Socialists Fail in First Bid to End Spain's Political Impasse

  • Parliament must choose a premier by May 2 to avoid new ballot
  • Socialist leader gets second crack at confidence vote Friday

Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez failed in his first attempt to form a government in Spain, losing a confidence vote in the Parliament in Madrid.

Acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party formed a blocking majority with the anti-austerity group Podemos to stop Sanchez taking office Wednesday. Lawmakers voted 219 to 130 against Sanchez’s plan with one deputy abstaining. The Socialist leader will face a second vote on Friday.

Cheered on by his People’s Party lawmakers, Rajoy unleashed a barrage of personal and political attacks against Sanchez during the debate, saying he should recognize the PP’s right to govern because it won the most seats in the December election. Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias said his party couldn’t join an alliance with the pro-market group Ciudadanos and called on Sanchez to lead a progressive coalition instead.

“The progressive government that we have proposed would have enough support,” Iglesias told reporters as he left the chamber, pledging to renew talks with the Socialists after Friday’s vote. The parliament has two months to choose a prime minister before fresh elections are triggered.

The bad blood between Spain’s two biggest parties boiled over after Sanchez asked parliament to help him oust Rajoy. The rivals had clashed bitterly during the election campaign, with Sanchez telling the PP leader he wasn’t fit to be prime minister because of the corruption allegations roiling his party. On Wednesday, Rajoy mocked his rival’s efforts to displace him.

“You’ve wasted everyone’s time,” Rajoy said. “This is a comedy. Your candidacy is a farce.”

“Rajoy has gone for a bridge-burning speech,” Vincenzo Scarpetta, a policy analyst at Open Europe research institute in London, said on Twitter. “Looks like he’s already in election campaign mode.”

New Chapter

Spain’s political class is struggling to adapt to its new reality after the country’s two-party system was swept away by the fallout from the economic crisis. Ten weeks after an inconclusive election result, Sanchez has added the support of 40 lawmakers from the pro-market group Ciudadanos to the 90 Socialists, but he’s still far short of a governing majority.

The country’s old divisions emerged on Wednesday with Iglesias reminding Rajoy of his party’s historic links to the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, while Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos appealed to the chamber not to let the rancor of the Civil War cloud their judgment.

“There won’t be winners and losers,” Rivera said. “We are all going to have to give up on some of our demands. We need dialogue. No one has a majority.”

Playing to the Crowd

Sanchez needed the support of a majority to take office at the first try. On Friday a plurality will suffice. The Socialist leader is betting his attempts to find a way out of the impasse will win him credit with voters and put pressure on the PP and Podemos to drop their opposition further down the line.

“He is focusing on the idea that all the positive points of his program can be implemented from the first day,” said Pablo Simon, a political science professor at Carlos III University in Madrid. “He is trying to pin the blame on those blocking the formation of the government for acting against the public interest.”

Sanchez and Rivera signed an agreement last week that could form the basis of a governing coalition, should they manage to gain the backing of other political forces. In addition to Podemos, the Socialists are also seeking support from the Basque Nationalist Party, the United Left and a party representing the Canary Islands, according to Antonio Hernando, who leads the Socialists’ parliamentary group, last week.

Policy Plans

Iglesias said that deal was a sign that Sanchez’s real goal is to recruit the support of the PP rather than lead a progressive government, and goaded the Socialist leader for failing to impose his will on his party hierarchy.

“They’ve prohibited you from governing with us,” Iglesias said. “Don’t try to fool us with a pact that doesn’t provide solutions to this country’s problems.”

Sanchez said he wanted to help the economic recovery reach more Spaniards, re-establishing welfare rights and collective bargaining powers that Rajoy eliminated during the crisis. He aims to reduce the number of work contracts, clamp down on the abuse of temporary contracts and increase the cost of laying off workers.

He said a Socialist-led government would renegotiate Spain’s deficit reduction pace with European Union officials in Brussels, targeting a shortfall of 1 percent in 2019. To achieve that, he said he’d broaden the tax base while promoting equal pay and increasing the welfare entitlements of parents.

“This can only be described as a threat to the general interests of the Spanish people,” Rajoy said.

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