The Irish Times view on the Spanish election result: A complex calculus to power

For Sánchez, winning the election may come to seem like the easy bit

Spain’s acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is congratulated before a party meeting a day after Spain’s general election, at PSOE headquarters in Madrid. Photograph: Juan Medina/Reuters

Spain’s acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is congratulated before a party meeting a day after Spain’s general election, at PSOE headquarters in Madrid. Photograph: Juan Medina/Reuters

 

No Spanish general election campaign since the transition to democracy has been quite so rancorous, and none has produced so many reversals of fortune, as the one that concluded last Sunday with a qualified victory for the outgoing prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, and his Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE).

Sánchez can claim credit for rebuilding a party that seemed close to terminal decline only a few years ago. He has boosted his representation from 85 to 123 seats, putting the PSOE dozens of seats ahead of every other party.

He has delivered a humiliating defeat to the PSOE’s long-term opponents, the conservative Partido Popular (PP). Discredited by inertia and corruption under its previous leader, Mariano Rajoy, its shrill new candidate, Pablo Casado, garnered just 66 seats, its worst result ever.

Nevertheless, Sánchez still needs another 43 votes, or strategic abstentions, to be re-elected as prime minister, and here the political calculus becomes very complex.

If Spanish politics were in a less turbulent state, it could be much simpler. The relatively new centre-right party, Ciudadanos, performed strongly, winning 57 seats. On paper, this party shares some values with the PSOE, and the parties combined would enjoy a comfortable overall majority. However, the issue of the Catalan independence movement has conditioned Spanish politics for the last two years. It has led to the dramatic emergence of an unabashedly far-right party, Vox, which took 24 seats, fragmenting the vote right of centre.

And Ciudadanos, along with the PP, seemed to fear being outshouted by Vox’s nationalist rhetoric. So Ciudadanos ruled out, a priori, any agreement with Sánchez, labelling him a “traitor” because his previous minority government had needed some support from Catalan nationalists. Sánchez’s other main option is to seek the support of Podemos, the radical group that once aspired to overtake the PSOE on the left. It now appears willing to support Sánchez, especially if he were to offer a full coalition arrangement.

Supporters of the Spanish far-right Vox party follow the official results on election night in Madrid. Photograph: Oscar del Pozo
Supporters of the Spanish far-right Vox party follow the official results on election night in Madrid. Photograph: Oscar del Pozo

But Podemos has only 42 seats, so the PSOE leader would almost certainly have to seek the support or abstention of radical Basque, and possibly Catalan, parties.

For Sánchez, winning the election may come to seem like the easy bit. He now faces the huge challenge of finding enough support from other parties to form a government, without giving ammunition to his right-wing critics by making rash concessions to Catalan nationalists.

More importantly, if he survives into the medium term, he faces the much bigger challenge of shifting Spanish political culture away from the drift to the hard right that this election has revealed.

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