Little progress has been made towards forming a government in Spain, following last month's elections. Worse, there is little indication any of the major players are willing to negotiate outside mutually incompatible positions. The December 20th poll shattered the two-party system that dominated the country for decades.
Both the governing party, the rightwing Partido Popular (PP), and its traditional rival, the centre-left Socialist Party (PSOE), fell short of absolute majorities by historic margins. Neither can easily form coalitions with the two new parties that have become major players in Spanish politics. The radical leftist Podemos and the centre-right Ciudadanos are united only by their rejection of the complacency – and corruption – that taint the two established parties.
One might expect t the PP and the PSOE would recognise that this outcome means that Spanish voters have sent them a series of messages. Voters want real reform of a blatantly clientelist political system. They want more compassionate and equitable policies after years of austerity. The widespread support for Podemos suggests another, less expected, message. Podemos advocates Spanish unity but accepts the need for an independence referendum in Catalonia. Many Spaniards now accept that only a fresh and more open-ended vision of a common Iberian home can resolve the Catalan crisis.
New thinking is needed in the Basque Country also. The continued imprisonment of Arnaldo Otegi, who persuaded the terrorist group Eta to permanently end its campaign, and the "dispersal" of hundreds of Eta prisoners, both need urgent reappraisal in a peaceful scenario.
Paradoxical though it may seem, Spaniards who fear an imminent break-up of the state can draw some comfort from Podemos’s performance in these elections. The new movement has had surprising successes in drawing both Basque and Catalan voters away from pro-independence radical nationalist parties. This suggests that a clear majority in both troubled regions want to exercise the right to decide their own future. But, given such a choice, they would probably opt to stay within a territorially reformed state.
Regrettably, neither the outgoing PP prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, nor the relatively new PSOE leader, Pedro Sánchez, appears to have heard any of the voters' messages. Instead, Rajoy demands the support of the PSOE and Ciudadanos precisely in order to prevent deep territorial reforms. Meanwhile, Sánchez, distracted by internal PSOE dissension, struggles to negotiate a broad left coalition, which will need Basque and Catalan nationalist support. But he rejects from the outset Podemos's apparently non-negotiable policy on Catalonia. The Spanish electorate deserves a better response to its choices than the megaphone diplomacy of the last two weeks.