The polls for this weekend’s elections in Spain have been pretty consistent. The results are likely to repeat the electoral stalemate of the last election, in December. The conservative People’s Party will be the largest, but it, and the center-right Ciudadanos, will not win enough seats to form a government. The only difference this time is that the Unidos Podemos, a coalition of the anti-establishment Podemos party and the far-left Izquierda Unida, would replace the Socialists as the second largest party in parliament. According to one poll, the combined left could come close to an absolute majority.
All of this is a nightmare for Pedro Sánchez, the youthful Socialist Party leader. He looks set to face a number of options, all of them bad for him and his party.
Sánchez will be the leader of the third party and no longer the leader of the Spanish left. He will have the power to decide who governs, but neither of his coalition options would please what is left of his supporters.
Sánchez will come under enormous pressure from the European and Spanish establishments to keep Unidos Podemos out of power.
The rest of Europe will be worried about the effect a government led by an anti-establishment movement would have on the Spanish economy and the stability of the euro.
The Spanish establishment will be more worried about keeping the dark side of Spain’s transition to democracy under wraps.
This pressure will also come from within the Socialist Party, where the old guard has not forgiven Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias for his cheap shot about Socialist icon Felipe González being spattered with quicklime (a reference to the dirty war against Basque terrorists carried out under his government).
No good options
There are two ways Sánchez could keep the far left out of power without forcing new elections: a grand coalition with Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party (presumably with the participation of the Ciudadanos as well) or abstaining to allow a People’s Party-Ciudadanos government to assume power.
Under the Spanish constitution, a candidate for prime minister must win an absolute majority on the first ballot in parliament. If he fails to do so, he can still be elected by a simple majority on the second ballot. By abstaining on the second ballot, Sánchez and his Socialist Party would allow a center-right prime minister to be elected.
Neither of these paths is particularly attractive for Sánchez. Spain is not Germany. Dislike of the People’s Party is visceral on the left. And Sánchez remembers what happened to his counterparts in Greece when they entered a government with the right to keep the far-left Syriza out of power.
A grand coalition would give Sánchez power in the short run, but it would be political suicide in the long run.
Abstaining to allow Rajoy to be elected prime minister on the second ballot might be less damaging, but it would still mark the end of Sánchez’ political career. The plans are already in place for his removal as party leader.
Against this background, Sánchez may be tempted to defy his party’s old guard and form a left-wing government which Unidos Podemos, particularly if the two parties together were close to the absolute majority.
Sánchez would become deputy prime minister and could claim that he will exert a moderating influence on the far left. But would he be comfortable serving under the pony-tailed Pablo Iglesias?
More importantly, would he be able to carry his parliamentary party with him?
Spain’s closed-list electoral system does not encourage backbench revolts, but only because the party center decides who is on the lists. Rebelling against Sánchez with the support of the party elite would carry less risk than usual.
The more likely outcome is a minority center-right government elected through the abstention of Sánchez’ Socialists.
It will be weak. It will have to negotiate with the Socialists on a case-by-case basis to make law. And it will not last long.
Rajoy would probably have to be sacrificed by his own party in order to do a deal with the other parties. And therein lies an irony. Both the man who wins on Sunday (Rajoy) and the man who will decide who governs (Sánchez) are likely to find themselves out of a job soon.