Spain PM's shock election call brings unruly coalition to heel

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s snap general election breaks the coalition he built with the far-left United We Can party, with the aim of bringing to heel the unruly faction whose internecine conflicts damaged the coalition's results in local elections

Jennifer O'Mahony,Renata Brito
Tuesday 30 May 2023 07:23 BST

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez's snap general election call breaks apart the coalition he built with the far-left United We Can party, marking a line in the sand with a movement born from grassroots activism whose electoral fortunes have nosedived.

On Monday, Sánchez brought forward a national election expected in December to July 23 after the conservative Popular Party, or PP, and far-right Vox movement dramatically increased their vote share in Sunday's local and regional elections.

Sánchez's Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, known by the Spanish acronym PSOE, has led a minority central government with United We Can since 2019, but internal arguments with his coalition partners have increasingly dominated headlines. United We Can's leadership is also engaged in a separate feud with Deputy Prime Minister Yolanda Díaz, who has started her own political movement, Sumar.

Ernesto Pascual, a political scientist and professor at UOC university in Barcelona, said the prime minister wanted to force the hand of the poorly performing, squabbling groupings to the left of his own party, to clarify who had the capacity and will to govern the country.

“Pedro Sánchez needs a bloc to his left which is united. So what he does is to prevent United We Can and Sumar from confronting each other anymore," Pascual said. "He is telling them, look, these are the electoral results. Either you unite or it is going to be a disaster.”

Although the Socialists’ overall vote share remained largely steady in the local and regional vote, the dire performance of United We Can across the country leaves the coalition with a questionable mandate to continue.

“Pedro Sánchez might read the results as the need to break up the current government hoping that the party still has some leverage to win the national elections in the short term,” said Nagore Calvo Mendizabal, Senior Lecturer in Spanish and European Studies at King’s College London.

Sunday marked the nadir of United We Can's electoral performance since winning its first votes in a European election in 2014.

The party was founded by Spain's precursor to the Occupy protest movement, and was originally led by university professor Pablo Iglesias. Tackling the austerity politics imposed by the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, United We Can promised policy drawn from grassroots activism, and grew to become a national force.

After joining the coalition government in 2019 with the Socialists, United We Can has focused on issues such as gender identity and LGBTQ rights. “These are values that the traditional PSOE electorate does not understand,” said Pascual. “They understand problems like the minimum wage and inflation."

The party’s combative style has led to furious confrontation with the PP and Vox in parliament. Iglesias officially left politics in 2021, though some see him as still pulling the strings, most recently in negotiations with Sumar over any electoral pact. “Behind is the founding father who refuses to let go of the reins at all,” Pascual added.

Since then, the PSOE and United We Can openly split over reforms the Socialists ordered to a controversial sexual consent law, which had opened a loophole for rapists to have their sentences reduced.

While some will see a return to the two-party politics that dominated Spain until United We Can burst onto the scene, others insist that Spain’s regional parties and the far right are still powerful enough to keep any PP or PSOE government in check without United We Can.

While the “shock” of the announcement reverberates, said Sandra León, a political scientist at Madrid's Carlos III University, the prime minister has calculated it is worth it to avoid “the costs of internal division in the government until December."

The overall aim, León and Pascual concurred, will be to discombobulate internal and external enemies. The handful of Socialists who did well in the regional elections are precisely the candidates who might threaten Sánchez's authority within the PSOE. Meanwhile, voters will be seeing Vox call the shots with the nominally moderate PP in real time in the next few weeks, and may opt to vote for the Socialists to keep Vox from expanding their power in parliament.

There are several inherent complications with the new date, however. A late July election is unprecedented in a southern European country like Spain, when many will be on vacation away from their registered voting address and when political parties will be right in the middle of negotiating alliances sprung from the local elections.

The government will also need to deal with Spain taking over the rotating European Union presidency on July 1, and its active negotiations with the United Kingdom on a post-Brexit deal for the British enclave of Gibraltar.

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