Pedro Sánchez’s government has been the weakest in modern Spanish history, his Socialist Party’s 84 seats in congress reflecting the fragmented nature of the country’s politics. That was always going to make it difficult for him to govern, but the twists and turns of the ongoing Catalonia crisis were an obstacle too far for a politician known for his resilience and Sánchez’s calling of a snap election on Friday had become inevitable.
On taking office last June, Sánchez vowed to improve the frayed relationship between Madrid and the northeastern region. A unionist, he attempted to convince pro-independence Catalans that he would listen to their grievances and seek a consensual solution.
He met with Catalan president Quim Torra on two occasions, reinstated a working group between Madrid and Catalonia that had been inactive under the previous administration, and boosted investment in the region in his 2019 budget bill.
But none of that was enough to win over the secessionists, who had a much bigger demand: the negotiation of a binding, Scotland-style independence referendum. Sánchez refused, citing legal limits. “Within the bounds of the constitution I’ll do anything,” he said on Friday. “I won’t do anything that is beyond the constitution.”
With the trial beginning on Tuesday in the supreme court of 12 Catalan leaders for their role in the 2017 independence bid, the temperature was raised further this week. The Catalan independence movement claims the trial is a politicised sham that undermines Spain’s democratic credibility, while the government insists it is fair and transparent.
This week’s parliamentary debate on the budget was a chance for the Catalan independence cause to formalise its rejection of Sánchez’s approach to the territorial issue. Having helped him take office by backing a no-confidence motion against his predecessor, Mariano Rajoy, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and Catalan Democratic Party (PDeCAT) triggered the collapse of his government in Wednesday’s crunch budget vote.
But unionists in Madrid have also berated Sánchez over Catalonia, arguing that he has made too many concessions to the region's government. The hard-line leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP), Pablo Casado, has been particularly harsh, describing the prime minister as a "criminal" who has committed high treason. That attack followed the Sánchez government's attempts to find a facilitator for talks between Madrid and Catalonia. The idea of employing such a figure also unsettled some senior figures within the Socialist Party, who believed it lent too much weight to the nascent negotiations.
In such a polarised environment, the upcoming election campaign promises to be fierce and although the parties on the left would like to debate social issues, Catalonia will dominate.
Sánchez’s Socialists enter the race as the frontrunners according to polls. But even if he does score his first general election victory at the third time of asking, Sánchez could find it hard to form a new majority. His natural allies on the left, Podemos, are plagued by splits and resignations and look poised to lose seats. Another potential partner, Ciudadanos, has taken an uncompromisingly tough stance on Catalonia and has vowed not to help Sánchez govern.
It may be that a newly fragmented parliament creates the kind of political paralysis Spain saw in 2016, when elections were repeated after no party could form a government.
However, many believe a right-wing coalition is more likely, with Ciudadanos teaming up with the PP. If they fall short of a majority, the far-right Vox, which is surging in polls, could help them over the line. It’s a controversial formula that the three parties have already used in Andalucía, where they managed to unseat the Socialists recently.