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June 2, 2020

SPAIN: Sanchez’s “strange bedfellows” approach

BY Antonio Barroso

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( 5 mins)
  • The government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez will obtain a large majority in parliament on 3 June to approve the sixth and last 15-day extension of the state of emergency.
  • Absent a significant rebound in Covid-19 infections, the next signpost for the minority government will be the 2021 budget to be presented in September.
  • If Sanchez is unable to get next year’s accounts passed in parliament, the risk of early elections in early 2021 will increase significantly.

As previously explained, the pandemic has only exacerbated the existing polarization, which is explained by the ongoing realignment of Spanish politics – rather than by the country’s political culture. The fractious environment has only made it more difficult for the government to manage the lockdown exit. It has also led the PSOE-Podemos coalition to make some faux pas. For instance, it cut a deal with radical separatist Basque party Bildu to obtain their parliamentary support to approve the fifth extension of the state of emergency in exchange for repealing the 2012 labor market reform. Not only did the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) – Unidas Podemos coalition not end up needing Bildu’s support in the end (given other parties backed the decree), but the agreement led the main employers’ confederation to sever relationships with the government temporarily.

Disparate partners, aligned incentives

With the last extension of the state of emergency coming before parliament on 3 June, Sanchez has managed to reduce the uncertainty surrounding the vote this time by securing the support of Ciudadanos and even the abstention of the separatist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). The prime minister’s ability to obtain the backing of such disparate parties rests on the political incentives these organizations face.

In the case of Ciudadanos, the decision to support the government comes down to the party’s need to differentiate itself from the other two parties on the right of the political spectrum. Far-right Vox’s hard line is forcing the center-right People’s Party (PP) to toughen its stance towards the government significantly. This leaves space for Ciudadanos to reclaim a centrist approach by extracting concessions from Sanchez that resonate with its electorate, such as an economic plan for reactivating the tourism sector or a commitment to make tax returns more technologically friendly.

The same applies to the ERC. As underlined in previous pieces, the competition with the Together for Catalonia (JxCat) party for the hegemony of the secessionist movement reduces the incentives for ERC to cooperate with the central government. But Catalan regional prime minister Quim Torra (JxCat) has now decided to postpone holding the snap regional poll it had announced at the beginning of the year. With the prospects of a prompt election vanishing, ERC has opted for a pragmatic stance by obtaining relevant commitments from Sanchez in exchange for the party’s abstention in the final vote to extend the state of emergency. For instance, the government has promised it will create a mechanism to co-manage with the regions the implementation of any recovery funds coming from the EU.

Can Sanchez square the circle?

With the last extension of the state of emergency out of the way, the PSOE-Podemos coalition is unlikely to face any serious parliamentary hurdle before the autumn. To be sure, parliament will vote in the coming weeks on the basic minimum income scheme presented by the government last week. But the proposal is likely to receive a large backing, as the economic fallout from the pandemic has significantly raised the political cost of opposing such a measure for most parties.

Meanwhile, both ruling parties (especially Podemos) are unlikely to do well in the regional elections taking place in the Basque Country and Galicia on 12 July. PSOE’s and Podemos’ likely performance should be put into perspective, however. The incumbents in both regions (the Nationalist Basque Party in the Basque Country and the PP in Galicia) have dominated local politics for a while, and their management of the pandemic has only reinforced their standing. Therefore, both polls are unlikely to have a strong resonance on politics on the national level.

Absent a significant second wave of infections in the short term, the next significant signpost for the survival of the PSOE-Podemos minority coalition will probably be the 2021 budget, which the government should present by the end of September. It is too early to know whether Sanchez will be able to put together another group of “strange bedfellows” to obtain the necessary votes in parliament to pass next year’s accounts. Ciudadanos has now signaled that it is open to negotiating the budget with the government. However, agreeing on an extension of the state of alarm is not the same as negotiating a budget. Podemos will likely want to leave its mark on the proposal, which could alienate Ciudadanos, whose electorate is strongly opposed to the policies of Pablo Iglesias’ party.

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