Pilar Márquez doesn’t usually take much of an interest in her country’s politics, but recently she has not been able to avoid the subject. Nearly six weeks after an inconclusive general election, a new government has still not been formed and it’s starting to bother her.
“There’s no stability right now and given the situation we’re in, we need stability,” says Márquez (51), who sells lottery tickets near Madrid’s Las Ventas bullring. “We need a government that is at least reasonably stable.”
Stability though is sorely lacking in Spain's new political landscape. None of the four major parties – the Popular Party (PP) of acting prime minister Mariano Rajoy, the Socialists, the anti-austerity Podemos and the liberal Ciudadanos – has enough seats to govern alone.
The arrival of Podemos and Ciudadanos as new forces was billed as the beginning of a new era of consensus and pact-making, but so far, there is little evidence of either. Instead, there is political limbo.
“They are making pacts, but only to decide who is in charge of what, rather than to improve the country,” says Márquez, in reference to agreements that the PP, the Socialists and Ciudadanos have made over the distribution of the parliamentary speaker’s post and those of his deputies. Even those appointments have been contentious, with Podemos complaining that the deals were carried out behind the backs of voters.
Meanwhile, on the more urgent issue of forming a government, progress is slow. Last Friday, Rajoy rejected King Felipe’s invitation to try to form a government, insisting he did not yet have the support to win a parliamentary confidence vote. Rajoy says his withdrawal is not permanent, but the unprecedented move has raised speculation that his political career is effectively over.
The same day, Podemos's Pablo Iglesias seized the initiative by proposing the formation of a leftist coalition with the Socialists, with that party's leader, Pedro Sánchez, to be prime minister under the arrangement.
Despite misgivings over how it was unveiled, Sánchez and his party are considering that proposal, while the king has embarked on a second round of contacts with political leaders.
In the meantime, Pilar Márquez is not the only voter who is losing patience. A poll by Metroscopia showed that 61 per cent of Spaniards want their parties to reach an agreement, thus avoiding the need to hold new elections.
Some see the failure to reach consensus as a national trait, rather than a one-off deadlock. “Spaniards are so individualistic that it’s hard for us to agree on anything,” says Luis Garrido (89), a pensioner. “If you hear two Spaniards in the street or in a bar having a discussion, they’ll both defend their point of view as if it were a matter of life or death.”
Born in 1926, Garrido remembers many of the upheavals of Spain’s 20th-century history: the short-lived second republic of the 1930s, the ensuing civil war and dictatorship and then the transition to democracy of the late 1970s, which is now revered as a period of statesmanship and cross-party pacts.
But Garrido, who voted for Podemos, believes such accords are more difficult to reach today, because politicians are more entrenched in their views. “Our votes have meant nothing,” he says. “I’d like them to agree once and for all, form a government and govern for the next four years.”
At the moment, the Socialist-Podemos coalition is the only concrete proposal on the table. However, it would require the support of other parties and agreement on how to deal with Catalonia’s bid for independence, the thorniest issue in Spanish politics.
Podemos wants a to see a Scotland-style referendum on the issue, which is anathema for the Socialists, who instead propose a reform of the country’s regional government system.
However Spaniards’ view of the stalemate is not altogether straightforward. While most seem to be hoping for an end to the current vacuum, there is also suspicion of the possible solutions.
One poll showed that while well more than half of voters believed the forming of governing agreements reflected “maturity and responsibility”, more than a third felt it was actually a sign of “opportunism and unfaithfulness to their own ideas”.
Another Metroscopia statistic showed that 58 per cent of voters deemed a potential Socialist-Podemos governing agreement as “bad”.
With the country still recovering from its worst economic crisis of recent decades, many Spaniards fret that the ongoing limbo will hurt them directly.
Alejandro Fernández (35), the owner of a delicatessen in central Madrid, says his sales have dipped over the few weeks purely because of the political uncertainty. "People are unsure and the [economic] progress that we'd been making has been halted," he says. "Sales have dropped because the election result wasn't clear. If I'm not sure which direction the country is heading, what am I going to do? "I'll spend the absolute minimum and save the rest – that's what people are doing."