Elected by a majority of just two votes in the Spanish parliament this week, Spain’s new socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is set to lead the country’s first coalition government since the 1930s. While breaking the ingrained cycle of two-party rule historically maintained by Sánchez’s Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the Popular Party (PP) is certainly a feat, Sánchez may well see his coalition scuppered by internal fractures that are clear from the outset.
In an unorthodox attempt to combat the political instability that has plagued Spain for the last four years, Sánchez forewent negotiations with two of the country’s historically predominant parties, centre-right Ciudadanos and the conservative PP. Instead, the new Prime Minister opted for forming a controversial alliance with far left Podemos, simultaneously negotiating controversial abstentions from Catalan and Basque separatists to narrowly win the investiture vote.
The new government has outlined optimistic plans for a coalition Sánchez intends to be “emphatically progressive,” implementing sweeping changes across economic, environmental, legal and social policy.
The PSOE-Podemos coalition has agreed to raise taxes, particularly targeting financial bodies, companies in the hydrocarbon sector and higher income earners. The coalition has also announced plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve 100% renewable electricity generation by 2050. In terms of education, Sánchez’s government has outlined measures to end segregation in schools according to students’ origins, as well as to end subsidisation with public funds for single-sex schools. Other proposed reforms cover the law on euthanasia, stronger anti-corruption legislation and a comprehensive re-evaluation of the national pension system.
Yet the future enactment of any of these measures currently hangs in the balance: the new coalition is rife with conflicting political agendas and is potentially compromised from the start.
Podemos leader Iglesias – Sánchez’s new coalition partner – has already taken umbrage at the appointment of a fourth vice president tasked with environmental policy, Teresa Ribera. Ribera was a late addition to the vice presidential ring, joining Iglesias himself, Carmen Calvo for judicial relations and Nadia Calviño for the economy and digital transformation. This fourth appointment significantly mitigates Iglesias’ influence at the vice presidential level, creating a potential stumbling block for the Sánchez-Iglesias collaboration so vital to the new coalition.
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Sánchez has also gambled with the most contentious issue in recent Spanish politics in order to secure his narrow victory. The new coalition leader gained the separatist ERC’s investiture abstention in exchange for guaranteed discussion of the issue of Catalan independence. Defending his negotiations with the ERC in the face of multi-party criticism, Sánchez told his opposition that “nobody has the right to monopolise patriotism.”
Sánchez will first attend discussions regarding the future of Catalonia within two weeks, but the PP has already announced that it will block any potential reform to the autonomous status of the region. The coalition’s narrow majority already poses difficulties in terms of passing future legislation; any stalling of these promised talks on Catalan independence will only foment a problematic reluctance to collaborate from the ERC.
High-tension vitriol from the new government’s opposition is also flying: PP president for Seville, Virginia Pérez, has accused the PSOE of having “misled, betrayed and conned” citizens by supporting the formation of “a government with separatists.”
Recent political history provides the backdrop for this attack on the new coalition: the issue of Catalan separatism has generated political upheaval in Spain since the 2017 referendum, which was deemed unconstitutional by the previous national government. For many Spaniards, Sánchez’s decision to collaborate with EH-Bildu Basque separatists will also touch painfully on memories of ETA terrorist activity – the extreme Basque separatist group was active from 1959 to 2018 and carried out multiple attacks with civilian victims.
Adding to the slipshod feel of proceedings, the new government’s beginnings have been characterised by haste. Sánchez and the PSOE accelerated the investiture process, fearful that the Supreme Court’s decision not to allow jailed Catalan separatist Oriol Junqueras to assume his role as an MEP would affect the ERC’s key abstention. In another hasty move, a full list of ministerial appointments is scheduled for announcement this Sunday, just five days after Sánchez’s investiture.
The appointments already released suggest a major overhaul is afoot in the new government. The PSOE’s María Luisa Carcedo will no longer serve as Minister for Health; similarly, José Guirao will step down as Minister for Culture, as will Dolores Delgado as Minster for Justice.
Sánchez may have made an historic move towards changing the Spanish political scene, but his coalition is built on shaky foundations. The new government’s obvious internal instabilities, compounded by its high-speed approach to investiture and key ministerial appointments, generate anything but a sense of burgeoning political stability for Spain.