A week ago, Socialist Party Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez faced up to the political reality of governing in Spain, and called a general election for April 28.
His government, in a minority since taking over from the defeat of the previous incumbent, Mariano Rajoy, in a no-confidence motion, was always going to have a shorter shelf life than most, and it only managed to hold together enough votes for a majority most of the time with the support of Basque nationalists.
No one, however, would have predicted that it would be the shortest-lived government since the return of democracy to Spain after the death of dictator General Francisco Franco in November 1975.
The reality was that once his party’s proposed federal budget was defeated in the Madrid parliament, the writing was on the wall and the election writ dropped for April 28. If Sanchez felt brave, he could have selected April 14 as polling date, giving Spaniards the minimum campaign time allotted by election laws. Similarly, he could have chosen May 26 for polling — that day when Spaniards vote for members of the European Parliament, but also elect hundreds of councils that run the day-to-day municipals affairs of the nation. The feeling is that antipathy to his Socialists might also wreck its chances at the local level and at the Strasbourg parliament, so Sanchez opted for April 28 instead.
There is a reality too that it is difficult to form a government in Spain — and this will represent the third time since 2015 that Spanish have voted in elections for their national parliament.
It took Rajoy and his centre-right conservative Populist Party a year of horse-trading before he could officially form a government and acted in a caretaker capacity over that period. Rajoy’s fall from grace was spectacular, on foot of a sensational corruption and influence-peddling case in which he testified in court and appeared as a man out of touch with senior officials in his party.
Nor was Rajoy helped by the heavy-handed way he dealt with the issue of the Catalonia referendum that saw him order thousands of federal Guardia Civil police into the restive province — and the images of their brutal tactics on voters trying to cast ballots in that October 2017 plebiscite still sit uneasily with Spanish authorities, and voters.
As it stands now, a dozen ringleaders of the referendum are on trial for sedition and rebellion in a Madrid courthouse — a case that has further alienated the Catalonians and led to claims, which are hard to refute, that the prosecutions are politically motivated when the 12 accused were participating in a democratic process, even if the referendum itself had been declared illegal.
But the election now means that the social spending and public works projects contained in the defeated budget fall by the wayside. Sanchez was a dealmaker, and had managed to convince Podemos, the anti-austerity party, to support plans to spend on job creation projects and social spending — fiscal expenditure that the financial watchdogs at the European Union were monitoring closely to ensure they didn’t exceed deficit and debt targets.
One of the more controversial aspects of the Socialist’s plan for government was to exhume and remove the remains of the former dictator Franco from the Valley of the Fallen monument, turning it into a national memorial to Spain’s bloody Civil War of 1936-1939 rather than as a monument to Franco himself. Franco supporters say just four workers died building the vast marble complex some 80km from the capital. His opponents say it was a slave labour complex and as many as 20,000 perished. The Franco family had been given 15 days to choose a new resting site, but the whole process now seems up in the air given the election call.
Franco’s relatives insist he now should rest in the Almundena cathedral in central Madrid — posing even more headaches for Spanish authorities, and the legal appeals are working their way through the courts.
Following the scale and scope of the corruption scandal that brought down Rajoy and given that there is an element of corruption that is closely associated with politics at the lowest level of government across Spain, Sanchez had proposed last November changing a law that grants immunity for politicians. Currently, deputies in the Madrid parliament are immune from prosecution. Other officials enjoy similar protection, and Sanchez’s government was planning to severely restrict that, upsetting the backroom operatives who keep the wheels of Spanish political favours turning. Not surprisingly, his government was finding it difficult to secure enough votes for the not unreasonable reforms.
The Socialists had also promised reforms to health care, increasing the protection of children and laws dealing with gag orders and fake news. Those too have now fallen by the wayside.
The advent of the populist right-wing Vox movement will only fragment politics even more, making it more difficult than before to horse trade to form a government.
And above all, any new government, which may take months to form between the fractured parties, will also have to find a way to deal with Catalonia.
The issue of separation isn’t going away. It might, however, be defused if the entire issue of all of Spain’s 19 separate regions are looked at, offering increased taxation and other powers across the board. By then, however, that sedition trial in Madrid will likely be over and, depending on the verdict, giving new momentum to Catalan independence.