Spain is currently without a government. Despite elections taking place on the 23rd of July, Spain is waiting for the investiture of a new leader. Pedro Sanchez is leading the Spanish state as the caretaker Prime Minister (officially titled president of a caretaker government, which is “a government that has power for a short period of time until a new one is chosen”). He is the leader of the incumbent majority, the centre-left PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party) which has governed Spain since April 2019.
The 2023 general election saw the other legacy party, the centre-right PP (Partido Popular, the People’s Party) increase massively in popularity, gaining 48 seats, becoming the majority party in Spain’s lower house of parliament, the Congreso de Diputados, with a total of 136 seats. However, in order to form a government, 176 seats are needed.
Feijóo expected to acquire these remaining seats through the help of Vox, the far-right party led by Santiago Abascal, who in 2019 managed to receive 52 seats.
However, in the latest electoral cycle, Abascal’s party has decreased in popularity, with their reputation marred by an attempted no-confidence vote against Pedro Sanchez, which took place in March of 2023 and failed, achieving only 53 votes. The failure of this vote has led them to only win 33 seats in the Congreso, making a possible right-wing coalition still dependent on minority parties in order to reach the 176-seat threshold needed to govern the nation.
Feijóo, whose party has governed alongside Vox in various comunidades autonomas, is caught between a rock and a hard place. Unfortunately for Feijóo, and for progressivism, any future PP rule will and must include Vox. This, in the future, may marginalise centrist PP voters — who in 2019 had the option of voting for Ciudadanos, a now-defunct political party that stole a large section of PP’s voter base — making PP significantly weaker than in previous elections.
A possible left-wing coalition, between PSOE and Sumar, would also fail to reach 176 seats. Sumar, led by Yolanda Díaz, is a new, far-left political party, formed in April of 2023, which agglomerates various previous parties. PSOE won 122 seats in the latest election, while Sumar — whose leader is Spain’s current Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Labour and Social Economy — only managed to acquire 31 seats.
Therefore, both the left and right-wing coalitions require the intervention of smaller, regional parties in order to form a government.
A grand coalition, between PSOE and PP, may be possible, but would not occur within this electoral cycle. Feijóo’s rhetoric (as well as the rhetoric of other PP members, notably the controversial President of Madrid, Isabel Diaz Ayuso) has consisted of disavowing Sanchez’s actions as the leader of Spain, making a grand coalition all but impossible. This may, in the future, be the smartest move for both parties, as it would allow them to take the role of Ciudadanos, and cater to the centrists of Spain.
These smaller, normally regional parties — of which 7 managed to receive at least 1 seat in the Congreso in these latest elections — are described in the table below. Although a coalition may be possible, at least for the left wing, there are various issues preventing the development of such a coalition, with one seminal issue ruling over all: Carles Puigdemont and the 2017 Catalan Referendum.
|Name of Party
|# of Seats
|Catalan independence, populism, direct democracy.
|Catalan nationalism, Catalan independence, social democracy, federalism.
|Basque nationalism, Basque independence, socialism.
|Basque nationalism, centrism, centrism, christian democratism.
|Navarrism, liberal conservatism, regionalism, anti-Basque nationalism.
|Galician nationalism, social democratism, feminism.
|Canary nationalism, centrism, liberalism.
PSOE and Sumar, in order to govern, would require an additional 23 seats. While the support of EH Bildu and PNV are guaranteed (despite a strategic ambiguity taken on by their leaders), the coalition would depend on the support of Junts and ERC — two Catalan independentist parties. The creation of such a coalition is marred by ‘the Puigdemont issue’.
Carles Puiddemont is a Catalan politician from Spain, who served as the President of the comunidad autonoma of Cataluña from 2016 to 2017. On October 27, 2017, the Parliament of Cataluña passed the “Declaració d’independència de Catalunya”, or the Catalan declaration of independence. The declaration established an independent Catalan Republic, but was unenforceable under Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution.
The declaration was issued after an independence referendum held on the 1st of October, 2017, which was in and of itself declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court of Spain, and by the High Court of Justice of Cataluña. Additionally, due to irregularities during the process, nonpartisan observers invited to the referendum stated that it failed to meet the minimum international standards for such acts, further removing validity from the act.
Three days after the declaration, on October 30, 2017, Puigdemont was charged with rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds, and then fled to Belgium, after which European Arrest Warrants were issued for him and other members of his government. The German, Belgian, and Italian governments have refused to extradite Puigdemont to Spain, often citing differences in the legal definition of rebellion and sedition, as its definition must coincide in both interested states in order for a European Arrest Warrant to hold.
Puigdemont’s actions — both in Catalonia and in exile, refusing to come back to Spain while simultaneously martyrizing himself — have left a sour taste in the mouth of many Spanish people, and his legacy remains a divisive issue in Spain. Diaz, recently visited Puigdemont in Brussels, claiming to do so under her role as leader of Sumar, not as a representative of the Spanish government. Most likely, however, she actually met with him under different circumstances: in order to discuss the possibility of a coalition between PSOE, Sumar, ERC, and Junts – the party Puigdemont founded.
However, this coalition seems impossible. Junts and ERC, the two Catalan nationalist parties (which combined hold 13 seats in the Congress, and would facilitate a coalition) have sent a clear message to PSOE’s leadership: they will not support an investiture that does not guarantee amnesty for Puigdemont and other secessionist politicians and simultaneously guarantee the establishment of a constitutional, central government-sanctioned, Catalan referendum.
The socialist party has made it clear that “por este camino, no hay avance posible,” this path is impossible to follow. The socialists also abhor the notion that these separatist leaders, if amnesty were to be granted to them, should be allowed to rejoin politics—something which ERC and Junts have made clear is required in order for them to participate in the investiture of Pedro Sanchez. While this move would be legal and supported by the Spanish constitution, one of Puigdemont’s own legal advisors has affirmed that if it were to take place, “España explota”: Spain would explode.
Parallels are being drawn between this situation and previous indultos, pardons, given to members of ETA, a Basque nationalist terrorist group active from 1959 to 2018. Many of ETA’s members, despite having committed acts of terror and violence against Spain and the Spanish people, have been pardoned, even joining the political sphere of Spain. One such example is Arnaldo Otegi, who is currently the general secretary of EH Bildu, a party with six seats in the Congreso who has supported Pedro Sanchez in efforts towards investiture in the past, and is expected to support him in the coming investiture votes.
There is, however, a critical difference between these two situations. The leaders of ETA, Otegi, and others, were pardoned; they did not see amnesty, they faced the force of the law, and then, in an act of conciliation and mending of past errors, reintegrated into the Spanish political sphere. Even if only symbolic, there is a tangible difference between the two situations at hand. Sanchez is considering allowing a fugitive of the law, such as Puigdemont, who has faced no consequences for attempting to subvert the Spanish constitution and government, to return to the public sphere. Otegi’s pardon regarded the return to politics of someone who, after being tried and imprisoned for committing sedition acts, has now promised a commitment to democracy, reconciliation, and upholding the constitution. To add insult to injury, Otegi, and other members of parliament in a similar position, was not a leader of ETA, while Puigdemont was the undisputed ringleader of the attempt at Catalan independence. Puigdemont, through the past years, rather than taking back his sedition and attempting to find a democratic and constitutionally accepted way to push for the independence of Cataluña, has rather stated that he does not regret his actions, and would commit them again if he could.
The difference is night and day.
Sanchez, if he wishes to keep the support of the people, must not support the amnesty of Puigdemont. By playing with fire, he will get burnt. The Spanish people can only tolerate so much, and even if he manages to assert the amnesty, the public backlash he would receive for doing so would remove all political legitimacy from his government, necessitating a governmental change. There is no logical or political reason for Sanchez to support the demands made by ERC and Junts. Sanchez even faces opposition from members of his own party, such as Castilla-La Mancha’s President Emiliano Garía-Page, who insisted that granting such an amnesty would be “immoral.”
This message of immorality rings true. Pedro Sanchez, as the current caretaker prime minister of Spain, and as a contender for a continued premiership, should not negotiate with the safety of the Spanish state itself. Allowing Puigdemont to return to government, and allowing for a Catalan referendum, would be allowing for the dismantling of Spain. Regardless of one’s personal opinions on the possibility of an independent Cataluña, it seems evident that the Prime Minister of the country should not destabilise what they are supposed to uphold and defend. Only under the most dire of circumstances could this be considered, which these aren’t. Indeed, the only thing gained by beginning the dissolution of Spain would be political power for Sanchez, and wagering the wellbeing of the nation for personal power can not be considered legitimate. Such an action would, in all senses of the word, make Sanchez just as seditious as Puigdemont.
Sanchez should rather take a different course of action. He has until the 27th of November to form a government. If this does not occur, new elections would have to take place at some point in January of 2024, allowing for the possibility of increased support for PSOE and Sumar, and the formation of a government in early 2024 without the support of the Independentist parties.
It is clear, however, that even if Sanchez publicly announces his refusal to give in to the Independentist’s demands and sacrifices his chance to form a government in favour of new elections, public opinion will not fall in his favour. If the Spanish people are one thing, they are spiteful: they do not forgive, or forget.
It is unclear what position Sanchez will take; he is currently playing his cards close to his chest, refusing to answer questions in one direction or another. One can only hope that when he makes his choice, he has the constitution’s future — not his own — in mind.