Spanish Politicians Need to Come to Grips with Coalition Politics

The center-left and center-right can no longer govern on their own. They need to learn to compromise.

Spanish party leaders Pablo Iglesias and Pedro Sánchez speak in Madrid, February 5, 2016
Spanish party leaders Pablo Iglesias and Pedro Sánchez speak in Madrid, February 5, 2016 (PSOE)

Spanish politicians are still coming to grips with coalition politics.

Both at the national and the regional level, parties are reluctant to make compromises and blaming each other for making deals with different parties.

Adapting

The once-dominant People’s Party, which as recently as 2011 split 80 percent of the vote with the Socialists, is adapting. It has formed regional governments with the liberal Citizens, in some cases with the support of the far-right Vox.

I’m not sure this is the right choice. Vox is turning out to be an unreliable partner. Every time the other right-wing parties give it something it wants, it asks for more. But at least the People’s Party isn’t acting as if it can still govern alone.

Calculations

The Socialists, by contrast, are trying to stare down the far-left Podemos, which — not unreasonably — is demanding cabinet seats in return for supporting Pedro Sánchez as prime minister.

Podemos, led by Pablo Iglesias, previously backed Sánchez without becoming part of his government. Voters rewarded the Socialists, who went up from 23 to 29 percent in the last election when support for Podemos fell from 21 to 14.

Sánchez’ calculation is not unreasonable either. He worries that a formal coalition with the far left could scare away centrist voters. Podemos campaigned on canceling Spain’s debt, nationalizing industries and a host of other radical policies that are deeply unpopular.

But the Socialist has little choice. The Citizens, who could theoretically give him a majority, have ruled out a deal so long as Sánchez remains willing to negotiate with the ruling separatist parties in Catalonia.

I think this is a mistake. It ties the Citizens, who on climate policy, the EU and women’s rights have more in common with the Socialists than the People’s Party, to the right — even the far right. Support for the liberals went up from 13 to 16 percent in the last election, but they had hoped to overtake the People’s Party as the largest party of the right.

The Citizens need to make up their minds. If their priority is to liberalize Spain, they should enter into agreements with the Socialists. If it is prevent Catalan independence, they should make common cause with the People’s Party and Vox.

So far they are leaning toward the latter. The price of that could be losing voters in the middle, but not making a choice is worse. That causes them to lose (potential) voters to both the left and right.

Catalonia

The Catalan independence parties aren’t coping much better.

The Republican Left has eclipsed its center-right counterpart, formerly called Democratic Convergence, now Together for Catalonia, but the two parties still need each for a majority. They collaborate in the regional government, but in Barcelona province (Catalonia has four provinces) Together for Catalonia has made a deal with the Socialists — to the dismay and outrage of the Republican Left.

In the Barcelona city council, the Socialists voted with the soft-left and the party of former French prime minister Manuel Valls to defeat the republican candidate for mayor, Ernest Maragall. Pro-independence voters argued this was unfair, since Maragall had placed first in the election by 4,000 votes. But he couldn’t command a majority in the council.

Even harder to justify was the position taken by the Citizens, who had teamed up with Valls before the election. They broke with the Barcelona-born Valls when he voted for the incumbent soft-left mayor, Ada Colau, but they wouldn’t support Maragall either. What were they expecting? That, with six out of 41 seats, they could dictate terms?

Coalition politics may be new to the rest of Spain, but the Catalans have no excuse. Democratic Convergence used to govern with the People’s Party. The Republican Left has governed with the Socialists and Greens. They know how this works.

Polarization

What’s changed is the independence movement. As recently as a decade ago, fewer than one in five Catalans wanted to break away from Spain. Now it’s close to half. The other half has become more confident in its unionism. All politics is seen through the lens of the independence question.

This polarization isn’t helping anyone. The separatists don’t have a mandate to take Catalonia out of Spain. The unionists can’t ignore the wishes of half the population. Meanwhile, the regular business of government must go on. That sometimes mean teaming up with a former rival.

The alternative is to keep calling elections until your side prevails. The Republican Left and Together for Catalonia have at least avoided that by twice making deals with the separatist far left. But nationally, Spain has had three elections in the last four years and there are suggestions it may need to vote again to break the deadlock. That would be an embarrassment — and polls don’t suggest the outcome would be radically different.