OPN 190926 Pedro Sanchez-1569498856608
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York City, September 24, 2019 Image Credit: Reuters

English is a funny language, and when there’s a sense that things are the same as before, we say there’s a sense of “déjà vu” — a French phrase — about it all. For the Spanish, there’s a real sense of déjà vu about their politics right now, except they’d refer to it as “ya visto” — literally “already seen”.

So yes, the situation Socialist Party leader and acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez finds himself in right is all too familiar. The Spanish parliament is deadlocked, Sanchez can’t get enough support to form a stable government with any prospect of lasting, and Spaniards are heading to the polls for their fourth general election in as many years.

Voters will head to the polls on November 10, barely seven months after casting ballots on April 28. Despite months of negotiations and back room manoeuvring, Sanchez and his senior partymen have been unable to reach a deal with its most likely governing partner, the left-win Podemos. Sanchez has also been unable to forge any kind of a deal or support arrangement with the conservative Popular Party on the centre-right, nor with Ciudadanos — the Citizens party.

King Felipe VI has held a series of talks with all political parties in recent weeks in an effort to reach a deal, but even his royal intercession failed to break the deadlock.

Between 2015 and 2016, Spaniards were in a similar position, with then Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy needing two elections before he could form a government — one that was eventually toppled by Sanchez with the support of Basque nationalist deputies.

Catalan independence

Rajoy’s term in office was dominated by the issue of Catalan independence, with the separatists holding an illegal referendum almost two years ago. The ramifications of that vote, which was declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court, are still being felt as Rajoy cracked down on the separatists, suspended the Catalan parliament, fired any public worker who offered any support for the vote, and pressed criminal cases against the leadership of the province for sedition.

Sanchez has tried to strike a more conciliatory tone with the Catalonians. In doing so, he antagonised Cuidadanos, who believe that Madrid hasn’t done enough to stamp out the drive for Catalan independence. Certainly, the arrest of nine Catalan independence activists last week in Barcelona on terror-related charges and possession of explosives last week will have bolstered Cuidadanos’ argument.

More on Catalonia

According to officials, police found material that could be used for making bombs. Authorities also said the nine were members of the so-called Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR) — effectively citizen activist groups that were a cornerstone in organising that illegal referendum two years ago. They also have been involved in protests on toll roads across northeast Spain, taking over and damaging toll booths, and also targeted the rail infrastructure. They believe that Catalan independence can only be won by taking direct action — and if indeed the report of bomb-manufacturing capabilities is proven, then it’s a worrying development for whomever may indeed become the next Prime Minister of Spain.

Police say that the nine were preparing to take action on October 1, the second anniversary of that plebiscite that overwhelmingly endorse the right to self-determination for Spain’s second-most populous province.

Charges politically motivated

The verdict is also soon expected in the trial of 12 Catalonians who were charged with sedition in organising the referendum. The court proceedings wrapped up in June and the dozen are still being held in custody until the verdict is returned. Certainly, should that be one of guilt, officials are expecting a backlash across the restive province — and how Sanchez responds to the regional crisis may affect his political fortunes on the national stage. Prosecutors are looking for terms as long as 25 years for some of the defendants — and the longer the sentences, the more widespread the reaction will likely be in Catalonia.

Defence lawyers say that the charges were politically motivated and are little more than a misuse of the judicial process to impugn a political debate among dissenting voices in a modern democratic state.

The reality though is that Madrid’s crackdown has taken some of the steam from the independence movement. Moderates in Catalonia are calling for dialogue, while the more radical, led by the former Catalonian president Carles Puigdemont in exile, and his successor Quim Torra, seek confrontation with the Madrid government — be its representative Sanchez or someone else.

As things stand right now, Sanchez’ party looks set to gain more seats come November 10 but would still fall short of a majority. Opinion polls point to a gain of 11 seats, taking the Socialists to 134 seats, still well short of the 176 needed for a majority.

Worryingly, the polls paint a picture of divided Spain no easier to govern than after April’s election — with no one party or political bloc winning a clear mandate to govern even before the rising tensions in Catalonia are addressed.