As long as Spain’s mainstream right would rather do a deal with the far right than the center-left, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’ Socialists are the most reasonable choice in the country’s general election on Sunday.
Sánchez’ only possible partners are the far-left Podemos and regionalists from the Basque Country, the Canary Islands, Catalonia and Valencia. Even if, as the polls predict, the Socialists expand their plurality in Congress, the next coalition government could be unwieldy.
Podemos will require concessions and its platform is full of unwise proposals, from abolishing spy agencies to nationalizing energy companies to withdrawing from international trade deals.
If the regionalists end up as kingmakers, they can be expected to leverage their position to extract more money from Madrid. The two largest parties in Catalonia insist they will only back Sánchez if he comes out in favor of a legal independence referendum. Sánchez insists he won’t.
But those complications are preferable to the alternative: a hard-right government that would need the Franco apologists in Vox for its majority and exacerbate the separatist crisis in Catalonia by once again suspending self-government in this part of Spain.
The conservative People’s Party and liberal Ciudadanos (“Citizens”) have been trying to outflank each other and Vox (“Voice”) in a bid for nationalist voters. The only thing they have accomplished is legitimizing the far right, something Spain had luckily gone without.
Polls give Vox 10 to 12 percent support. The People’s Party is at 18-21 percent and the Citizens are at 14-15. The Socialists are clearly in the lead with up to 30 percent support. Podemos (“We Can”) is at 12-13.
Spain’s electoral system makes it difficult to project how percentages will translate into seats. Rural constituencies have more power, which has historically benefited the right. But three parties now split the right-wing vote, which could help the Socialists so long as they remain in the lead.
If the three right-wing parties do win a majority between them, a pact is almost inevitable. The People’s Party and Citizens have ruled out forming a coalition with Sánchez, whom they call a “traitor” for offering talks with the Catalans on more autonomy. Vox already supports a right-wing government in Andalusia, where it won seats in the regional parliament for the first time in December.
Threading the needle
The mainstream right has been blinded by its fear of Catalan secession. Sánchez has ruled out Catalan independence; he has ruled out an independence referendum; he even supported the suspension of Catalan home rule after the 2017 referendum, which went ahead despite a ban from the Constitutional Court.
But he also recognizes that the status quo is unsustainable. Catalan parties that want to leave Spain have won election after election. Polls show the population is split down the middle. The only possible way out is to appeal to the center. Most Catalans would be satisfied with more autonomy. Few are happy with the way things are.
Sánchez has been trying to thread that needle, knowing that any concessions to the Catalans will cause outrage in conservative Spain.
The right-wing approach — refusing negotiations and punishing the Catalans if they take unilateral action — only makes it more, not less, likely that the region will break away. It was the refusal of the previous center-right government to negotiate about fiscal autonomy, when it forced Catalonia to cut public spending at the same time, that caused support for independence to skyrocket.
The People’s Party and the Citizens have refused to learn this lesson. They have chosen to pander to the far right and besmirch problem-solvers in the center. We side with the problem-solvers, which in Spain today are the Socialists.