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4 September 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 6:39am

Letter from Madrid: Spain remains ungovernable

Four months after the general election and parliament is still in deadlock.

By Tobias Buck

It was a moment of pure bliss for Pedro Sánchez and Spain’s Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). Facing jubilant supporters in Madrid on the night of the 28 April general election, the prime minister of Spain offered a clenched-fist salute and a beaming smile: “We have made it happen,” he declared, standing in front of a giant poster showing his youthful face. “The PSOE has won the election, and with that the future has won and the past
has lost.”

The PSOE indeed won the election, securing 29 per cent of the vote and the largest number of seats in parliament by far. At the time, it seemed as though Sánchez had obtained a clear mandate to lead the next government. Today, four months and a string of tortured negotiations later, the country finds itself in gridlock again.

Looking out across Europe, it is hard to escape the conclusion that politics is becoming increasingly dysfunctional in a growing number of states – even if the symptoms and causes vary from one country to the next. In the case of Spain, the dysfunction lies in a rare combination of political fragmentation and political division that has rendered Europe’s fifth-largest economy all but ungovernable.

Spain’s parliament today is home to a bewildering array of parties that are too small to rule but too large to be ignored, from the far-left Podemos party to Vox on the far right, and from conservative Basque nationalists to left-wing Catalan separatists. Sánchez has tried for four solid months to put together a combination of parties that would vote him into office (he currently serves as a caretaker prime minister). So far, his efforts have not met with success.

Now Sánchez finds himself running out of time: he has already presented his bid for the premiership to parliament twice. According to the Spanish constitution, he has only one more chance, in September, to win the support of the Cortes. If he fails, Spain will hold yet another general election, on 10 November. It would be the fourth in less than four years and confirmation, if any were needed, that the country’s political system is in dire straits.

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The prospect of yet another ballot has already unleashed a torrent of editorials in the Spanish press asking a question that vexes Spaniards and foreigners alike: why do Spanish parties find it so hard to form coalitions? Fragmentation, after all, is a political phenomenon that can be observed across Europe. The once unassailable position of catch-all parties on the right and left has been broken in most countries with a system of proportional representation.

Yet while those such as Germany and the Netherlands have found ways to deal with the splintering, by forming more or less smoothly functioning coalition governments, Spain has struggled. Since December 2015, the country has been ruled only by minority governments and caretaker governments, which have been forced to beg and scrape for a majority in parliament for every new bit of legislation.

Spain’s specific problem, of course, is not fragmentation, nor is it the polarised nature of its politics. It is the combination of the two. Spain has the fragmented political system of Germany and the Netherlands, and the divisive political culture of Britain and the US. It is a combination, moreover, that is relatively new. For much of Spain’s modern history, the deep gulf between left and right had little impact on governability. As long as the PSOE and the conservative People’s Party took turns winning big majorities, their inability to
co-operate made no difference.

That reluctance to cross the political divide, however, seems to have been absorbed by many of the newcomers. Ciudadanos, a party that started out as a centrist liberal movement opposed to Catalan independence, has moved to the right in recent years. Ahead of the 28 April election, its leader formally ruled out any coalition with Sánchez’s Socialists – much to the disappointment of progressive liberals hoping for a reformist centre-left government.

The anti-establishment Podemos party and the Socialists may look like natural partners, but the past weeks have shown that striking a formal coalition deal – or even a less formal agreement to back the creation of a minority government – is hard work. Podemos has made clear that it will only consider a formal coalition deal with the Socialists, and that it wants a number of senior ministerial portfolios. Those demands have been rebuffed by the Socialists, most recently with an explicit reference to the “mistrust” between the two parties.

Part of that reluctance is explained by tactical considerations, but – as with the gulf between left and right – culture and history also play a role. Spaniards tend to get annoyed when outsiders harp on about the Civil War and the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, which lasted until his death in 1975. But it is hard to overlook the present-day legacy of Spain’s bloody 20th century: a deep sectarianism that turns rivals into enemies and compromise into betrayal. Listen to the speeches in parliament, read the insults on social media: fascist; terrorist; traitor. They will not pass. Not one inch. To resist is to win.

That tendency has been exacerbated, moreover, by the recent Catalan campaign for independence, which has stoked nationalist passions both in the region and in the rest of the country – and made political compromise even harder. As Sánchez knows only too well, involving the Catalan separatists in any coalition-building exercise antagonises conservative MPs. Yet ignoring the Catalans altogether makes it even harder to reach a majority, especially for a leader on the left.

Such is the political landscape confronting Spain’s prime minister, and the country at large. Sánchez may yet succeed in cobbling together an alliance to vote him into office. On 3 September he unveiled hundreds of policies in the hope of persuading Podemos to back him in forming a government under a “shared progressive programme”. Stable government and forceful political leadership in Madrid, however, are not on the horizon.

Tobias Buck is the Financial Times’s Berlin correspondent. His book on Spain’s crisis decade, “After The Fall”, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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