After two weeks of whirlwind political drama, Spain’s new government was sworn in on June 7th. However, this is no ordinary Spanish cabinet. Instead, the new Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, has deliberately struck a progressive tone by appointing a female majority government. As a result, Spain now has the highest proportion of female members of government in the EU.
On June 1st, the leader of Spain’s Socialist Party, Pedro Sánchez, introduced a no-confidence motion in the Spanish parliament. The vote was held after a guilty verdict had been issued against 29 members of the ruling People’s Party. Without sufficient backing in parliament, Spain’s centre-right Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, was forced to resign. As a result, Sánchez formed a new government with just 84 out of 350 seats in parliament.
Politicians are often eager to signal that change is afoot when they take over the reigns of government. In Sánchez’s case, this gesture is all the more important given the constraints placed on his capacity to introduce new legislation. He has already committed to upholding the 2018 budget, which means new spending initiatives will be put on hold. Moreover, with a minority of seats, any future legislative initiatives will require co-operation with other parties to pass. Thus, appointing a headline-grabbing cabinet was one of the few ways Sánchez could demonstrate that his government was committed to egalitarian and liberal principles.
Under Rajoy, women made up just 38 percent of Spain’s cabinet. Not only has Sánchez increased this figure, he’s also allocated key cabinet posts to women. While women have historically been given so-called “soft posts” related to education, health or equality, Sánchez has expanded this portfolio. Following in the previous government’s footsteps, Sánchez has appointed a woman, Margarita Robles, to the defense ministry. Additionally, the finance, economy and justice ministries have gone to María Jesús Montero, Nadia Calviño and Dolores Delgado.
The decision to appoint a female majority cabinet comes after an historic Women’s Day Strike in Spain. On March 8th, millions of women stayed home and abstained from domestic work. Hundreds of thousands of people also took to the streets to protest against economic inequality between the sexes and gender-based violence.
Spain’s new Prime Minister believes this year’s International Women’s Day action was a turning point for the country. Sánchez, who like Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, proudly identifies as a feminist, referenced the strikes as the impetus behind his cabinet appointments. Specifically, he stated that “the new government is a faithful reflection of that movement.”
Female political participation has been an ongoing challenge in Southern Europe. Spain’s new cabinet stands in stark contrast to Italy where just 5 out of 18 new ministerial posts went to women. More generally, women make up a frustratingly small proportion of national governments across the region. For example, in Portugal, Greece, Malta and Cyprus, less than 20 percent of senior government ministries are headed by women.
That said, Spain’s new cabinet may be part of a slowly emerging trend towards gender parity in Southern Europe. Just last year, President Emmanuel Macron appointed women to 11 out of 22 cabinet posts, including the defense ministry. While the region still has a long way to go, having high-profile examples of governments committed to gender equality could put pressure on other Southern European countries to address lagging female political representation.
Prime Minister Sánchez has described his government as “pro-gender equality, cross-generational, open to the world but anchored in the European Union.” This new government isn’t just a positive step for Spain, but a promising development for Europe in general. With the government expected to survive until elections in 2020, it now has ample time to act as a model for how other EU member states can embrace a progressive, inclusive future.