Spain faces weeks of coalition horse-trading after Socialist win

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez celebrating the Socialist Party victory in Spain on Sunday 28 April.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez celebrating the Socialist Party victory in Spain on Sunday 28 April. REUTERS/Sergio Perez

Spain faces weeks of coalition talks after Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialists scored big but failed to gain a majority in a snap election that split the right-wing bloc and let ultra nationalists into parliament.Time, though, is on their side.


With the country set to return to the polls on 26 May for regional, local and European Parliament elections, and Spain's three rightist parties unable to form a coalition even if they wanted to, Sanchez will go slowly, and a government is unlikely before June.

"We must wait and see what will happen in the municipal elections... in many regions and of course in the European Parliament," Socialist party president Cristina Narbona told Spanish radio. "There is no hurry... we are still campaigning," she added.

However, financial markets were concerned about a new period of instability in Spain, and the country's benchmark share index was the worst performer among leading European indices.

Europe scrutiny

The Socialists came first in Sunday's snap poll, winning 123 seats out of 350, or close to 29 percent of the vote -- short of an absolute majority but an improvement on the 85 seats they secured in the last election in 2016.

Their nearest rivals, the main opposition conservative Popular Party (PP), bagged just 66 seats compared to 137 in 2016, its worst showing in over two decades.

Conservative votes were split among two other parties, the centre-right Ciudadanos and ultra-nationalist Vox, which won just over 10 percent of the vote in a country that has had no far-right party to speak of since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

The three rightist parties together have 147 seats, far from the 176-seat majority needed to govern. The election was much commented in Europe, where the rise of far-right and/or populist movements has caused concern.

"The predominance of progressive forces in Spain and the collapse of the right-wing PP is a message of hope," Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras tweeted.
"Let's not rush into predicting the dominance of the right in Europe."

Italy's hardline Interior Minister Mateo Salvini thought otherwise, noting Vox had gone from "0 to 24 seats," and congratulating its leader Santiago Abascal, as did French far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Minority government?

Sanchez, who has never been elected before, coming to power in June after ousting PP prime minister Mariano Rajoy in a no-confidence vote, has several options to govern.

He could try to rule on his own as he did during the 10 months that he was in power with the backing of far-left Podemos and smaller regional groupings.

"We will try," Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo promised on Monday. The Socialists could even try to forego the support of Catalan separatists, now that it has more seats than before.

All Sanchez would need is for Catalan separatist lawmakers to abstain in the second round of an investiture vote when only a simple majority is needed.

'Public danger'

Sanchez could also try to form a coalition with Podemos and the more moderate of Catalonia's two separatist parties, ERC, which together would provide a majority in parliament.

But the separatists have proven unreliable allies. Sanchez was forced to call the election after they joined the PP and Ciudadanos in opposing his 2019 budget.

His reliance on separatists also earned him accusations from right-wing parties of being a "traitor," for trying to engage with them to try to ease tensions over Catalonia's failed secession bid in 2017.

A message that fell flat as Spaniards flocked to vote, with turnout close to 76 percent, around 10 percentage points higher than in 2016.

"The Spaniards wanted to vote and they did so massively," wrote veteran journalist Lucia Mendez in the conservative daily El Mundo. "They didn't buy the story that presented Pedro Sanchez as a traitor capable of selling Spain to the separatists."

Alliance with liberals?

Sanchez could also try to cosy up to the centre-right Ciudadanos, which won 57 seats. Together, they would form an absolute majority but voters from both parties would likely frown on such a move.

"With Rivera no!" Socialist supporters chanted outside the party's headquarters on Sunday night as a beaming Sanchez delivered his victory speech.

The feeling is mutual in Ciudadanos, whose leader Albert Rivera built his campaign on disparaging Sanchez, criticising his attempts to negotiate with Catalan separatists.

Senior Ciudadanos leader Ines Arrimadas told Spanish radio on Monday her party could not ally with Sanchez, calling him a "public danger, someone capable of anything" to stay in power.

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