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Spain’s Path to a New Prime Minister

Spain's Path to a New Prime Minister

Millions of citizens cast their ballots over the weekend in Spain, marking an end to five years of left-wing rule in Europe’s sixth-largest economy. Alberto Núñez Feijóo led the center-right People’s Party (PP) to victory in tightly contested snap elections, defeating Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). The elections were highly scrutinized on the continent and beyond, with many anticipating a decisive conservative triumph in line with Europe’s recent right-wing tilt. However, the PP failed to achieve an absolute majority, and Sanchez’s political career isn’t over yet, with arduous coalition negotiations on the horizon. As uncertainty and deadlock consume the country, Spain’s political drama is set to continue.

Before analyzing Sunday’s results and what lies ahead, a closer examination of Spain’s fractured political landscape sheds light on the current situation. Since the end of the Franco regime in 1975, two main parties have dominated the Spanish legislature, the center-left social democratic PSOE, and the center-right Christian-democratic PP. However, the political landscape fragmented during the 2015-16 general elections and the rise of the far-left populist party Podemos. With neither party able to secure an absolute majority, this shift bolstered the influence of minor parties, who leverage their positions as potential coalition partners to gain concessions and impact future policy decisions.

One such party that gained prominence is Vox, a far-right populist group predicated on Spanish nationalism and associated with anti-immigration postures. In the 2019 elections, Vox won 52 seats, fostering a concern that any future PP-led government would require a coalition with the party.

Since becoming Prime Minister in June 2018, Mr. Sánchez pushed his party’s (PSOE) progressive agenda in a coalition with several center and far-left parties. His ascent to power reflected a decline in support for the scandal-ridden PP at the time, specifically the Gürtel case and subsequent motion of no confidence that ousted the conservative government. Despite Mr. Sánchez’s relatively effective governance and solid economic record, the PP has gradually improved its image and rebuilt support. Led by Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the PP trounced the PSOE in May’s regional and municipal elections, taking control in nine of the twelve jurisdictions that voted. In response to his party’s lackluster performance, Sánchez called for snap elections in a significant gamble, aiming to replicate his success in 2019 and outmaneuver Feijóo before the PP could capitalize on its momentum.

In another example of the polarization engulfing the West, Sunday was the culmination of a nasty campaign season characterized by mudslinging and personal attacks. While Sánchez’s socialists added two additional seats from 2019, 122 in total, the PP increased their seat tally from 89 to 136. In the lower chamber of Spain’s parliament (Congress of Deputies), which has 350 seats, a party needs at least 176 seats to form a government. As neither the PP nor PSOE comes close to this number, Sánchez and Feijóo need support from minor parties to reach the threshold.

Traditionally, the leader of the party with the most seats, the PP, in this case, becomes Prime Minister. However, the populist Vox party, considered the PP’s likely coalition partner, suffered a shocking setback. Vox lost half its seats on Sunday, reduced to 33 from the previous 52 gained in the 2019 elections. As the PP and Vox together lack the votes required to form a government, Sánchez’s political career has a new lease of life

In accordance with the Spanish Constitution, Feijóo and Sánchez will convene with King Felipe VI in the forthcoming weeks to present their cases. Subsequently, the king will propose the candidate for Prime Minister whom he believes has the most parliamentary support. Feijóo will argue that the next Prime Minster should come from the party with the most seats, as is the historical precedent. On the other hand, Sánchez must convince the King that he has sufficient support from minor parties, ideally with commitments from their leaders. However, because several parties in his 2019 coalition lost their legislative seats, Sánchez needs to strategize a new alliance. This entails intense negotiations with the far-left Sumar and pro-independence Catalan and Basque parties, who will demand concessions in return. As stated by the party leader of Together for Catalonia, “ We will not make Pedro Sánchez president in exchange for nothing.”

Once the King decides, the chosen candidate undergoes a parliamentary vote, which requires an absolute majority of 176 votes for approval. Spain will likely hold a fresh election if the candidate falls short of the threshold. After a failed investiture vote, the constitution obliges the king to dissolve the legislature within two months, with a new election mandated 54 days after its dissolution. Consequently, Sánchez would act as caretaker Prime Minister with limited legislative powers during this period.

As the leaders navigate uncertainty, Spain might not have its next Prime Minister until 2024. The dysfunction comes as Spain assumes the EU’s rotating presidency, and the forthcoming outcomes will have implications for the country’s political trajectory and the broader European landscape. However, Vox’s disappointing performance is a setback for right-wing populism in Europe, following recent victories in Italy and Germany. Regardless, Spain cannot afford a period of prolonged political turbulence as the country continues to grapple with the aftermath of the European debt crisis and pandemic-related downturn. With comparatively lower living standards than most Western European nations, timely action and a cohesive approach are crucial if Spain hopes to rebuild its economy and ensure a brighter future for its citizens.