“Just look at the right-wingers; they are thrilled beyond belief,” Gabriel Rufián, a deputy for the Catalan Left Republican party (ERC), said in front of the Spanish Parliament on the morning of July 25. The parliament was preparing to vote on the investiture of Pedro Sánchez, leader of the Socialist Party, as prime minister. “If the right’d had to negotiate a coalition, they’d have already agreed on even their bonuses,” he said, referring to the illegal kickback schemes that, in the summer of 2018, led to the collapse of Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government. “The only question we have to ask ourselves is, How much time, how many months, how many years, will all of us, the entire left, spend regretting what is happening here today?… After today, it doesn’t matter who has the best explanation” for what went wrong, he said. “The only thing that the people will see is how the left loses out once again.”
The vote hadn’t yet taken place. But by the time Rufián got to the microphone, its fate had already been sealed. The Socialists and Unidas Podemos, the left-wing, anti-austerity party led by Pablo Iglesias, had failed to reach a coalition agreement to form a government. Unlike most European countries, Spain has not had a coalition government since it returned to democracy in 1977. The last time the Socialists governed the country with a party to their left was in the 1930s.
The much-anticipated investiture vote—which, indeed, failed—came nearly 90 days after Spain’s third parliamentary elections in four years. Sánchez’s party won the general elections on April 28, gaining 123 parliamentary seats—53 short of a parliamentary majority. A coalition with Unidas Podemos (UP, which holds 42 seats) seemed to be the most obvious path toward a stable government. It could help deliver the support of smaller regional parties, not only to form the government but also to pass future legislation. And it would be capable of implementing the progressive program both parties had campaigned on: raising the minimum wage, scaling back labor reforms that drove down wages and curbed workers’ rights, mitigating the housing crisis, increasing investments in education and health care, addressing climate change, fighting for women’s and LGBTQ rights, promoting gender equality, implementing tax reform, and finding a solution to Spain’s nagging territorial crisis. Instead, we may soon see Spain’s fourth parliamentary elections in as many years. Unless a deal is reached before September 23, Spaniards will be heading to the polls again on November 10.
After months without movement, the days before the vote were feverish with activity. “The Socialists waited to negotiate until the last minute, like a bad student who thinks he can pass an exam by cramming for three days at the end of the semester,” Valencian politician Joan Baldoví said, barely disguising his anger, on the morning before the July 25 vote. “A coalition government is complicated,” he continued. “It takes time to put together—especially because we’ve never had one.” The intense negotiations in the days leading up to the vote appeared to reach a standstill over who would be the minister of labor, which was one of the three ministries Podemos had requested to direct, alongside health and science. But the struggle to reach an agreement played out until moments before the vote, when Iglesias, on the recommendation of former Socialist prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, abandoned his request for labor and instead requested control over unemployment offices and policies, powers that had historically been devolved to each region.
In addition to votes and programmatic support, what Podemos offered the PSOE was a way to draw attention away from the national question. Had the parties formed a coalition government, it is likely that Podemos would’ve been able to deliver votes from Catalonia and the Basque Country’s regional nationalist parties—some of which favor independence. In the end, three of those four parties abstained and the other voted against Sánchez.
This may very well come back to haunt Sánchez. If negotiations resume closer to the September 23 deadline, it is unlikely that Podemos will be able to deliver this mixture of left, center-left, and center-right regional parties. That’s because the Supreme Court’s decision in the trial involving over a dozen jailed Catalan leaders, who have been indicted for their role in the region’s 2017 bid for independence, is expected sometime in September or October. The verdict will almost surely push the country’s polarization to a fever pitch. It will therefore also complicate any negotiations with regional parties, whose attention will return to the national question, and enliven the three major parties on the Spanish right—the conservative Partido Popular (PP), the neoliberal Citizens party (Cs), and the radical-right party Vox—all of which oppose separatism and will look to stoke the flames of Spanish nationalism.
The PSOE ultimately rejected Podemos’s offers by invoking a need for “coherence” in the government—a notion that for the Socialists seems incompatible with the idea of sharing power. There can’t be “two governments in one,” Susana Díaz, the Socialist leader in Andalusia, said on the eve of the vote. “They asked us for [control of] the government, literally,” Carmen Calvo, the current vice president and PSOE’s chief negotiator, said indignantly after the vote. Sánchez himself repeated these tropes on the day of the vote.
But the real obstacle to a progressive coalition with Podemos may be more systemic, the journalist Guillem Martínez told us. He strongly doubts that PSOE ever wanted a coalition at all, given the Socialists’ identification with the two-party system that emerged from the country’s democratic transition following the death, in 1975, of dictator Francisco Franco—the very system Podemos has vowed to reform in the name of social justice and democratic renewal. Instead, Martínez suspects, the PSOE’s approach all along was instead to pursue what would have effectively been a single-party, minority government.
The negotiations were also complicated by a deep-seated distrust between the PSOE and Podemos that for some analysts goes back to the Socialists’ chronic allergy to any party to their left. The tension between Sánchez and Iglesias culminated on July 18, when Sánchez said in a television interview with the TV network La Sexta that the main obstacle in the negotiations was the prospect of Iglesias joining a future cabinet. The following morning, Iglesias posted a short video in which he said, “I must not be the Socialists’ excuse for there not being a leftist coalition government.” He announced he would no longer insist on a cabinet post. This extraordinary concession accelerated talks during the final week.
But Sánchez had put himself in a difficult position. While he, too, claimed to have given up a lot in the negotiations, what he gave up was not so evident, while Podemos’s sacrifices were clear for all to see. And despite Iglesias’s having followed Sánchez’s orders, the Socialists still failed to get enough votes to form a government last Thursday. In the meantime, Sánchez did little to appease the small regional parties whose support he would need were he to attempt to form a new government before the end of September.
Sánchez, who only three years ago denounced attempts from the economic and media elites to sabotage his progressive bid for his party’s leadership, now seems to have adopted the idea that any critique of how elites have warped Spanish democracy makes a politician unfit to lead the country. “I need a vice president who…is willing to affirm that [Spain] is a democratic state with rule of law and that the judicial branch is independent from the executive branch,” he said, rebuffing left-wing criticisms of judicial overreach in the prosecution of Catalan separatist politicians and party influence over the judiciary. He used the statement to explain why he would not allow Iglesias into his cabinet. Sánchez’s political nearsightedness flies in the face of polls that suggest that nearly half of Spaniards would welcome the first coalition government in recent history. In a country beset by continued economic hardship, an endless string of corruption scandals, politicization of its courts, and inability to solve a territorial crisis, many see a coalition government as the only way forward.
In reporting on the negotiations, the Socialists framed Podemos’s insistence on representation in the cabinet as a thirst for power for its own sake. Echoing criticisms he made following his failed attempt to form a government back in 2016, Sánchez chided Iglesias for focusing too much on names. He and Iglesias hadn’t really talked about their electoral programs, he said in the hours before the vote, just about who would hold the ministries. Much of the Spanish media coverage adopted this view, seeing the conflict as little more than the political theater of individual egos.
But others have called this a false binary. “Had Unidas Podemos only wanted ministerial seats, they would’ve accepted the PSOE’s offer,” Rubén Sánchez, a spokesperson for a consumer advocacy organization, tweeted. “The thing is, they want ministries with competencies that have the power to make social policy.” In this view, even the debate over how many and what kinds of ministries Podemos would be in charge of was, in fact, a debate over the implementation of policies, including, of course, being able to take credit for them. Podemos and the PSOE are, after all, electoral rivals. Also, as the political scientist Bonnie Field recently noted, “Spain’s political institutions strengthen governments, once parliament agrees on them,” since “governments have strong powers to set the agenda” and “typically can pass a bill if it simply gets more yes than no votes.”
Meanwhile, many voters and observers looked on with dismay as the Socialists and Unidas Podemos botched the negotiating process, squandering what many saw as a rare chance to install a progressive government at a time when much of Europe is being engulfed by the right. Should it come to new elections, Spain is poised to follow the continent’s right-wing populist trend. Pollsters predict a historically low turnout that will almost certainly hurt the left, as it did in 2016. The country may even see the radical-right party Vox, which entered parliament with 24 deputies in April on an ultranationalist, anti-feminist, antigay, and anti-immigrant platform, join in a right-wing government coalition with the PP and Cs. Since the local and municipal elections in May, the three parties have already found common ground in regional governments from Andalusia to Madrid.
Among voters, last week’s debacle fuels the idea that Spain’s political system, at least at the national level, is broken. “For too many people in Spain, politics has become unintelligible,” Enric Juliana, assistant editor of La Vanguardia, wrote shortly after the vote. “The thickness of the imbroglio will soon generate a greater social demand for simplification. Whoever offers a more simplified program in the next couple of months will come out winning.” That, Juliana wrote, may very well be a Spanish version of Italy’s far-right populist leader Matteo Salvini.
New elections may also further weaken Unidas Podemos, whose electoral base has been eroded by a series of internal conflicts and resignations. Earlier this year, Iglesias’s longtime friend and Podemos co-founder Íñigo Errejón even went on to found a breakaway movement. Errejón, who has limited his activity to the region of Madrid, has plans to take his new party national under the name Más País (More Country). But it also may turn out that Podemos, by failing in its bid to join a coalition, avoided a complete implosion. New research into coalition governments in Europe has found that “junior coalition partners,” meaning those that do not hold the prime ministership, go on to “suffer dramatic electoral losses” and “lose an average of 17 percent of the vote in the next election, compared to senior partners.” In fact, a growing number of voices within Podemos are critical of Iglesias’s tactic. They would prefer that Podemos stay out of the government and instead use its votes in parliament to force the Socialists to steer a progressive course on key issues.
“People always talk about the left’s critical awareness, but what the left appears to lack is self-criticism,” journalist Laura Cruz wrote in the online daily El Salto on the morning of the vote. Some of that self-criticism might be directed toward the left’s embrace of right-wing tactics. An editorial from the magazine Contexto did not mince words when indicting the Socialist Party for its actions over the past several weeks. To discredit Podemos and “win the narrative,” it argued, the Socialists deployed fake news, leaked falsified documents, and spread demonstrable lies. “If the left,” read the editorial, “is betting on the methods the far right uses to spread its propaganda in Europe and the United States, instead of defending society from polarization and lies, then the left itself will become increasingly more irrelevant.” Yayo Herrero, an influential environmental activist, extended the criticism to Podemos, which, she said, has lost sight of what constitutes a political movement: an internal culture of participation and debate. “We need forms of leadership that are collective, shared, and less masculine,” she wrote.
Following the unsuccessful vote on Thursday, King Felipe VI quickly called on the parties to return to the negotiating table. Hours later, Sánchez vowed to do so and hold another vote before the September deadline. Martínez, the journalist, has little hope for a coalition agreement between the PSOE and Podemos by September. Too much damage has been done, he said, and new elections are more likely. But, he added, before it comes to that, there may be an opening for a centrist deal between the Socialists and one of the conservative parties in the name of “stability” and “national unity”—an option long favored by the economic elites. It would be poetic justice for the right: Back in 2016, Sánchez famously renounced his parliamentary seat in protest against the Socialist Party’s decision to allow the conservatives to be voted into office. This time around, he may be pleading to his right-wing colleagues across the aisle to return the favor he never granted.