Press play to listen to this article
Spoken by artificial intelligence.
MADRID – If you thought that the political drama in Spain would end with Sunday’s national elections, think again.
The inconclusive national vote led to a divided parliament with no clear governing majority. The centre-right People’s Party secured the most votes but does not have nearly enough seats to form a government on its own or with the far-right Vox Party, its preferred coalition partner.
On Sunday evening, Conservative leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo said he would try to form a minority government and demanded that “no one should be tempted to block Spain”.
Feijóo argued that the country has always been ruled by the leader who received the most votes and insisted that the future government must be “consistent with electoral victory”.
But in parliamentary democracies like Spain, the head of government is not necessarily the person who wins the most votes in an election, but rather the one who can secure the support of the bulk of MPs – and Feijóo does not currently have the support needed to make his candidacy for prime minister viable.
Socialist leader and current Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, meanwhile, has a possible – albeit extremely complex – path to victory.
Sánchez’s Socialists and his favored partners, Yolanda Díaz’s left-wing Sumar coalition, control 153 seats in parliament. While the left-wing allies are unlikely to get the support of the 176 MPs needed to confirm Sánchez as prime minister in the new parliament’s first vote on the matter, they could make a bid in the second round, in which the candidate to lead the new government must win more yes than no votes.
But Sánchez must act quickly to prove his bid to stay in power is realistic.
A pause, then a visit to the king
After a grueling election campaign marked by ugly personal attacks, everyone needs a breather. So it’s good that the Spanish parliament will not meet again until August 17 and the MPs will be sworn in.
But as soon as Parliament meets again, Sánchez has to take a first royal hurdle.
In the days after the start of the new parliamentary session, Spain’s King Felipe VI. invite the leaders of the factions to consultations at the Zarzuela Palace and ask them who they think has the most support for forming a government.
Feijóo will make his case, insisting that as leader of the party that received the most votes, he should be nominated as the candidate for the post of next prime minister.
Although Spain’s prime minister has in fact always been the politician who got the most votes in elections, Pablo Simón, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University, said the king’s responsibility is to entrust the formation of a new government to whichever leader can demonstrate he has the necessary support to defeat the crucial investiture votes in Spain’s parliament.
“The king is careful and will follow the rules laid down in the constitution,” Simón said. “In other words, he will direct the government of the person whose candidacy is realistic.”
As such, Sánchez must ensure that when he shows up at Zarzuela Palace, he brings with him a convincing list of supporters, preferably with several other party leaders who openly express a willingness to back his candidacy.
Epic horse trading
Should Sánchez succeed and the king nominate him as the candidate for Spain’s next prime minister, the incumbent has several weeks to negotiate with potential supporters.
In 2019, Sánchez managed to form Spain’s first left-wing coalition government by forging deals with regional parties that supported his candidacy in parliament in exchange for concessions in the form of infrastructure such as new railways or hospitals.
But in these high-risk elections, voters chose to support larger parties, and smaller ones like the grassroots movement Teruel Existe — which was pivotal to Sánchez’s 2019 victory — lost their seats in parliament.
This time, Sánchez needs Basque and Catalan separatist groups like EH Bildu and the Republican Left of Catalonia to vote for his candidacy. He also needs to convince Junts – the party founded by former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont – not to vote against him.
Although Sánchez’s left-wing coalition government has tried to mend relations with the Catalan separatists and adopt a softer stance over the past four years, relations are far from ideal.
Puigdemont, who fled Spain immediately after the 2017 Catalan independence referendum, remains in self-imposed exile in Belgium. The politician, who is currently a member of the European Parliament, was recently stripped of his legal immunity by a top EU court, paving the way for his extradition to Spain.
On Sunday, Junts candidate Míriam Nogueras told the press her party “understood the result” and would “seize the opportunity”.
However, she signaled that negotiations with the Socialists would not be easy and that a positive outcome was by no means certain.
“This is an opportunity for change to restore unity,” she said. “But we will not make Pedro Sánchez president for nothing.”
What next for Sánchez and Feijóo?
If Sánchez is tasked with forming a government but does not gain the necessary support in parliament, new elections will be held in Spain.
The king is obliged to dissolve the legislature two months after the first failed investiture vote and a new vote must take place 54 days after the end of the legislature – so Spaniards would go to the polls again later this year or, more likely, in early 2024.
During this long period, Sánchez remained acting prime minister with limited powers: no new laws can be passed, except in emergencies.
But while Sánchez is on course to remain Spain’s prime minister for the foreseeable future, the future of Feijóo, leader of the Popular Party, is less clear.
When Feijóo attempted to make a speech in front of his supporters on Sunday night, the crowd drowned out the conservative politician by shouting the name of populist Madrid regional president Isabel Díaz Ayuso.
Ahead of the election, Ayuso, who is extremely popular with PP voters, hinted that her support for Feijóo’s leadership was linked to his victory in that election.
Whether Feijóo has accomplished his mission despite receiving the most votes can now be a matter of opinion.