MADRID — If you thought the political drama in Spain would end with national elections on Sunday, think again.
The inconclusive national vote resulted in a divided parliament without a clear governing majority. The centre-right Popular Party won the most votes, but it does not have enough seats to form a government on its own or even with the far-right Vox party, its preferred coalition partner.
On Sunday evening, Conservative leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo said he would try to form a minority government and called for « nobody be tempted to block Spain ».
Feijóo argued that the country has always been governed by the leader who gets the most votes and insisted that the future government had to be « in accordance with electoral victory ».
But in parliamentary democracies like Spain, the head of government is not necessarily the person who gets the most votes in an election, but rather the one who can secure the support from most MPs – and right now Feijóo lacks the support needed to make his candidacy for prime minister viable.
Socialist leader and current prime minister Pedro Sánchez, meanwhile, has a possible, if extremely complex, road to victory.
Sánchez’s Socialists and his preferred partners, Yolanda Díaz’s left-wing Sumar coalition, control 153 seats in parliament. While leftist allies are unlikely to win the support of the 176 MPs needed to confirm Sánchez as prime minister the first time the new parliament votes on the issue, they could bid during the second round of voting, in which the candidate to lead the new government must receive more votes for than against.
But Sánchez will have to act quickly to prove that his intention to stay in power is realistic.
A break, then a visit to the king
After a grueling campaign featuring nasty personal attacks, everyone needs a break. So it is good that the Spanish parliament is only reconvened on August 17, when the MPs will take their oath.
But once parliament is back in session, Sánchez will have to overcome an initial real hurdle.
In the days following the start of the new parliamentary session, Spain’s King Felipe VI will summon the leaders of political groups for consultations at the Zarzuela Palace and question them about who they think has the most support to form a government.
Feijóo will plead his case and insist that, as leader of the party that received the most votes, he be nominated for the next prime minister.
While so far the Spanish prime minister has always been the politician who garnered the most votes in elections, Pablo Simón, a political scientist at the Carlos III University in Madrid, said the king’s responsibility would be to entrust the formation of a new government to whichever leader can demonstrate he has the support to pass key investiture votes in the Spanish parliament.
« The king is cautious and will follow the rules set out in the constitution, » Simón said. « In other words, he will ordain a government from the person whose candidacy is viable. »
So Sánchez will have to make sure that when he shows up at the Zarzuela Palace, he does so with a convincing list of supporters, preferably with several other party leaders openly indicating their willingness to back his candidacy.
Epic horse trade
If Sánchez succeeds and the king appoints him as Spain’s next prime minister, the incumbent will have several weeks to negotiate with potential backers.
In 2019, Sánchez managed to form Spain’s first left-wing coalition government by making deals with regional parties that supported his candidacy for parliament in exchange for concessions in the form of infrastructure such as new railways or hospitals.
But in these high-stakes elections, voters chose to support larger parties, and smaller ones like Teruel’s citizen movement Existe – which was central to Sánchez’s 2019 victory – lost their seats in parliament.
This time, Sánchez will need Basque and Catalan separatist groups like EH Bildu and the Republican Left of Catalonia to vote in favor of his candidacy. He will also have to convince Junts, the party founded by former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, not to vote against him.
While Sánchez’s left-wing coalition government has tried to mend ties and adopt a softer approach with Catalan separatists over the past four years, relations are far from ideal.
Puigdemont, who fled Spain soon after the 2017 Catalan independence referendum, remains in self-imposed exile in Belgium. The politician, who is currently a member of the European Parliament, recently had his legal immunity revoked by a high EU court, paving the way for his extradition to Spain.
Junts candidate Míriam Nogueras told the press on Sunday that her party had « understood the result » and would « use the opportunity ».
But he signaled that negotiations with the socialists would not be easy and that a positive outcome was by no means certain.
« This is a chance for change, to recover unity, » he said. « But we won’t make Pedro Sánchez president for nothing. »
What future for Sánchez and Feijóo
If Sánchez is asked to form a government but fails to get the required support in parliament, Spain will go to new elections.
The king is obliged to dissolve the legislature two months after the first failed investiture vote and a new ballot must be held 54 days after the legislature concludes, so Spaniards will return to the polls later this year or, more likely, early 2024.
During that long period, Sánchez would remain caretaker prime minister with limited powers: No new law can be adopted except in an emergency.
But while Sánchez is on track to remain Spain’s prime minister for the foreseeable future, Popular Party leader Feijóo’s future is less clear.
When Feijóo attempted to give a speech to the fans on Sunday night, the overwhelmed crowd the conservative politician shouting the name of the populist regional president of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso.
Before the election Ayuso, very popular among Popular Party voters, implicit his support for Feijóo’s leadership was tied to his victory in this election.
Despite getting the most votes, whether Feijóo has fulfilled his mission now could be a matter of opinion.