Being a larger economy and more central to the workings of the European Union, it was Italy that got most of the publicity last week. But Spain’s change of government was more unexpected and every bit as interesting.
It’s best understood as finally giving effect to the results of the last Spanish election, held just short of two years ago. On that occasion (like the previous one, six months earlier), no party was close to a majority and a long period of uncertainty ensued. My report at the time explains the underlying arithmetic.
The then leader of the Socialist opposition, Pedro Sánchez, refused to support the continuation in office of prime minister Mariano Rajoy (from the centre-right People’s Party), but was unable to construct a viable alternative. Three months after the election, however, the decision was taken out of Sánchez’s hands, when poor performances in two regional elections brought dissent within his party to a head.
Sánchez’s critics argued (no doubt correctly) that to force a third election would be to invite a landslide victory to the People’s Party. Amid chaotic scenes he was forced to resign, and the party’s new interim leadership pushed through a decision to abstain on the investiture of a new Rajoy government. When the vote was held, 15 Socialist MPs defied the new line and continued to vote no, together with Podemos and the regionalist parties. But Rajoy won the vote 170 to 111, and was sworn in as prime minister in a minority government, ending a 314-day period of limbo.
With the Socialists divided and impotent, the radical left Podemos became by default the main opposition force. But its moment in the sun was short-lived; economic conditions were picking up and the populist tide was going into retreat. In early 2017 Sánchez announced that he would recontest his party’s leadership, and the Socialists’ standing started to recover. By that April they were back ahead of Podemos in the opinion polls, and in May a vote of party members gave Sánchez a comfortable majority. He was duly re-installed by the party’s federal congress a year ago.
Since then, he has been biding his time. Rajoy’s popularity has been in free fall; even his hardline stance against Catalan separatism seems to have only delivered votes to the centrist party, Citizens, who are even more aggressively centralist. Finally a slush fund scandal gave the Socialists their opportunity, and last Friday an opposition motion of no confidence was carried by 11 votes, 180 to 169 – the first time Spain’s parliament has brought down a government since the end of fascism.
Rajoy promptly resigned, and Sánchez was sworn into office the following day (pointedly taking the oath on the constitution instead of a bible – he is the first avowedly atheist leader of traditionally Catholic Spain). He is expected to name his cabinet this week.
Citizens supported Rajoy on the no confidence vote, even though they had previously called for a fresh election. But the other parties all backed Sánchez: the Socialists, Podemos and the autonomists of both right and left from Catalonia, the Basque country and the Canary Islands.
Between them, those parties represent a majority, albeit a narrow one – 50.7% – from the 2016 election. Parliament has finally put that majority into effect. That’s good news for the Catalans, who finally have a new government of their own, which can now look forward to a more conciliatory approach from Madrid.
But it appears that no other parties will be joining the Socialist government, and with such a narrow base it is unlikely that Sánchez will wait for long before taking the country back to the polls.
The contrast with Italy is interesting. There, the populist movement that capitalised on public discontent was basically non-political, but in Spain it came from the far left. Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has been a troublemaker on a number of occasions, but there was never any chance that he would make common cause with the right, as the Five Star Movement in Italy has (somewhat reluctantly) done.
The other difference is that Rajoy’s People’s Party, although it has sounded the usual themes of modern right-wing politics, has remained within the mainstream; it has not given way to Trumpism in the fashion of Italy’s League.
I think that differences like this mostly come down to chance, but I can’t help wondering whether the fact that Spain’s experience of fascism is 30 years more recent than Italy’s might also have something to do with it.