Spain's acting Primer Minister and candidate of Popular Party Mariano Rajoy, waves to his supporters as he celebrates the results of the party during the national elections in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, June 26, 2016. Spain's repeat election on Sunday failed to clarify the political future of the European Union's fifth-largest economy, with the main parties placing roughly the same as in last December's ballot, which brought six months of stalemate. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)

Delicate politics of Spain: Rajoy’s minority government has to brace for storm

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On Sunday 30th October, Mariano Rajoy was officially reinstated as Prime Minister of Spain. This happened after more than three-hundred days of political deadlock during which no party was able to form a coalition government. The threat of a third general election loomed ever larger on the horizon.

This state of play ended with a massive internal crisis within the leading opposition party, the PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, or Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party). Its chief bureaucrat, Secretary-General Pedro Sánchez, was removed from his post. The party leadership subsequently voted  to unblock the opposition Partido Popular’s (PP) efforts to reinstate Rajoy as Prime Minister and form a new government. The road to reach this point has been long and complicated. While there is no longer a threat of the political deadlock of the past months continuing, future is still uncertain for all the major parties and, perhaps, for Spain as a whole.

PSOE: Divided, we fall

The crisis arose after the deadlock following the second general election, Pedro Sánchez made clear that he would not support Mariano Rajoy’s bid to be reinstated as Prime Minister and make this the official party line. And yet, despite his insistence, pressure mounted and continued mount as time wore on. But Sánchez faced increasing pressure as the party was unable to come to an agreement with either Unidos Podemos (United We Can) or Ciudadanos (Citizens). These are the two most important ‘new’ parties on the Spanish political scene. Hence, a growing number of members of the party leadership, including ex-president Felipe González, advocated a tacit support to a minority government led by PP.

Breakdown of the Spain's 2016 general elections results show the deep fragmentation of the country's political scene. © BBC
Breakdown of the Spain’s 2016 general elections results show the deep fragmentation of the country’s political scene. © BBC

Sánchez remained resolute in his opposition and said he would never support a PP government headed by Rajoy. But as internal divisions in the PSOE became more and more visible, on 29th September seventeen members of the party’s executive committee resigned their from posts in protest against Sánchez. On 2nd October, just three days later, Sánchez’s resignation followed with the space open for the party’s withdrawing of its blocking of a Rajoy government.  The PSOE’s Catalan branch, PSC (Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya, or Catalan Socialist Party) broke ranks and voted ‘No’ to the PP government in open defiance of the party leadership. PSOE thus stands internally fractured and its militant supporters are saying they feel betrayed by the party’s decision to allow the PP to govern.

A fractured Spanish Congress

Amid the dissension and fracturing of the PSOE, the Spain’s legislative branch, the Congress of Deputies, is facing a unique scenario not yet encountered in the country’s democratic history (post-1976): a minority government with three major opposition parties rallied against it.

At this moment, the Congress is split between the ruling PP, PSOE, Unidos Podemos and Ciudadanos. For policies and proposals to go through Congress, a majority of deputies (176 out of 350) must vote in favour. For the previous Rajoy government this was not a problem. His landslide victory of 2011 gave him an absolute majority in Congress. But now the PP no longer enjoys this advantage. Both Ciudadanos and PSOE that they will not make the enactment of new policies and proposals easy. So while Rajoy was again able to become Prime Minister, keeping this post may be a task that may prove difficult.

Rajoy and his party will have to find a way of negotiating and working with the various parties opposing them. While the divisions within the Spanish left are notable, they still have a common enemy in the PP. And challenges are significant: maintaining the economic recovery, answering growing calls for Catalan independence, and general political uncertainty in the EU after Brexit and Trump’s unexpected ascendency to the White House. No wonder that Mariano Rajoy’s tone is measured and conciliatory and he focuses on gaining trust and supporting cooperation with the Congress. He could well have little other choice.

Business as usual, or an already doomed enterprise?

Spain’s economic recovery would, at the first glance, seem to be the simplest obstacle to overcome. As the PP frequently points out, the country’s unemployment levels have been steadily shrinking and the economic growth has been relatively steady over the last two years. Compared to the country’s situation in 2011, when the full impact of the Housing Crisis was still being felt, there has been a noticeable improvement. But as other commentators have pointed out, the stability is fragile. Spain’s economy remains relatively weak, with many young workers and professionals still choosing to look for better paid work in other European countries such as Germany. While unemployment decreased, the new jobs are not secure contracts. There is an increase in part-time contracts, a situation that makes many unhappy. All in all, it therefore remains to be seen if the  improvements are a sign of continued growth, or if this is just a case of temporary good fortune.

Meanwhile, the question of Catalan independence is looming ever-larger on the political landscape. The reinvigorated pro-independence administration in Barcelona is calling for a referendum in September 2017 and calls on Rajoy to negotiate on its terms. It is unclear what course the PP and Prime Minister will choose to take. The Spanish government was severely criticized by pro-independence factions and the opposition parties for its inflexibility and a refusal to discuss Catalan matters. Rajoy has made clear that he wishes to reach an agreement with the Catalan Parliament, but what form that agreement will take (if any) is anyone’s guess.

Finally, it is Rajoy and his successors will have to deal with the impact of a post-Brexit EU on Spain. With a few notable exceptions, the result of Britain’s EU referendum was taken negatively by Spanish citizens and politicians alike. It is being said it will bring more negative consequences than positive ones, and there is a particular worry for the possible financial and economic repercussions. That being said, some have expressed a hope or even a desire that the void left by Britain could lead to a greater importance for Spain on the European stage. But this is a wish that not been answered by any active effort from the Spanish Government apart from efforts to attract potential investors and companies from the UK.

Donald Trump's ascendancy to the White House adds an additional measure of uncertainty to already uncertain European politics. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the White House adds an additional measure of uncertainty to already uncertain European politics. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Rajoy’s remaining in power for another four years itself remains without a firm guarantee. There is a high possibility that the difficulties in trying to run a minority government may well result in early elections once again throwing Spain into muddied waters of political uncertainty.

Last but not least, there is the result of the US presidential election. To say that Donald Trump was not the preferred candidate in Spain would be to make an understatement. On previous occasions, Trump expressed support for Brexit, but he might also shift the US foreign policy towards a more isolationist, protectionist course. Furthermore, the US President-elect made controversial statements about immigration from Central and South America, regions where Spain is a major business and financial player. These developments considered, the post-Brexit Europe may not be the only big change in politics facing Rajoy.

Indeed, the future in Spain is uncertain. For now, all that can be done is to wait and see the outcome.

Studied journalism for four years at the University of Stirling, in Scotland before completing a one-year Master’s degree in Edinburgh. Before then, my father’s career in the oil industry meant that my family and I lived in a number of different countries on four-year postings, including Nigeria, Holland, Oman, and Malaysia, before finally moving back to Spain. After completing my university studies in 2011, I moved back to Spain and began my current ob of working as an English teacher in Madrid. I write articles for the European Strategist in my free time and continue to be passionate about film, art and history.

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