24th Mar 2018

Spain's Socialists ease Rajoy's path to power

  • Mariano Rajoy is expected to win the parliament's backing on 29 October. (Photo: Pool Moncloa / Diego Crespo)

Spain’s Socialist Party has agreed not to oppose its conservative rival's latest bid to form a government, which is likely to bring an end to 10 months of political deadlock.

At a party meeting on Sunday (23 October), the Socalists backed a motion for its MPs to vote against Mariano Rajoy's Popular Party (PP) in a first confidence vote – when he needs an absolute majority – but abstain in a second, when he only needs more yes than no votes.

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  • Socialists voted on Sunday to let Rajoy form a minority government. (Photo: PSOE/flickr)

The motion said this would “unblock the exceptional institutional situation the country is suffering”.

Caretaker prime minister Rajoy lost his majority in a December general election and has failed to form a parliamentary majority since, despite gaining more seats in a repeat election in June. An attempt by Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez to form a government in March also failed.

The Socialists' vote came just a week before 31 October deadline for forming a government. If a government cannot be formed before the deadline, King Felipe VI will have to dissolve the parliament for a third general election within a year.

“I don’t want citizens thinking their vote is useless for its main mission, to form a government,” Susana Diaz, leader of the Socialists in Andalusia, told the meeting. She argued that Socialist MPs would be showing responsibility for their country by abstaining in parliament.

The king is expected to nominate Rajoy on Tuesday, allowing him to seek the parliament’s confidence from Wednesday and for two rounds of votes to be held before the end of the week.

In a clear dig against the new left-wing party Podemos, Diaz said anti-system parties didn’t mind forcing Spaniards back to the polls.

“If it was up to others, you would be repeating elections a fourth and a fifth time until it was proven that this system, the parliamentary democracy we enjoy… is no good.”

But the Socialists' decision has divided the party. Allies of Diaz helped to oust Sanchez as leader earlier this month, partly because of his veto of the PP. He ruled out talking about entering a coalition with the PP or facilitating a minority government, saying it would amount to “pardoning” corruption allegations against PP members.

'Serious mistake'

On Sunday, Socialist supporters rallied outside the party’s headquarters, chanting “No means no!”

“We’re breaking our commitment to voters,” Cesar Lueno, a close ally of Sanchez, told reporters after the vote. “Not listening to the membership has been a serious mistake.”

Podemos moved quickly to present itself as the only real alternative to the PP. “The same old elites have imposed a government,” said Inigo Errejon, the party’s political secretary. “I understand that people might feel cheated.”

Podemos is trying to replicate the triumph of ally Syriza in Greece, which has left the Social Democratic Pasok party as a residual force in the opposition. Podemos has recently suffered internal divisions but the Socialist decision gives it a chance to grab more disenchanted voters.

Like other Social Democratic parties, the Spanish Socialists have struggled in recent years to retain support. Voters began turning their back when former prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero began implementing austerity cuts in May 2009 to restore market confidence during the eurozone debt crisis.

Socialists losing support

Although corruption allegations and further public spending cuts have eaten into the PP’s support, political newcomers Podemos and liberal Ciudadanos have benefited, rather than the Socialists.

Zapatero’s successor Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba stepped down after poor European elections in 2014, but even younger leadership, headed by the telegenic 44-year-old Sanchez, failed to return the party to its previous popularity.

In the June general election, the Socialists managed to hold on to second place ahead of Unidos Podemos on 85 seats compared with 71. Some opinion polls see the divided Socialists losing further support in the event of a third election, while the PP is seen rising, a strong argument in the party for not returning to the polls.

Since Sanchez was forced out, the party is being run by a management committee, which is trying to bridge divisions before organising primaries to select a new leader.

Sunday’s vote was closely watched by the left across Europe. “That’s the end of the Spanish Socialists,” tweeted Nessa Childers, an independent Irish MEP, part of the Socialists and Democrat Group.

Some Socialists, including the Catalan Socialist Party, have said they will refuse to follow the party’s mandate to vote for Rajoy. Breaking party discipline is a rare occurrence in Spain, a country with closed party lists, where MPs can be fined or dropped down party lists as a punishment.

'More effort'

Since Rajoy has obtained the support of Ciudadanos, he would only need 11 Socialists to abstain in a second vote expected to fall on Saturday (29 October).

More worryingly for Rajoy is that the Socialists may be reluctant to support him in making spending cuts estimated of between €5.5 billion and €10 billion needed to bring Spain’s budget deficit down to 3 percent by 2018, as required by the EU.

Regional parties, which have previously backed PP economic policy, like the Catalan nationalists, are also less likely to help Rajoy after he ruled out letting the region hold a referendum on separating from Spain.

At an EU summit in Brussels on Friday, Rajoy said his minority government would reach out to rivals. “This is a legislature in which we will all have to make more effort to get on and find deals,” he said.

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