Spanish Election Gives Power to Separatists

Basque and Catalan parties win the crucial swing votes in Congress.

Pedro Sánchez
Prime Ministers António Costa of Portugal, Pedro Sánchez of Spain and Stefan Löfven of Sweden attend a meeting of European socialist party leaders in Brussels, October 15, 2020 (PES)

An election that centered on Spanish identity has handed power to parties from the two regions that most clearly define themselves against it: the Basque Country and Catalonia.

Neither Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’ left-wing bloc of the Socialist Party and Sumar (Unite), nor a combination of Alberto Núñez Feijóo’s conservative People’s Party and the far-right Vox (Voice), will have a majority in the next Congress, which convenes in August. Basque and Catalan nationalists won enough seats on Sunday to decide who becomes the next prime minister.

Sánchez holds the best cards despite placing second. He governed with the support of Basque and Catalan parties before. But they may ask for more this time than he is willing to give.

The odds are against Feijóo. He grew his party from 89 to 136 seats, and claimed victory on Sunday night, but he would need both the anti-regionalist Vox and one of the four regional parties from the Basque Country and Catalonia for a majority. That is an improbable combination. His best hope is that Sánchez will fail too and the country must hold a repeat election next year.

Culture war overshadows economy

Spain’s economy is projected to grow 2 percent this year and next, faster than the EU average. Unemployment is at its lowest since 2008. Inflation is projected to fall from 8 to 3 percent. Spaniards pay almost the lowest energy bills in Europe under a government price cap. Renewables provide 50 percent of Spain’s electricity.

Sánchez lowered income tax for most, reduced sales tax on food and fuel, raised taxes on banks and millionaires, increased the minimum wage, capped rent hikes at 3 percent per year, cut severance pay and gave contractors the same collective bargaining rights as employees.

The People’s Party (PP), spooked by the far right and realizing that Sánchez’ economic policies were more popular than its own, fought the campaign on culture-war issues. Sánchez also allowed 16 year-olds to change their gender and legalized euthanasia — with the help of Basque and Catalan nationalists. Feijóo has vowed to reverse those liberalizations.

More than any particular policy, Sánchez’ dependence on parties that want to take the Basque Country and Catalonia out of Spain infuriated nationalists in the rest of the country. EH Bildu, the left-wing Basque separatist party, didn’t help by nominating candidates who were members of the disbanded terrorist group ETA.

By leaving the door open to governing with a party that would abolish marriage equality and recriminalize abortion, Feijóo may have also scared away gay and female voters.

Sánchez’ gamble pays off

Sánchez bet he could make the election a choice between himself and the far right, and he was right.

After the PP and Vox triumphed in local elections in May, Sánchez brought the national election forward from December, ensuring they would coincide with the formation of right-wing governments in various regions and towns. The PP’s insistence that it would protect gay and women’s rights sounded less convincing when it turned out their local coalition agreements with Vox didn’t mention either. Vox played into Sánchez’ hands by banning rainbow flags and mocking feminists.

Separatists lose, but become kingmakers

Sánchez has devolved no additional powers to either the Basque Country or Catalonia. Junts (Together), Catalonia’s separatist opposition party, has criticized its more pragmatic rival, the Republican Left, for backing Sánchez despite his few concessions.

The Socialist pardoned the organizers of an unsanctioned independence referendum in 2017 and abolishing the antiquated crime of sedition for which they were convicted. He broke his promise to fund more Catalan-language media and rationalize overlapping powers between the governments in Barcelona and Madrid over health care, infrastructure and labor law.

The threat of a government with the far right was enough to turn many Republican voters around. Half switched to the Socialists, who posted their best result in Catalonia since 2008. Junts lost one seat.

It could come down to one vote

By criticizing Sánchez’ pacts, and aligning himself with a party that would outlaw separatism and abolish Basque and Catalan home rule, Feijóo has probably made it impossible for hims to govern.

The combination of PP, Vox and the Navarrese People’s Union (a PP ally) has 170 seats in the new Congress, six short of a majority. The Canarian Coalition, which governs the Atlantic islands with the PP, would add one more seat. Feijóo needs the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) to reach 176. But its leader in Congress, Aitor Esteban, has ruled supporting Feijóo if it means bringing the far right into government.

The math isn’t a lot easier for Sánchez. The left-wing EH Bildu, Galician Nationalist Bloc, Republican Left and Sumar would give him 167 seats. Even if the centrist PNV is willing to vote for him (they did last time), Sánchez would be four seats short. That means he can’t ignore Junts.

They have conditioned their support on an independence referendum Sánchez is unlikely to sanction. More realistic would be a pardon for their party leader, Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan president who fled to Belgium after the 2017 referendum to avoid arrest.

If outright support is too much to ask, Junts could abstain to give Sánchez a fighting chance. If he doesn’t win an absolute majority of 176 votes on the first ballot, he could call a second vote where a simple majority would suffice. If the Canarian Coalition votes with the right, and Junts doesn’t vote at all, Sánchez should have 172 votes in his favor and 171 against.

After the last election, in 2019, the margin was almost just as tight. The Canarian Coalition and Junts voted against Sánchez while EH Bildu and the Republican Left abstained. The result was 167 votes for Sánchez and 165 against.

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