Spanish Liberals U-Turn on Deal with Socialists — Again

They now say they would be willing to give Pedro Sánchez a second term.

Spanish party leaders Pedro Sánchez and Albert Rivera sign a coalition agreement in Madrid, February 24, 2016
Spanish party leaders Pedro Sánchez and Albert Rivera sign a coalition agreement in Madrid, February 24, 2016 (PSOE)

Spain’s liberal Citizens party has changed its mind about a deal with the center-left Socialists — again.

They now say they would be willing to abstain in an investiture vote to allow the Socialists’ Pedro Sánchez a second term as prime minister.

If they had done that a month ago, Spain wouldn’t have needed to go to elections again in November.

The Citizens still rule out a formal coalition with the Socialists, but not with the conservative People’s Party. Which suggests their return to the center is purely tactical.

Back and forth

The Citizens tried to form a coalition government with the Socialists in 2016, but the two didn’t have a majority at the time.

Citizens leader Albert Rivera subsequently turned against his Socialist Party counterpart when Sánchez toppled a People’s Party minority government with the support of Catalan nationalists.

Sánchez also signaled a willingness to negotiate more autonomy for the region, where nearly one in two voters wish to break away from Spain. Rivera called this a betrayal and aligned himself with the People’s Party and the far-right Vox.

The Citizens started as a Catalan party, but they take a hard line against the independence movement in the region.

Dichotomy

Rivera told supporters in Madrid on Saturday, “We were born to overcome the dichotomy between the reds and the blues.”

He forgot that last time. Voters didn’t like it.

For much of 2018, the Citizens polled north of 25 percent support. After Rivera made his anti-Catalan pact with the Spanish right, support for his party fell to 16 percent in the April election. Now they barely poll in the double digits. Center-right voters are returning to the People’s Party. Moderates prefer the Socialists.

Choice

I’ve argued before that the choice the Citizens need to make is not where to position themselves on the electoral spectrum but rather if their priority is to liberalize Spain or fight the Catalan independence movement.

So far, it seems to be the latter and that justifies a pact with the People’s Party and Vox, which both call for suspending Catalonia’s self-government so long as the separatists keep winning elections there.

If it’s the former, the Citizens should go into coalition with the Socialists.

On Saturday, Rivera listed the reforms he wants to enact in the next Congress:

  • Better outcomes in education and health care.
  • Reducing rural depopulation.
  • Eliminating politicians’ immunity from prosecution.
  • Lowering taxes for families.
  • Ending “privileges” for some regions of Spain, which probably refers to the Basque Country collecting its own taxes.

Except on the last point, the Socialists are the better allies to get these policies through.

They also want to spend more on education and health care. They tried to get rid of parliamentary immunity in 2018, when the Citizens voted against it because they didn’t want to upset their new friends on the right. The Socialists want higher taxes on the wealthy, but it’s not hard to imagine a deal where that could be combined with tax relief for the middle class.