The Left Can Form a New Government in Spain

Spain’s king has asked conservative leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo to try to form a government. Most MPs oppose him — and recent deals between the Socialists, left-wing Sumar and Catalan parties show that the broad left has every chance of staying in office.

Spanish king Felipe VI receives acting prime minister Pedro Sanchez as part of the round of consultations with political representatives before proposing a candidate for the investiture, at the Zarzuela Palace in Madrid on August 22, 2023. (Chema Moya / Pool / AFP via Getty Images)

While all of Spain was busy celebrating the national team’s epic triumph in the women’s soccer World Cup, the country’s tormented political situation was also becoming clearer. In the corridors of power, something has shifted during these heatwave-stricken mid-August weeks. This, even if the final outcome is not yet written in stone — and unexpected turns could be just around the corner.

The general election this July 23 had, against all odds, brought a defeat for the combined forces of the Right. Half of Europe breathed a sigh of relief. The conservative Partido Popular (PP) came in first place as expected, but its 137-strong group of MPs is still short of an absolute majority in the 350-member Congress, even if we add in far-right Vox’s 33 legislators. Still, the situation remains complex. Given widespread predictions of looming defeat, the incumbent prime minister Pedro Sánchez (leader of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE) may consider himself the effective political winner of July’s snap vote. Yet the 121 MPs elected for his party and the 31 for Sumar, the left-wing coalition led by Labor Minister Yolanda Díaz, remain just as far from the “magic” number of 176 seats.

In the last parliament, too, these left-wing forces governed as a minority, with the outside support of various nationalist and regionalist parties. But now, in addition to Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, 7 seats), EH Bildu (6 seats), the Partido Nacionalista Vasco (PNV, 5 seats), and the Bloque Nacionalista Galego (BNG, 1 seat), Sánchez also needs the votes of Junts per Catalunya (JxCAT, 7 seats), the independentist party led by former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont from self-exile in Belgium. And JxCAT, it should be remembered, is not only a right-wing party with intransigent separatist positions, but has consistently voted against the government for the past four years. In short, it’s clear what the solution is to the current parliamentary gridlock — but not so obvious how it can be made to happen.

Still, a distinctly positive sign was sent on August 17, as the new parliament met for the first time. Socialist candidate Francina Armengol was elected president of the new Congress, with 178 votes. She won with the support of the same forces that could, at least potentially, provide Sánchez with a governing majority: his PSOE, Sumar, and the various expressions of so-called peripheral Spain (except for the lone MP from Coalición Canaria, which backed the conservative candidate). What’s more, the broad left also secured control of the Mesa — the body that organizes parliamentary business — with five members from PSOE and Sumar as against the PP’s four, which, despite its continued alliance with Vox, did not hand the far right any places. This, too, is good news.

Catalan Demands

The agreement between the Socialists and the Catalan independence parties came at the last moment — and shows what path can be taken in coming weeks to seal a pact that would allow Sánchez’s reelection. The two Catalanist parties, ERC and JxCAT, voted for the PSOE candidate Armengol in exchange for various concessions. One was recognition of Catalan as an official language in state institutions and the European Union (it is currently a co-official language in the territories where it is spoken). Another was the opening of a parliamentary commission into Pegasus, the spyware with which several Catalan independence leaders, but also Sánchez himself, were allegedly spied upon. Another commission of inquiry concerns the August 2017 Islamist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, in which the independence movement sees the long arm of state attempts to curb Catalan separatism. Then there is the more general call to end, “through the necessary legal avenues,” the state’s “repression” of proindependence forces in connection to the events of fall 2017, when the Catalan parliament staged an unofficial independence referendum. In addition, the Socialists have agreed to lend some of their own MPs so that the Catalan-independence parties reach the threshold to form their own parliamentary group.

These conditions are obviously possible to meet, and mark a certain pragmatic turn by Puigdemont, who had until just a few weeks ago demanded a general amnesty for Catalan independence leaders facing court charges, as well as an independence referendum, though it remains constitutionally barred. The harmonious mood was confirmed by Armengol’s decision to allow MPs to address Congress in any of the state’s co-official languages — namely Catalan, Basque, and Galician — and by the Spanish foreign minister’s formal request to the European Council for the three languages to be granted official status across the continent-wide bloc. This reflects a political fact of wider significance: after a decade, the main right-wing Catalan independentist party is returning to doing politics in Madrid.

It remains to be seen whether JxCAT will continue on this path — making its votes count in exchange for political gains — or whether it will give in to pressure from the more radical and recalcitrant proindependence forces, represented by the Assemblea Nacional Catalana. Baulking at any notion of realism, these latter would prefer a right-wing government with Vox in the control room, in the interest of resuscitating a declining independence movement — according to the logic of “the worse things get, the better for our cause.” It is worth remembering that in last month’s general election the separatist parties achieved their worst result in two decades, and that the most-voted formations in Catalonia were the PSOE and Sumar, which have always defended a political solution, dialogue and détente between Barcelona and Madrid. This was aptly demonstrated by the courageous decision two years ago— condemned by a political and media right wing ever ready to take to the barricades — to pardon Catalan leaders who had received criminal convictions for the events of fall 2017.

A Chance for the Right?

So, while the path to a new broad-left government is not exactly paved already, it does seem that the signs are pointing in that direction. Still — barring any unforeseen developments — the timetable for Sánchez’s reelection as prime minister is now set to be longer than may previously have been expected.

After consultations with party leaders, this Tuesday King Felipe VI decided to hand the first chance of forming a government to the PP’s candidate, Alberto Núñez Feijóo. The palace justified this decision in terms of obeying “tradition,” yet the reality is much less clear cut. While Feijóo is certainly leader of the biggest single party in Congress, he can hardly promise that he has a majority behind him. Agreements with the right-wing regionalists of the Unión del Pueblo Navarro and Coalición Canaria, which have only a single MP each, plus the support of Vox, still make only 172 seats even notionally available to Feijóo — four short of a majority.

Other regionalist parties will not help the conservative leader. The PNV — a center-right Basque formation that has supported PP administrations in the past, but in the last parliament supported Sánchez’s government — will not join or tolerate a ruling majority that includes Santiago Abascal’s hard-line Spanish-nationalist Vox. In short, Feijóo can do no more than buy time, hoping that the PSOE leader Sánchez will fail in his own attempt to reach an agreement with the Catalan independentists and will thus face a repeat election. But Feijóo’s main concern is simply an internal issue of party management: he wants to avoid being shoehorned out of the PP leadership and replaced with Madrid regional president Isabel Díaz Ayuso, a representative of the party’s most unabashedly Trumpian wing.

Now, all eyes are on September 26, the date when Feijóo will appear before Parliament and set out his program for government. According to Spain’s constitution, in a first vote the following day, to become prime minister he would need an absolute majority of MPs — exactly what he doesn’t have. Failing that, then another two days later, on September 29, Feijóo would then face another ballot where he would only need a relative majority, i.e. more votes for than votes against. This will be difficult if not virtually impossible. If Feijóo again falls short, the king could call a second round of consultations with party leaders and appoint a new candidate for prime minister, if they can assure him that they have enough support to form a government. All indications are that it will then be Sánchez’s turn. However, the timeframe will be tight — the Constitution indicates that if no one secures a confidence vote within sixty days of the first ballot, Parliament will automatically be dissolved and early elections called. This would force a repeat election on January 14.

To Resist Is to Win

The next month will thus be crucial. While Feijóo will try to muddy the waters — backed by conservative media in Madrid who brand Sánchez a “traitor” to the nation by seeking agreements with Puigdemont — the Socialists will have to negotiate a solution with the Basque nationalists and especially the Catalan independentists. The conditions are there, the way has been opened by Armengol’s election as Congress president, and the channels of communication are functioning. We can, in short, be moderately optimistic. Not least because, as the July 23 vote showed, Spain can only be represented by a broad and pluralist progressive coalition government that also gives voice to its “peripheral” regions. In a fragmented Parliament and a highly polarized country, these latter are, much more than in the past, the decisive factor in determining the government’s stability.

That said, even if the much-hoped-for solution to this complicated puzzle is finally found, and another progressive government is formed, it would have a rocky road ahead of it: most obviously because each vote in Congress would be a battle to reassert its majority, but also because the Right has an absolute majority in the Senate and controls most of the regions, including some of the most populous ones such as Andalusia, Madrid, and Valencia. Then there are the bastions of right-wing support in the media and sections of the judiciary. As in the past, these latter could play on all means, both licit and illicit, to prevent a resolution of the judicial problems faced by Puigdemont and other independence leaders, for instance by resisting amnesties or the use of other “legal avenues.” This is, indeed, the Gordian knot that needs untying.

Since their electoral disappointment last month, there has been much talk of tensions between the PP and Vox. These were, nonetheless, quickly overcome with the agreement on an ultraconservative coalition government in Aragon this August 4. This iron axis of Spain’s right and far right, aided by a mighty media and economic machine, will not lose a second in laying siege to Sánchez and seeking to bring down a government that PP leaders call a Frankenstein’s monster. But, as Juan Negrín, president of the government of the Spanish Republic during the Civil War, put it, “resistir es vencer” — to resist is to win. Sánchez;s autobiography is titled Manual de resistencia — and it’s a manual he’ll surely need.