Spain's leftwing parties locked in a game of 'chicken'

Socialists have raised the stakes by threatening Podemos with new elections if they block Pedro Sánchez's bid to remain president

Socialists' Pedro Sánchez and Podemos' Pablo Iglesias at a meeting on June 11, 2019 (PSOE)
Socialists' Pedro Sánchez and Podemos' Pablo Iglesias at a meeting on June 11, 2019 (PSOE) / ACN

ACN | Barcelona

June 27, 2019 05:39 PM

Spain's Socialist party (PSOE) may have won the April 28 general election, but going about actually forming a viable government is proving to be equally challenging.

The Socialists were the election's clear victors, winning 123 seats in congress, but that left them short of the 176 needed for a majority in the Spanish parliament's lower house.

That forces acting-president and PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez to reach agreements with other parties, but while there are a number of options, none of them are straightforward.

The option on the table now is a deal with the Podemos party (which won 42 seats) but the two leftwing parties are locked in a game of 'chicken' with neither side willing to back down.

With the vote to appoint a new government due in July, the Socialists have started to raise the stakes to force Podemos' hand and ensure that Sánchez continues in power.

So, what's the sticking point?

Although Podemos has been supporting the Socialists since Sánchez became president in June last year, it now wants a bigger role as a partner in a leftwing coalition government.

Yet, PSOE is determined to govern Spain alone and is only willing to offer Podemos some lesser administrative positions in exchange for its support in the congress.

On Thursday, Sánchez increased the pressure on Podemos by threatening a new election if it refuses to cooperate, "even though we are the last ones who want a repeat."

PSOE spokeswoman, Adriana Lastra, joined in by warning that "politics is not 'Game of Thrones'" and she echoed the threat of a snap election, with Podemos being held to blame.

Can the Socialists risk a return to the ballot box? 

While not ideal, the Socialists think Podemos has more to lose in a new election, after dropping 29 seats in April, and everything suggests they would pick up more seats.

PSOE has some margin should an attempt to appoint a new government in July fail, with another chance to try after summer, before a new election is automatically triggered.

What's more, the Socialists have time on their side as the centre-right Ciudadanos party (Cs) has seen its position undermined in recent days by key defections of top party members.

Center-right? Don't PSOE want a leftwing government?

It's true that Lastra said this week that as a leftwing party Podemos is its "preferred partner" but PSOE has already appealed to Cs not to oppose Sánchez's election as president.

Yet, that was before Cs suffered the defections over its willingness to do deals with the far-right Vox party that is damaging its image both at home and abroad.

Podemos is aware of this and this week accused PSOE of being willing to come to an agreement with "the right in order to make [Sánchez's] investiture possible."

The Socialists reacted by throwing the charge back and asking Podemos if it is willing to block the swearing in of "a socialist president" and take the side of parties on the right.

What about nationalist parties? They voted for Sánchez last year.

While parties such as the Catalan pro-independence Esquerra party (ERC) would be willing to help make Sánchez president, the Socialists dread the price they would have to pay.

ERC, which increased its seats to 15, has said it will vote for Sánchez, but its support comes with the condition that the PSOE leader discuss a self-determination referendum.

Yet the Socialists have ruled that out, especially in the election campaign when the rightwing parties accused them of colluding with separatists bent on breaking up Spain.

In any case, even with the votes of Catalan and Basque nationalist parties, PSOE still needs Podemos' votes. That means, for now, each leftwing party must wait to see who blinks first.