As Spain heads for a second election in six months, its parties have failed to correctly interpret the result of the first

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Spain will have a fresh general election on June 26 after government formation negotiations following December’s hung parliament failed. Alberto López-Basaguren discusses how things got to this stage, arguing that the parties have failed to correctly interpret the implications of the December result. The new election is not in their own or the public interest and the parties could, and should, have avoided it.

On May 3 King Felipe VI approved the dissolution of the Spanish parliament, calling a fresh election for June 26. In doing so he complied with Section 99(5) of the Constitution, given the inability of the Lower House to elect a Prime Minister within two months of the first investiture vote.

The election results of December 20 situated the political forces at the entrance to a maze into which, almost without exception, they have insisted on going further and further, so far indeed that they have been unable to find the exit. We have had months of uninterrupted electoral campaigning, as if for the parties there existed no other prospect than new elections.

Only the conservative Popular Party (PP), and the social democratic Socialist Party (PSOE), could form the backbone of a government majority. The strategy of both has basically been the same: the appointment of a PM being the objective, at any price, come what may afterwards, in the hope that the conditions making this possible would fall like ripe fruit. Although each of them had in mind a different fruit.

The PP have been incapable of doing anything more than repeating ad nauseam their electoral victory, as if it were a miraculous mantra, convinced that it was the responsibility of PSOE to permit the appointment of their candidate. A difficult fruit to ripen, given the radical Socialist rejection of any relationship with the conservatives. It was the responsibility of the PP to facilitate this entente. It demanded an extraordinary political effort, proportional to the difficulty of the aim. But they opted for passivity. They failed to understand the failure expressed by their election results. They have been unable to interpret the political isolation in which they are engulfed and their responsibility in this. Nobody has more interest in a change in the political landscape; but, at the same time, nobody but the PP is more responsible for facilitating this transformation. They should have changed their leadership; they should have given clear signs of a genuine desire to regenerate the party and the institutional system; and they should have put an end to the sectarian arrogance with which they exercised their majority.

The PP has spent its time complaining about the unfair attitude of PSOE and of Ciudadanos in not recognising their election victory, incapable of recognising its blatant insufficiency. They scorned the conditions demanded by Ciudadanos (replacement of their leader and a pact for regeneration), which would have considerably improved their chances of capitalising on their position as largest minority in the House, increasing the pressure on PSOE to facilitate governability. And they have pleaded for the introduction into the parliamentary system of ‘presidentialist’ elements, as a result of which government would automatically be granted to the largest minority. To free parties of the apparently impossible task of guaranteeing a government with sufficient parliamentary support, they would introduce into the system the serious risk of extremely weak governments, incapable of governing, diluting the virtues of the parliamentary system.

PSOE, meanwhile, have sought to divert attention from their undeniable election failure with an activism that has allowed them a leading role and some hopes of forming a government denied them by the voters. Pedro Sánchez, their leader, has made the very most of the cards which he was dealt. He reached an agreement with Ciudadanos which afforded him parliamentary backing superior to that enjoyed by the PP; something which the latter did not even attempt, believing that it needed to do nothing to earn the support of Ciudadanos. Pedro Sánchez has shown the initiative lacked by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy; and it is the passivity of the latter that has magnified the activity of the former.

But parliamentary arithmetic is terribly stubborn and the agreement between PSOE and Ciudadanos was clearly insufficient. On March 4, in a second vote, the House refused to support Sánchez by 239 votes to 131, shattering the fiction in which the social democrat leader had positioned himself. The squaring of the circle he sought required Podemos to fall like a ripe fruit, in exchange for nothing, or very little. A coalition government with Podemos was impossible for PSOE. It might have been suicide for them. It would have resulted, inevitably, in the estrangement of Ciudadanos, leaving them at the mercy of Podemos, their territorial coalitions and the nationalist minorities. What would have been the prospects facing a government established upon these parliamentary bases? But, it had to be assumed that Podemos would feel that it had not travelled so far only to gift government to PSOE, without leaving their mark. And that is precisely what happened.

Both the PP and PSOE could only aspire to a weak minority government, based upon the abstention of a significant proportion of the House. That meant renouncing governability. Consciously or unconsciously, the appointment of the PM, in these conditions, could have only one aim: gain time and approach an inevitably imminent new electoral battle in presumably more favourable conditions.

For the PP it was a case of continuing the journey from a position of power. But for PSOE it represented a major surrender.

The PP plans no significant reforms, because it believes that there are no structural problems making these necessary. But PSOE argues that the political system is beset by serious problems that require major reforms, essential in order that Spain might overcome the severe crisis in which it is immersed. These are reforms requiring ‘constituent’ consensus. Parliamentary arithmetic, the qualified majorities necessary if some of these reforms are to prosper, and in any case, prudence and political sense, render indispensable the active involvement of the PP. Given the significance of the reforms, the social democrats cannot expect the simple passive acquiescence of the conservatives, blaming the latter for their failure if they do not meekly accept the reforms.

If PSOE are firm in their conviction regarding the absolute necessity of the reforms they should have accepted the challenge – along with Ciudadanos – of directly proposing them to the PP in the conversations on the formation of a government majority and a programme, obliging the conservatives to express their opinion with regard to these questions. By not doing so, PSOE run the risk of seeing their credibility weakened, by not assigning to the reforms the priority demanded by the considerable importance which they attribute to them. Putting themselves first means that the social democrats have been incapable of assimilating the election results.

For the PP it has been very easy to justify its position of immobility as a consequence of Pedro Sánchez’s refusal to speak with Mariano Rajoy. It would have been considerably more difficult to have to explain their attitude in the face of a reform programme. This was the moment to demand from the PP support for the reforms and other means of tackling the economic crisis, if indeed there exist viable, new ideas in this respect. PSOE would have assumed the initiative along a route which, almost inevitably, they will soon have to travel, unless the new elections render them dispensable. They would have obliged the PP to reveal its true intentions. If successful it would have been possible to address the reforms. In the event of failure, the PP would have been considered responsible for undermining a government with a parliamentary majority, enabling PSOE and Ciudadanos to stand for the new elections with an unblemished record of service.

It is a dark scenario that is now unfolding. It appears that little can be expected of the PP other than continued paralysis. PSOE, meanwhile, have found themselves in a cul-de-sac. They have failed to punish the immobility of the PP and the paralysis of its president. And they may fare badly in the elections. On their horizon loom, at the very least, the dangers of the effects of an increase in abstention and the likely electoral coalition between Podemos and Izquierda Unida (neo-Communist), which obtained a relatively high number of votes but only two seats. If Podemos manages to retain its electorate (in contrast to what polls are currently suggesting), this could have significant repercussions in the quotients in the D’Hondt method, opening up the possibility of them overtaking PSOE.

A fresh election is an irresponsibility which the parties should have avoided – in the public interest, but also in their own. A substantial change in the general picture seems unlikely; and nobody appears to be exempt from the risk of coming off worse. For the parties and their leaders this represents a game of Russian roulette. The fact is that some parties have not digested or have failed correctly to interpret the election results; and that the chances of survival of some political leaders increase in this game of life or death.

About the author

Alberto López-Basaguren is Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) in Bilbao.

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