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POLITICAL LIMBO OP-ED

Lessons for SA’s left and right from Spain’s coalition government

Lessons for SA’s left and right from Spain’s coalition government
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (left) attends a plenary session at the Spanish Lower House in Madrid, Spain, on 30 January 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Daniel Gonzalez)

Since its 2023 election, Spain has remained in a political limbo. There is little the government can agree on — not even a budget — beyond who shouldn’t be in the tent.

Spain’s July 2023 general election failed to deliver a majority for any political party. Pedro Sánchez, the incumbent prime minister in power since 2018, managed to put together a coalition to remain in government. This complex assemblage had the retention of power as its principal purpose, not governance. 

“This governing deal for a four-year legislative term will allow our country to continue growing in a sustainable manner and with quality employment, developing policies based on social and climate justice while broadening rights, feminist conquests and freedoms,” the two major members of the coalition, Sanchez’s Socialist Party (PSOE) and the hard-left Sumar party, said in a joint statement on the formation of the government in November 2023. 

While the ire of the majority of voters who preferred the right bloc led by the conservative Popular Party (PP) was inevitably directed towards Sánchez’s political machinations, the right should rather have been asking itself why it did not win enough votes to govern.

All 350 seats in the lower Congress of Deputies had been up for election, as well as 208 of 265 Senate seats. The PP finished first overall, winning 137 lower House seats, up from 89 in 2016, but lacking enough votes to form a government even with its right-wing bloc comprising the hard-right Vox (33 seats, down 19) and the Navarrese People’s Union and the Canarian Coalition, which had just two seats between them.

To obtain enough support to renew his term, Sánchez’s PSOE party, which had finished second in the general election with 120 seats (one more than in 2016), required the support not only of Sumar’s 31 deputies (down from 38) but also those of other parties, including those advocating for Catalan and Basque independence. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Coalitions could be part of ‘a good scenario’ solution for SA in its pursuit of a better future

The result is a coalition for power’s sake and hostage to the parochial regional interests of Sánchez’s partners. Not only did the prime minister have to consolidate his original bloc of the Republican Left of Catalonia, which went from 13 seats to seven, EH Bildu (from five to six), the Basque Nationalist Party (from six to five), and the single-seat Galician Nationalist Bloc, but also Together for Catalonia (Junts), which had declined in the lower House by one seat to seven.

Junts was led by former Catalan president and fugitive Carles Puigdemont, who led the region’s secessionist attempt in 2017. To achieve this, Sánchez had to swallow an amnesty law for Catalan separatist politicians including Puigdemont. 

The political benefits of the cobbled-together coalition were, in the short-term, obvious. This compromise meant that a repeat election was not needed for the first time since 2011.

Populist agenda

While the PSOE is not considered populist per se, it is in bed with parties that promote a strongly populist agenda, and hold the balance of power, albeit a complicated one. In a coalition within a coalition, Sumar itself includes remnants of the ultra-left populist party Unidas Podemos (United We Can).

Sánchez managed to mobilise 179 votes for his re-investiture (needing 176), thereby turning electoral defeat into parliamentary success. If the benefit of the coalition is principally to those politicians retaining power, the cost of the coalition will be borne, invariably, by the taxpayer. 

For the left, the coalition may be better than being out of power. But it has not been constructed in the interests of reform and governance. Far from it. 

Maintaining support from populist, redistributive fellow travellers and dancing with separatists is never likely to be a successful formula in tackling Spain’s deep-seated economic and social challenges of high unemployment, high debt-to-GDP ratios and widening fiscal deficits, the latter related to pressures on social and healthcare budgets due to an ageing population and inflation-indexed pensions. 

The support of regional parties for Madrid demands concessions on the periphery, paradoxically at the expense of power at the centre and any reformist policy agenda. 

The regionalised nature of politics offers an upside though. While the centre is run from the left, 14 of Spain’s 19 regional communities are run by the PP or its aligned parties. 

At least this provides a check on Madrid’s power — not unlike the balance that might come about in South Africa should the opposition, by itself or in coalition, run Gauteng, KZN and the Western Cape, the three provinces that together comprise 63% of South Africa’s GDP.

Of the right, however, Spain’s election result asks tough questions. The election was theirs for the taking. Sánchez had presided over a declining economy. During his term as prime minister, Spain’s purchasing power fell by 5.5%, a drop in the EU second only to Germany. In two years, the average Spanish salary effectively lost €615 in purchasing power, in the process the country falling from 91% to 86% of the European average. 

The same would be asked of the centre and right in South Africa if they were not to make dramatic gains in this election. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Stable coalitions depend on politicians and political parties being honest and principled

Political doublespeak

Sánchez may have partly been saved by higher-than-average economic growth in 2023. But the problem for the right is that the message of the need for tough reform is not going to win an election. To the contrary. This is undermined too by the lack of credible alternatives from the right, which found itself in political doublespeak about the need for lower taxes while denying the need to reduce expenditure. 

They might have thought they were being pragmatic, but the electorate smelt a rat.

An anti-immigration sentiment enjoyed some resonance among the hard right. In 1998 there were just 1.2 million foreign-born residents; by 2020 there were more than seven million. But again, this is a paradox. While domestic conditions in Latin America and North Africa drive the flows, there are pull factors, in particular concerning Spain’s looming labour shortage. With a tumbling fertility rate and unfunded pension requirements, even with the rise in the retirement age to 67, Spain is estimated to require 250,000 workers a year from abroad for the foreseeable future.

In the circumstances, anti-immigration rhetoric amounts to little more than gesture politics, about which the electorate appears sceptical. 

Unsurprising then, that, in the words of Iñaki Anasagasti, a veteran Basque politician, “The right and the left in Spain know that political success is … right in the middle.”

And yet there is some wiggle room for creative politicians, not least around connecting with youth concerns in a way that appeals beyond crude attempts to grab support through redistribution. 

“The big issue for Spaniards,” says Eloy Villanueva, a Navarra-based PP adviser, “is, how is your future is going to be better than that of your parents? The problem for the parties is that it is not a ‘nice answer’,” he says, “with some difficult choices behind it.”

Until then, Spain remains in a political limbo, having a government with little governance beyond horse-trading between political parties. There is little the government can agree on — not even a budget — beyond who shouldn’t be in the tent.

“A government without a shared vision for the country,” notes one administrator, “is a collection of politicians continually involved in a pissing competition. A government with no vision for the whole of the country is a group asking others,” he adds, “to put up with their exhibitions of sectarianism.”

In some respects, this is a better and less fragmented environment than South Africa might expect, given that the Spanish threshold for parties to be represented is 3%. In South Africa, the threshold is effectively 47,000 votes, or 0.25%, based on the same turnout as in 2019 of 68% of the 27.7 million registered voters.

The lesson from Spain’s recent political turns is twofold: Coalitions have to be based on more than an interest of being in government (and keeping others out) — the foundation must be shared values. Second, there is a need to win at the polls with a vision and a series of ideas, and not just relying on votes to keep others out of power. DM

Mills and Hartley are with The Brenthurst Foundation.

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