Disillusioned Spain still has no government months after general election

King has given up on talks with leaders to create a government, and there is little optimism to be found in Madrid

Alistair Dawber
Thursday 10 March 2016 23:39 GMT
Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez failed in a bid to form a government with centre-right Ciudadanos
Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez failed in a bid to form a government with centre-right Ciudadanos (AFP)

On 26 June Spaniards could face the prospect of a busy day. Depending on earlier results, the national football team could line up in the last 16 of the European championships. On the same date, they appear likely to be asked to vote in another general election.

While Spain’s national side are the defending European champions and are once again set to be among the favourites to win the tournament, the country’s politics is in flux with four large parties unable, or as many suspect, unwilling, to form a new government after December’s inconclusive elections.

A poll published earlier this week by the El Pais newspaper showed that just 1.4 per cent of people are worried about the political paralysis, as anger with the political classes bubbles over amid a spate of corruption scandals.

“Traditional politics is in a real mess, but I can’t see that a new election will really help,” says Maria, a trainee civil servant who preferred not to give her surname.

“We just can’t trust these guys, the politicians, to do what they’re supposed to do. They can’t form a government because there’s too much self interest, and they know that the deals they’ve proposed so far just won’t work.”

Maria’s view is common. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to a deal is the swathe of graft allegations that have been levelled against the Partido Popular (PP) – the caretaker government – since the last election took place.

The prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, while not personally accused, has been tainted by allegations against his party, ranging from the existence of slush funds, money laundering and fraud. They have made him a toxic proposition for the other parties to join in coalition – another poll recently indicated that 80 per cent of Spaniards thought it was time for the prime minister to go.

Mr Rajoy’s pitch is that he has steadied the economy over the last four years and that it gives him the mandate to lead a grand coalition with the PP’s traditional opponents, the Socialists, and the new centrist party, Ciudadanos.

The other parties are having none of it. The Socialist leader, Pedro Sanchez and Mr Rajoy loathe each other, while Ciudadanos campaigned on a platform of cleaning up politics. But without the PP, which holds 123 out of 350 seats, it is difficult to see a government being formed and after almost three months of meetings, posturing and argument, the parties are no closer to a deal.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is seen as politically toxic, even by some in his own party
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is seen as politically toxic, even by some in his own party (AFP)

Mr Sanchez tried and failed two weeks ago to persuade parliament to support his bid to form a minority coalition with Ciudadanos. The constitution demands that new elections be called in two months if parliament cannot agree, leaving Spain in uncharted territory.

Maria, who voted for leftist Podemos, is scathing about both Mr Rajoy and Mr Sanchez. “We will be OK as long as Rajoy goes,” she says. “But also, everyone knew that Sanchez’s plan wouldn’t work – Ciudadanos is really right wing and the leftist parties would never have supported them in government. The fact is that the parties do not want change.”

Opinion polls suggest that the outcome of a summer election will be broadly the same as in December, threatening more inertia.

Many had hoped that the popular young king, Felipe, would able to break the deadlock in meetings with the party leaders. If it was a test of his mettle, he has also failed. Felipe has now said he will no longer meet party leaders to hammer out a deal.

As if to highlight Spain’s problems, the royals are struggling with a corruption case of their own as Felipe’s sister Cristina, the sixth in line to the throne, awaits a verdict in her trial for alleged tax fraud. Princess Cristina denies any wrongdoing.

And now the royal family is embroiled in another scandal after text messages sent by Queen Letizia emerged in which she offered support to Javier Lopez Madrid, a banker, who had been caught up in an executive credit card scandal at the bailed out bank, Bankia. The episode reinforces a feeling among many that there is an elite in Spain that considers itself not bound by the same rules as other citizens.

Augustine Alba, who works in a café in the trendy Malasaña district of Madrid puts it more succinctly. “Spain is shit at the moment,” he says.

“There is [potential] corruption everywhere, among the politicians, the royal family, everywhere.”

Some analysts believe that the prospect of new elections will worry leading figures in the PP, who might feel that jettisoning the prime minister is a way of breaking the deadlock.

“The replacement of Rajoy at the helm of the PP would make it difficult for Ciudadanos and even the [socialists] to reject a minority government led by the [PP],” says Antonio Barroso, a senior vice-president at Teneo Intelligence. “Yet such an option remains out of the question at this stage.”

But yesterday, for the first time, a senior party official broke ranks and called for Mr Rajoy to go, saying it was the view of the “silent majority” in the party.

Speaking on Spanish radio, Alberto Garre, former president of Spain’s Murcia region, said “I honestly think that everything centres on Mariano Rajoy stepping aside, for Spain and for the [party].”

It would be a popular move in Malasaña. “It is as if Rajoy is being controlled by a puppet master,” says Mr Alba. “He is now too weak – he has to go.”

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