Spain’s leftist unicorn

It has been a strange spectacle watching the optimism generated by Pedro Sánchez’s general election victory at the end of April turn sour. The stop-start slow-mo negotiations between the Socialist Party and Unidas Podemos to form a new government never really seemed to get beyond second gear. Instead, they have become a marathon blame-game full of briefing, counter-briefing and poisonous soundbites. Rather than asking whether they will be able to reach an agreement by the September 23rd deadline, we have more frequently started to wonder: whose fault is it that they can’t?

The answer to that is far from straightforward, despite what partisans on each side claim. Sánchez’s declared refusal to allow Pablo Iglesias in his cabinet was key, lending a baffling note of personal enmity to negotiations, as well as suggesting that the acting prime minister feared being eclipsed by the Podemos leader’s charisma. Iglesias’s counter-proposal ahead of the failed July investiture, of having an array of ministries under his party’s control, looked like overreach yet seemed to bring the possibility of a two-party coalition into play. He is understandably exasperated, therefore, by Sánchez’s decision since the summer investiture vote to insist once again on forming a minority government.

The last year has given us a new incarnation of Sánchez. On his arrival on the political front line he was a felipista moderate, under the yoke of the Socialist party machine, blandly grinning his way through two election defeats. Then his “no means no” stance against Mariano Rajoy in 2016 saw him transformed into a back-to-the-roots leftie, as he was first ousted by his own party before making a Lazarus-like comeback and pledging a closer relationship with Podemos.

Sánchez 3.0, who has been in action since taking office via a daring parliamentary manoeuvre in June 2018, is different again. Inevitably constrained by the dilemmas of the top job he has struggled to deliver on promises and gestures, whether it be trying to calm the Catalan crisis long enough to seek a solution, presenting a coherent immigration policy after taking in the Aquarius migrant boat, or overcoming legal obstacles to the exhumation of Franco.

Despite the pressures of office, Sánchez retains his cool, unruffled demeanour – but surely something more urgent was required over these summer months. At times he has seemed so relaxed about engaging in talks with Podemos and other parties whose support he requires that he might as well have been wearing flip-flops.

As the constitutional clock has ticked down towards the deadline triggering new elections, the Socialists and Podemos have reinforced the age-old cliché about Spain’s left: that it will always find something to disagree over. Compare that to the country’s right, where Ciudadanos, which two years ago was still defining itself as a “social democratic” party, now merrily bins its scruples and teams up with the far right and the corruption-plagued Popular Party if it means getting a slice of power. Sánchez’s strategy may have been all along, as many suspect, to hold out for another election at which his party is expected to improve its share of seats. But Spain’s fragmented politics is so delicately balanced that it remains a gamble, giving the parties of the right a shot at redemption after their April defeat.

And so the prospect of a new, harmonious, leftist government has mirrored the fate of a blow-up holiday unicorn. Once gleaming and buoyant in the late-spring sun, the air has gradually hissed out and now, at summer’s end, it is drifting in the swimming pool, lifeless and floppy.

It could be that a last-minute deal is secured, giving Spain a badly needed government as it heads into an autumn of turmoil that promises Catalan unrest, further Brexit mayhem and, possibly, an economic downturn. But don’t assume that common sense and national interest will overcome petty hostilities, personal rivalries or hubristic strategies.

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