Spain is heading for its third general election in four years, to be held on April 28th. Under Spanish law, elections were due to be held in 2020 anyway, but this time, snap elections were called due to the inability of the government to pass the national budget. Lawmakers turned down the government’s budget plan in a vote of 191 against 158, with one abstention – a result of Catalan secessionists joining with right-wing parties against the ruling Socialist party. It is the first time since 1995 that the Parliament has rejected the government’s budget – leading to now too-familiar national elections as a result, and political uncertainty. The current government has lasted a total of 8 and a half months.
“Between doing nothing and continuing without a budget, or giving the chance for Spaniards to speak, Spain should continue looking ahead,” President Pedro Sánchez said in a televised appearance, through which he made the announcement. “I have proposed dissolving parliament and calling elections for April 28th,” he added at the end of his speech, during which he highlighted his achievements during his tenure, which is also the shortest term for any Spanish President since Spain transitioned to democracy, forty years ago.
Sánchez’s government was always a weak one, having come to power after ousting former President Mariano Rajoy and the ruling PP party when they were found guilty of benefitting from illegal funds after a massive graft trial. Sánchez relied on a political hodgepodge of smaller, regional parties, including Catalan politicians. Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera labelled the resulting parliament a “Frankenstein government” because of its lack of unifying views. But it also meant that reconciliation with the Catalan separatists became a core part of Sánchez’s agenda.
How Things Fell Apart
President Pedro Sánchez had hoped to use the proposed budget to increase spending on social welfare programs, addressing the inequalities that persisted in Spain throughout its economic recovery. However, Catalan lawmakers, with whom Sánchez had held a precarious minority government, demanded a referendum be held on Catalan independence in exchange for their cooperation. Conversely, Sánchez had been banking on the fact that early elections – and a possible win for the right-wing parties that oppose Catalan secession – would entice the Catalan parties to swing behind Sánchez and support the budget. Needless to say, things didn’t work out that way.
Catalonia held a unilateral independence referendum in October 2017, which Spanish police sought to foil, as the move was ruled unconstitutional. However, upon taking office, Sánchez pledged to renew dialogue with the pro-independence Catalan politicians in a bid to avoid further crisis in the region. He even met with Quim Torra, the separatist leader of Catalonia.
Unfortunately, their talks went nowhere, and Torra warned that his party would not approve the new budget without Sánchez making a serious attempt to hold a second independence referendum, this time with the agreement of the central government. Sánchez rejected this proposal, referring to it as political blackmail, citing that such a move was incompatible with the Spanish Constitution.
“Are we meant to approve the budget because we’re afraid of the Spanish right?” said Torra. “Mr. Sánchez can obviously decide to call elections whenever he wants – he’s the President. But why would he make dialogue conditional on approving the budget?”
However, even this much dialogue has politically hurt Sánchez: right-wing politicians labelled Sánchez as a “traitor to Spanish unity” for holding talks in the first place, and tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Madrid in early February demanding both new elections and condemning Sánchez’s handling of the Catalonia issue. The protest was organised by the Popular Party, and received support from Vox, another right-wing party, as well as extremist and fascist groups.
After the budget vote, Pablo Casado – now leader of the right-wing opposition Popular Party – described the vote as “a vote of no confidence against Mr. Sánchez.”
“Today in Congress, we’ve spearheaded a decision, which, I think, marks a turning point in the legislature,” he said. “Or, to put it another way, it marks the end of Pedro Sánchez’s time as President.”
“Mr. Sanchez, it’s very simple, even a seven-year-old girl can understand it: you can’t govern a country with someone who wants to liquidate your country,” Ciudadanos’ leader Albert Rivera said at a political rally. “We now have two problems: separatism and an ally of separatism” at the head of the government.
“The Trial of the Century”
The Catalan issue dominates the political sphere, as currently a dozen politicians and activists are currently facing trial via the Supreme Court for their actions in the unilateral Catalan independence referendum of 2017. The defendants are charged with rebellion and sedition, and the proceedings are being televised live and expected to last about three months. The results will set the tone for national politics for years, as well as for the Catalan secession movement.
A central issue of the trial is determining whether the separatists used violence in their 2017 breakaway attempt. Failing to prove use of violence means the rebellion charge won’t stick. Vox argues that violence occurred when the accused allegedly incited protests to destroy police cars and impede police officers from leaving a governmental building in Barcelona, as well as citing officer injuries in clashes with voters when seizing ballot boxes used in the referendum. The defence will counter that the voters were the victims of police violence, not the aggressors.
Spain’s former prime minister Rajoy is one of over 500 witnesses set to testify. However, Carles Puigdemont, the regional government’s president at the time of the referendum and the one who announced Catalan’s unrecognized independence, was absent from court. Instead of risking arrest, he fled to Belgium.
Spain is not the only nation that has separatist and secessionist movements within its borders. Scotland’s last referendum saw them choose to remain with the UK, but only by a narrow margin. The Basques seek independence in their area, which spans territory in both Spain and France. Corsican and Breton areas in France have also sought more independence, as have Flemish parts of Belgium. If the Catalan movement succeeds, it could cause a ripple effect across Europe, an issue of some consternation since each country usually wants to stay united.
The far-right party Vox is acting as a “popular prosecution,” and seeks to re-centralise Spain.
A Fragmented Future
There are a number of scenarios on the table for the future of Spain. Polling suggests that April’s elections are likely to result in a deadlock, with seats more-or-less split equally. More troubling, Vox, a far-right party aligned with the Euroskeptics that rapidly came to power in Andalusia in a December election, could play the role of kingmaker.
However, all polls also see Sánchez’s Socialists doing well, likely to get more seats than they did in 2016, if still falling short of the majority needed in Parliament. In other words, it is unclear whether the winning coalition will be the conservative People’s Party making a right-wing coalition with the far-right Vox and central-right Ciudadanos, or if, conversely, Ciudadanos will join a coalition with the Socialists instead. However, Ciudadanos officially said it does not wish to ally with the Socialists at the national level, complicating matters.
Catalan independence is very likely to be a major issue in this election. Though, so far, Sánchez has been focusing on the potential danger of right-wing parties embracing newcomers like Vox, possibly steering them towards extremism.
“The most imminent risk is for Spain to get stuck after the elections if a new government is not formed quickly,” said an EU source to El Pais. “In the midterm, the biggest concern is the danger that the anti-Brussels message we are seeing in so many other countries could spread there. We cannot rule out the possibility of another Italy.”
The resulting political instability could erode Spain’s leverage with the rest of the EU, which has diminished since 2010, particularly following the bailout during the financial crisis in 2012. With limited room to manoeuvre in EU institutions, Spain’s clout could continue to narrow.
Nonetheless, there is some good news in all of this. Snap elections are unlikely to cause Spain’s economy to falter, or create a gap in the budget. Last year’s budget will be automatically extended to cover the interim period, thus avoiding a budget vacuum. However, it is not a permanent solution: most of the main spending measures for the coming year have already been passed, but the necessary income measures are included in the un-passed budget. Moreover, this is the fourth year in a row that Spain has missed the deadline to file its spending plan with the EU Commission in Brussels, and the third year in a row that the previous year’s budget has been extended.
Even so, neither regional economies nor the European economy at large have shown any increased volatility in response to this news. However, there is concern that Euroskeptics could come to power in Spain during the next election – a key loss of a state that supports European integration, remains free of extremist parties, and respects EU laws. Even if a right-wing government arises come April, officials at the EU Commission think it unlikely Spain will deviate much from the budget discipline and economic reforms that were introduced during the financial crisis.
“Spain is not Italy,” said EU Commission officials, underscoring Madrid’s commitment to EU rules in contrast to the brinkmanship showed by Italian vice-Premiers Luigi di Maio and Matteo Salvini.