far-right party that won 10 percent of the vote in April—to central government.

But Ciudadanos has its own internal problems to deal with first. Last December, it teamed up with the conservative PP to rule in Andalusia, a southern region of Spain that had been Socialist territory for decades. The arrangement angered Ciudadanos’ top ranks, as Vox lends crucial support to this right-wing Andalusian coalition. Ciudadanos’ economics spokesman Toni Roldán, Member of the European Parliament Javier Nart, and the party’s chief in Asturias, Juan Vázquez, all quit over this lurch to the right. Resigning at the end of June, Roldán called for a union at the national level with Sánchez’s Socialists, asking Rivera: “How many European countries can only dream of having a strong, sensible, reformist, and pro-European majority in the center?” Rivera should listen to what leading Ciudadanos figures are telling him. To come to power in Madrid, the party needs to pull to the center, not drift into the extreme-right territory occupied by Vox and, increasingly, by the PP, which saw its most recent election results decimated in a failed attempt to co-opt Vox’s base.

Indeed, the PP has been steadily retreating from the center-right over the last year or so, partly in response to Vox leader Santiago Abascal’s withering description of it as “the little, cowardly right.” Casado, who was the party’s vice president of communications under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, has spoken out in favor of tighter border controls, aggressive tax cuts, and the imposition of Madrid-based rule over Catalonia—a tactic that his predecessor also used after the Catalan independence referendum of October 2017 in an attempt to shore up national support. Ciudadanos should be looking to fill the gap that Casado’s conservatives have left in the political center on issues of immigration and economic policy, rather than doing deals with a fringe party that opposes abortion and wants gender violence laws repealed.

Both the Socialists and Ciudadanos are traditionally pro-European Union.

Ciudadanos and the PSOE, by contrast, would make good coalition partners. Both are committed to fighting corruption and, unlike the leftist Unidas Podemos coalition, which also presents itself as reformist in this sense, both have tried to do something about it. In 2016, following the inconclusive election of December 2015, Ciudadanos lent its support to Rajoy’s PP, but only on the condition that the PP leader sign up to a six-point anti-corruption plan. And it was the PSOE’s Sánchez who called for and won a vote of no confidence in Rajoy last June, thus removing the veteran conservative lawmaker from office after a number of corruption scandals involving his party.

Both the Socialists and Ciudadanos are traditionally pro-European Union, as Roldán pointed out in his resignation speech. In a bid to increase Spain’s influence in Brussels, since becoming prime minister in June 2018, Sánchez installed two EU heavyweights in his cabinet: Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, formerly president of the European Parliament, and Economy Minister Nadia Calviño, a former budget chief at the European Commission. The PSOE also performed well in the European elections at the end of May, after which Sánchez declared his intention to “drive the European project” post-Brexit. Meanwhile, Rivera’s Ciudadanos is part of Renew Europe, the group formed for this year’s European Parliament elections as a fusion of Emmanuel Macron’s centrist En Marche! with the former Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. Renew Europe favors closer integration within the EU, something that Sánchez also backs. A national partnership between the Socialists and Ciudadanos, then, would help support the “strong, sensible, reformist, and pro-European majority” in Spain that Roldán called for.

Finally, a PSOE-Ciudadanos partnership would allow a Spanish government to effectively circumvent the divisive issue of Catalan independence, which has stymied legislative progress for the past few administrations. During Sánchez’s previous government, pro-independence Catalan parties said that their support for the Socialists’ 2019 budget was dependent upon Sánchez legitimizing—in some unspecified manner—their ongoing push for a breakaway Catalan Republic. But despite his largely symbolic calls for dialogue with separatists, Sánchez considers himself bound by the Spanish Constitution, according to which a Catalan breakaway is illegal. Simultaneous reliance upon and opposition to Catalan nationalists put the PSOE leader in an impossible position, and the budget fracas eventually triggered April’s general election.

A PSOE-Ciudadanos partnership would allow a Spanish government to effectively circumvent the divisive issue of Catalan independence.

For his part, Rivera has established himself as one of the Catalan independence movement’s most committed adversaries, staying loyal to one of his party’s core tenets. Ciudadanos was founded in Barcelona in 2006 to oppose what its original manifesto called a “rhetoric of hatred promulgated by official Catalan government media against everything ‘Spanish.’” This polarizing distinction between Catalan and Spanish identities still defines the Catalan debate, the pro-independence side of which is now led by Quim Torra, the current president of Catalonia’s government, who has called Spaniards opposed to secession “beasts in human form.” If Ciudadanos and the PSOE teamed up at the national level, neither would be in the position of having to simultaneously oppose and seek the support of these groups.

So far in the postelection negotiations, both the PSOE and Ciudadanos have refused to discuss the idea of a joint, centrist majority. Rivera argues that Sánchez has been unforgivably lenient toward Catalan separatists in trying to strike up a dialogue (even though he, too, is determined to prevent secession), while the PSOE leader has vowed to his grassroots supporters that he’ll keep the right out of office. But their inflexibility will cost them. A succession of weak coalitions resulting in three elections over four years have demonstrated that success in Spain’s current political environment requires the ability to compromise.

Despite the current hesitancy of both Sánchez and Rivera, a PSOE-Ciudadanos coalition is not merely wishful thinking: In fact, such a partnership nearly occurred just over three years ago. In February 2016, two months after the general election that splintered Spanish politics as never before, both parties signed a cross-party deal that they hoped would lead to a Sánchez-led government. But back then, the Socialists and Ciudadanos had just 130 seats between them, and their pact was opposed by the Podemos party, which refused to back an administration partly made up of a center-right force.

Although it never got off the ground, this attempted deal showed that, in principle, Rivera’s and Sánchez’s parties can work together. In fact, it’s Ciudadanos’ ideological flexibility that its critics deplore and that has seen the party indirectly supported by Vox in Andalusia via its partnership with the PP. To assuage Ciudadanos supporters who are disappointed with that arrangement, Rivera has repeatedly ruled out teaming up with Vox at the national level—which only makes his refusal to join with Sánchez more baffling. A pact with the Socialists could help repair the reputational and internal damage Ciudadanos has suffered from being too accommodating of the far-right and would enable it to reclaim its liberal, centrist values—although more right-wing members and voters would oppose a pact with the left.

However much sense it might make in theory, a PSOE-Ciudadanos coalition is unlikely to become reality before the investiture votes are held early next week. The Socialists would alienate their grassroots supporters by joining with a party that has worked with the PP—their historical archrival—and far-right newcomer Vox on any level. Ciudadanos supporters, meanwhile, fear that Rivera’s firm opposition to the Catalan independence movement would be diluted by a partnership with Sánchez, who favors a dialogue-based approach to the issue.

Even if the Socialists and Unidas Podemos resolved their disagreements, they would still be 11 seats short of a majority in Congress.

Instead of looking to Rivera, Sánchez has turned to Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos, to try to form the next Spanish government, but their talks stalled yet again over the weekend as Sánchez confirmed that he believes the process has broken down. Sánchez is refusing to offer Unidas Podemos members full cabinet positions in the new administration, which may cause Iglesias to vote against the acting prime minister at the upcoming investiture vote. But even if the Socialists and Unidas Podemos resolved their disagreements, they would still be 11 seats short of a majority in Congress, meaning Sánchez would once again have to depend on Catalan and Basque nationalist parties for extra support.

A PSOE-Ciudadanos partnership would not only end the country’s grinding political deadlock, but it would also constitute a reformist government free of the limits imposed by Catalan separatists. And as a consequence, Spain’s extreme right could be prevented from taking national power. It’s time for Rivera and Sánchez to put aside their differences and bring their two parties together in a Churchillian grand coalition.

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.

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