Spain braces for Christmas election
By Sarah Morris
Spaniards are bracing themselves for a Christmas election after caretaker prime minister Mariano Rajoy failed to win parliamentary backing to form a government.
The conservative leader lost votes on Wednesday and Friday last week – the second time the parliament has rejected a leader’s bid to become prime minister since a December general election delivered a fragmented parliament.
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In March, the leader of the Socialist Party (PSOE), Pedro Sanchez, also failed to win a parliamentary majority. Spaniards voted in a repeat general election in June after a two-month deadline to form a government expired.
Rajoy’s defeat in Friday’s vote has triggered another two-month deadline for a candidate to win a majority: if no-one can do so by 31 October, king Felipe will dissolve the parliament for a third general election in just over a year.
Opinion polls suggest a third vote would deliver a similarly fragmented parliament. Turnout could be low since it would fall on 25 December, the day after Spaniards have Christmas dinner, kicking off a festive period that finishes with Epiphany on 6 January.
“Voting at Christmas would be absolutely ludicrous,” said Antonio Lopez, a pensioner having a cup of tea at a cafe in Madrid. “Both Rajoy and Sanchez should step aside. That’s the real way to solve this. We need new leaders to negotiate.”
Lopez voted in December and June for Ciudadanos (Citizens), a small centrist party that won seats in the national parliament last year for the first time. It reached deals with both the Socialists, in March, and the conservative People’s Party (PP), in August, to support both confidence bids. Lopez said he would vote for the party again if a third election is called.
Ciudadanos’ leader Albert Rivera apologised on behalf of his party for the failure to form a government in the last eight months.
“I’d like to say sorry for not having convinced these old parties to reach an agreement,” he told parliament on Friday. “I’m not ashamed of saying to our compatriots that I feel part of the failure of this house.”
Not all Ciudadanos voters are impressed with the party’s support for the PP and the Socialist premiership bids.
Ciudadanos, the fourth largest party in the parliament, lost eight seats at the June repeat election, falling to 32, as many voters switched back to the PP, the only party to increase votes and seats in June.
Ana Molina, a 34-year-old Spanish-Venezuelan, having a drink in the same cafe, says she will switch back to voting Socialist after the Ciudadanos deal with the PP. “I wanted an option in the centre,” not a vote in support of the right, she said.
The collapse of Rajoy’s bid sends the politicians back to the drawing board. Most analysts think the king will not nominate a new candidate to seek the backing of parliament until after regional elections in the Basque and Galicia regions on 25 September.
If the Basque Nationalist Party needs the support of the PP to continue running the Basque region, it could lend its five votes to the PP in the national parliament in Madrid, leaving the PP one vote short of the 176 seat absolute majority.
“Whatever happens, Rajoy will not offer up his head – he’s of the firm conviction that he won the elections and should remain prime minister,” said Sebastian Mariz, from Fipra, a political consultancy.
“If the PP doesn’t win in Galicia [a party stronghold], I don’t think they’ll seek another investiture vote. I think they’ll go to third elections.”
Mariz thinks there is a 75 percent chance of getting a government without a third election. The PP is banking on a last-minute abstention by the Socialists before the 31 October deadline.
Some Socialists have questioned the stance of their leadership to reject Rajoy since they have 85 seats, compared with the PP’s 137. An alliance with left-wing newcomers Podemos alone would leave them 20 seats short. Many Socialists distrust the radical Podemos and rule out a pact with Catalan separatist parties.
A three-way Socialist-Podemos-Ciudadanos pact would deliver a 188 seat majority but has so far looked unlikely. Podemos and Ciudadanos have in the past ruled out being part of the same government.
But on Saturday, Sanchez seemed to reach out to the two parties. “How many more reasons do the forces of change need to reach an agreement and end the failure of the Rajoy government?” he asked at a rally in Galicia.
His appeal to Podemos and Ciudadanos, which have both promised to clean up politics, came as the the caretaker government announced on Friday that it was proposing former industry minister Jose Manuel Soria for a €226,500-a-year post to represent Spain at the World Bank.
Soria resigned in April after being named in the Panama Papers for having links to an offshore company on the British island of Jersey.
Some analysts believe the chance of a repeat election has increased since last week's parliamentary debates.
“Rajoy’s harsh tone against Sanchez and his party in the investiture bid has probably reinforced the Socialist leader’s internal position and his rejection of Rajoy,” said Antonio Barroso, deputy director of research for Teneo Intelligence, a political risk consultancy.
“Part of the PSOE leadership seems to believe that a third election would dent support for Podemos and put the Socialists in a stronger position.”
As the political impasse drags on, voters are frustrated. “I’m undecided as to who I’d vote for,” said Alvaro Perez, sharing a drink with Ana Molina. “I’ll be watching out for changes, for any potential deals, but I’ll only vote again if I feel my vote is really useful.”