Spain’s already complicated electoral landscape just got a lot more complex.
On Saturday, the count of the 233,688 ballots deposited by Spaniards living abroad — which are tallied five days after the in-person vote is held — led to the redistribution of seats in the Spanish parliament. As a result, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Party lost one of the spots it was allocated in Madrid, which will now go to the center-right Popular Party.
The Popular Party is now set to have 137 MPs in the next legislature; together with the far-right Vox party’s 33 MPs and the single MP belonging to the affiliated Navarrese People’s Union (UPN), the right-wing bloc is set to control at least 171 seats — the same number as Sánchez and his preferred partners. Should the Canarian Coalition revise its stated position, which is against backing any government that includes Vox, the conservative bloc could add another seat to its tally.
Those numbers do not improve conservative leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo’s chances of becoming prime minister. Even with an additional seat under Popular Party control, he still does not have enough support to overcome the crucial simple majority vote that a candidate must win in parliament in order to form a government.
But with the technical tie created by the reallocation of seats, Prime Minister Sánchez’s already narrow path to victory has become much more precarious, making the possibility of new elections in Spain more likely.
Prior to the loss of the seat in Madrid, Sánchez’s options for remaining Spain’s head of government involved persuading nationalist and separatist MPs to back a left-wing coalition government formed by his Socialist Party and the left-wing Sumar group. The combined forces of those parties and the 153 Socialist and Sumar MPs would have enabled Sánchez to count on 172 favorable votes, slightly more than the 170 the right-wing bloc was projected to control. As long as he convinced the Catalan separatist Junts party to abstain, Sánchez would have had more yeas than nays and been able to form a new government.
But now, with only 171 votes in its favor, the left-wing bloc will be facing at least an equal number of right-wing MPs capable of rejecting Sánchez’s bid to remain Spain’s prime minister. Getting Junts to abstain is no longer enough — Sánchez will need one or potentially two of the separatist party’s MPs to vote in his favor.
A hard circle to square
If getting Junts to abstain was already unlikely, getting the party to explicitly back the Socialist candidate seems virtually unthinkable right now.
Since 2017 the party’s founder, former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, has been pursued by the Spain’s judiciary for his role in the Catalan independence referendum. As a member of the European Parliament, Puigdemont has been able to sidestep Madrid’s efforts to extradite him from Belgium, where he lives in self-imposed exile. But in June a top EU court stripped him of his immunity and just days ago Spanish prosecutors called for a new warrant to be issued for his arrest.
Earlier this week Junts said that it would only negotiate with Sánchez if he agrees to declare a blanket amnesty for everyone involved in the 2017 referendum and commits to holding a Catalan independence vote.
“The party that needs our support will have to be the one to make the effort,” said incumbent Junts MP Míriam Nogueras. “These negotiations need to be held from one nation to another … Things are not going to be as they have always been.”
Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister María Jesús Montero was quick to reject both demands, saying on Tuesday that the Socialist Party could only negotiate “within the margins of legality set out within the Spanish constitution.”
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Holding new national elections would almost certainly hurt separatist parties. With the exception of Basque group EH Bildu, all of them lost seats in last Sunday’s vote, and they’re likely to lose even more support if they force electors to go back to the polls in December or January.
On Saturday, Raquel Sans, spokesperson for the Republican Left of Catalonia party, admitted that her group had begun to hold discreet talks with Junts with the goal of forging “strategic unity” among Catalan separatists and avoiding repeat elections that “are not in the interest of the public.”
The tie between the two blocs may allow conservative leader Feijóo to press Spain’s King Felipe VI to name him as his candidate to be the next prime minister when parliament is reconvened next month.
Although there is no chance that Feijóo will be able to win the required support from fellow MPs, a failed bid in parliament will allow him to momentarily quiet the dissenters in his ranks who have been calling for him to step down in the aftermath of last Sunday’s result, in which the Popular Party won the most votes in the election but failed to secure the seats needed to form a government.
There is still the possibility, however, that enough party leaders will tell the king that they back Sánchez’s bid and that he has a viable path to form a coalition government. While the now-caretaker prime minister is keeping a low-profile this week, Socialist Party representatives are said to be hard at work, holding informal chats with partners with the objective of stitching up that support in the coming weeks.
Regardless of whether the candidate is Feijóo or Sánchez, the moment one of them fails their first investiture vote, a two-month deadline will begin counting down, at the end of which the Spanish constitution dictates that the king must dissolve parliament and call new elections. That new vote must be held 54 days after the legislature concludes, so if no deal is struck in the coming months, Spaniards would go to the polls again at the end of this year or, more likely, at the beginning of 2024.