190718 Pedro Sanchez
Pedro Sanchez Image Credit: Reuters

August in Spain is traditionally a time when offices shut, lawyers, accountants and professionals take a month off, and everything grinds to a sleepy halt as temperatures soar and cities become too hot for those with haciendas in the country.

Come August, the Spanish government could very well be shut down as well — so too come September and October. And come Monday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who has been filling the role on a caretaker basis, should know whether he has the job for real or whether there’s no option but to call another general election, most likely for November.

If indeed there’s no agreement to Sanchez’ Socialist Party forming the backbone of a coalition government come a series of votes beginning on Monday, Spaniards will likely go back to the ballot boxes for the fourth time in as many years. That’s a scenario that few would relish, one that would shake the economy and undermine belief in a political system and society that has still to fully deal with the effects of a civil war and four subsequent decades of dictatorship under General Francisco Franco.

The last general election was in late April and since then the Socialists have been trying to cobble together a coalition government in a Chamber of Deputies where there are five substantial blocs with little in common and all seeing the possibility of getting seats at the cabinet table.

At a time when Spain is dealing with the ever-present issue of Catalonia independence and the ever-pressing budgetary worries, Sanchez told the other parties that he had had enough of power-sharing talks and was ready to face the music come Monday. His Socialists are the largest party with 123 of the 350 seats in the Palacio de las Cortes, up from 85 in the previous session — but still 53 short of an outright majority.

The lesson for Spain now seems to be that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

- Mick O'Reilly

Since the April election, Sanchez’ party has been talking primarily with Podemos, the lift-wing party who hold 42 seats. Sanchez believes that he has a good chance of government from a minority position rather than reaching out to other smaller regional parties from the Basque homeland or indeed Catalonia. Relationships between Sanchez and Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, however, have become strained.

The sticking point is that Sanchez seems unwilling to offer a full power-sharing coalition deal to Podemos and only willing to accept its representatives in a future cabinet as technocrats. Iglesias describes that as “idiotic”, with Sanchez hitting back that Iglesias is negotiating in bad faith. The Podemos leader is holding out hopes that he will eventually become Spain’s deputy prime minister.

The Socialists believe Podemos will come around to their way of thinking. Even so, they are looking farther afield and have reached out surreptitiously to the conservative People’s Party, who have 66 deputies. But there’s a problem.

A little over a year ago, then PP leader Mariano Rajoy was Spain’s prime minister, had taken a hardline law-and-order approach with Catalonian separatists, and had testified in court in a tawdry and wide-ranging corruption trial that reached the highest echelons of Spanish society. And Rajoy was duly dumped in a no-confidence motion. Sanchez subsequently formed a loose coalition and governed until he failed to get a budget through the Chamber in March, prompting the April election. If anyone knows about Sanchez’ predicament at not being able to put together a government, it’s the former PP leader.

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After elections late in 2015, it took Rajoy some 300 days to form one. The Socialists might look to support from Ciudadanos, who hold 57 seats. The chances of anything coming from that alliance are slim-to-none. Ciudadanos say Sanchez is too soft in his handling of the Catalonians and party leader Alberto Rivera refuses to even sit with Sanchez. So what’s the hurry? The answer lies in Spain’s Constitution, which allows for three months of political talks on forming an government after an election.

Under Article 99, Sanchez must secure an absolute majority of votes. That’s not going to happen. He must then win a simple majority within 48-hours — which might only happen if a number of the smaller regional parties abstain.

Fail then, and there are two more months to work out a sustainable government deal. Fail again, and Spain’s King Felipe VI will be forced to dissolve parliament and call new elections. That was the scenario Rajoy faced in December 2015, with Spaniards forced back to the polls in June, 2016.

The lesson for Spain now seems to be that the more things change, the more they stay the same.