Local government split sends tremors through Spanish politics

Coalition partners Ciudadanos and PP fall out over vaccination and corruption scandals

A falling-out between two local government coalition partners in southern Spain has triggered several days of bitter intrigue which could end up reshaping the country's politics.

On Wednesday, the Ciudadanos party announced that it was abandoning the governing coalition in the Murcia region to support a Socialist-led no-confidence motion against its erstwhile partner, the conservative Popular Party (PP). Relations between the two parties had been deteriorating in Murcia, in part due to a series of scandals in which local politicians, many from the PP, had been jumping the queue to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

The coalition reached breaking point earlier this month, when the PP filed a lawsuit against Ciudadanos politician Mario Gómez after he asked police to investigate alleged corruption linked to local public contracts awarded by the conservatives.

“We can’t continue to be complicit with this lack of control of the vaccination process, of daily scandals, of a terrible image being given of our region which is being projected nationwide,” said Ana Martínez Vidal, of Ciudadanos, who had been part of the regional coalition government.

This split had immediate repercussions in Madrid, where on the same day the regional president, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, of the PP, announced she was calling a snap election for May 4th. Díaz Ayuso has been governing in an often uncomfortable coalition with Ciudadanos and claimed to be acting in a bid to pre-empt a Murcia-style no-confidence motion against her.

No-confidence motion

Nonetheless, the left-wing opposition filed a request for a no-confidence vote anyway. A court must now decide whether that motion will override the calling of elections.

Sensing a possible fracturing of PP-Ciudadanos coalitions elsewhere, the Socialist Party of prime minister Pedro Sánchez has also presented a no-confidence motion against the government in the Castilla y León region, although it looks unlikely to succeed.

There was a further twist on Friday, as three of Ciudadanos’s members of the Murcia regional assembly rebelled against their party, suggesting that no-confidence vote will also fail.

“I wasn’t appointed to hand the government of Murcia to Pedro Sánchez or to betray the people of Murcia due to the personal ambitions of some,” said Isabel Franco, one of the Ciudadanos rebels.

Franco’s defection followed an appeal by the PP for disgruntled Ciudadanos politicians to change parties. Ciudadanos is due to hold an emergency leadership meeting on Monday, compounding the feeling that this could be a make-or-break moment for the party.

Lurch towards centre

It arrived on the national stage as a self-styled liberal force in 2015 and has formed governing coalitions with the PP in several cities and regions since then. After a lurch to the right saw it lose most of its seats in Congress in 2019, leader Inés Arrimadas has pushed the party back towards the centre, to the irritation of many of her colleagues.

If, as appears to be the case, Ciudadanos has broken with the conservatives on a national level then the only alternative partner for the PP is the far-right Vox. Its support, via confidence-and-supply deals, had until now been key in allowing the PP and Ciudadanos to govern in Murcia, Madrid and Andalucía.

As news of events in Murcia broke, Vox's leader, Santiago Abascal, denounced the "betrayal" by Ciudadanos which he said would allow the region to "fall into the hands of corrupt socialism and communism".

It now looks as if the left will not take control of Murcia, as Abascal had feared, and Madrid’s destiny is in the hands of the courts. With Ciudadanos in crisis, the PP is hoping to capitalise and recover its status as the only force on the centre-right. But it is the far-right Vox which is now poised to become an even more prominent presence in Spanish politics.