Photo: Toni Blay
This article was written with my colleague Ignacio Molina and was first published in Handelsblatt Global Edition on the 22 December 2015. The three options still stand
Spain has a new, more fragmented, political landscape.
For the first time since democracy was reinstalled in 1977, the distribution of votes is so dispersed that neither the right nor the left can form a government.
The conservative Popular Party won Sunday’s elections with only 29 percent of the votes and 123 seats, which means that the 40 seats of the liberal Ciudadanos party will not be enough to help it reach the 176 seats necessary for an overall majority.
Similarly, the Socialists – the PSOE – with 90 MPs and the leftist anti-austerity party Podemos, which was the big winner in this election, with 69 seats, also don’t reach this threshold.
In order to rule, they would need the support of a combination made up of a minor leftist party plus the Catalan and Basque regionalists and pro-independence parties. This effectively would require the coordination of up to nine or ten parties given that Podemos is a coalition of four groups.
Needless to say that this would be extremely difficult, especially in a country that is not used to multi-party pacts.
So how can Spain solve its electoral Rubik’s cube?
After listening carefully to the first statements by the political leaders, we think that the following are the three most likely future scenarios. The first is that the center-right PP forms a minority government, with the socialist PSOE abstaining.
The second possibility is that of a minority government by the PSOE with the support and abstention by Ciudadanos and Podemos respectively, or vice versa.
The third option is a snap election.
Reaching an agreement will be extremely difficult, but not impossible.
The first scenario could be feasible for several reasons.
Mariano Rajoy, the leader of the PP, will do what he can to keep his party in power. The Socialists, in turn, will refuse to enter a “Grand Coalition” like in Germany. They are afraid to end up like Germany’s social democratic SPD or, even worse, the PASOK in Greece. But at the same time they are afraid to push the country to new elections, in which even more of the traditional left vote might go to Podemos, a party which has strong momentum right now.
It is important to remember that for a successful investiture the party that wants to govern only needs more support than rejection.
This means that PSOE and Ciudadanos could abstain and see the PP governing in a minority.
In order to convince his electorate that this is the most strategic move, Pedro Sánchez, the leader of PSOE, could ask for the head of Rajoy and several programmatic concessions.
It would then be up to the PP leadership to decide whether they want to sacrifice Mr. Rajoy and some of their decision-making in order to stay in power or prefer snap elections, in the conviction that after this period of instability they might do better because they will win back much of the vote that went to Ciudadanos.
Ironically, exactly for this same reason, Ciudadanos will try to avoid a new election. That means when push comes to shove they might be willing to support the investiture of PSOE.
In this scenario, Mr. Sánchez would need a yes from Ciudadanos and assume Podemos would abstain.
Another variant of this outcome could be that Podemos supports Mr. Sánchez and that Ciudadanos abstains. This is less likely since Ciudadanos has declared that it will never support a government in which Podemos is directly or indirectly involved because its leader Pablo Iglesias is in favour of a binding referendum for independence in Catalonia, whereas Ciudadanos is firmly opposed.
Thus, in this second PSOE-led government scenario the more likely outcome is a PSOE investiture supported by Ciudadanos and with Podemos abstaining.
All three would benefit. They could all claim that they have pushed for “change,” which is a feature of all of their campaign slogans.
PSOE would get into power, Ciudadanos would become the kingmaker, its agreement crucial for structural reforms and Podemos would mount a strong opposition, and back only those laws that match its program.
Of course, there are some drawbacks for both PSOE and Ciudadanos in this scenario.
Ciudadanos has said they would not support a government led by the party that did not win the election. If it were to do so, the party would disappoint many of its supporters that came from the right, and hence lose part of its base very early on in its consolidation as the liberal party of Spain.
PSOE, for its part, might not want to govern in a weak position with Podemos in the opposition.
So if either of the first and second scenarios comes to pass, with a minority government, every law will be contested and need to be approved in a complex framework unprecedented in Spain.
Or we throw the Rubik’s cube again, have a snap elections and start playing a new game, in the hope that it is more like the old one.