Tag Archives: spanish socialist workers’ party

PSOE’s incentives point to PP-Ciudadanos minority government in Spain

Pedro Sánchez has led the PSOE to a better-than-expected result, but it leaves Spain no closer to a clear governing majority. (Facebook)
Pedro Sánchez has led the PSOE to a better-than-expected result, but it leaves Spain no closer to a clear governing majority. (Facebook)

Voting under the penumbra of an ongoing political crisis in the United Kingdom following last Thursday’s referendum, in which a bare majority of British voters chose to leave the European Union, Spanish voters in Sunday’s general election — the second in seven months — fell back on established parties instead of more radical newcomers.Spain_Flag_Icon

Despite polls (and even exit polls) that predicted the rise of Unidos Podemos, a joint ticket of Spain’s far-left communists and Podemos, the newer anti-austerity movement, the ticket won the same number of seats in the lower house of Spain’s parliament, the 350-member Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), than it had after the December general election.

Forecasts that Unidos Podemos would overtake the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) proved wrong. The PSOE, under the leadership of Pedro Sánchez, remains the largest leftist force in Spanish politics.


Unfortunately for Sánchez, the PSOE fell further behind the governing center-right Partido Popular (PP, the People’s Party) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy, which won 137 seats — a 14-seat increase since the December 2015 elections. Those gains came mostly as a result of record-low turnout and a subtle migration back to Rajoy’s party from the upstart, liberal Ciudadanos, which lost eight seats in last Sunday’s voting.

spain 16 deputies (1)

So what next? In an election where voters largely returned the same verdict, Spain’s political class is now looking at another round of coalition talks as a country with a traditional two-party system now copes with four major parties.

At the heart of these talks, however, is the PSOE, which is now positioned as the leading swing vote between Spain’s conservatives and Spain’s hard left. No matter what comes next for Spain, the PSOE will almost certainly determine the outcome.

So as Spain’s political leaders get down to the business of coalition talks in the days and weeks to come, the most important factor to keep in mind are the PSOE’s political incentives (and, to a lesser degree, Sánchez’s incentive to remain PSOE leader in the hopes of winning a future election). Continue reading PSOE’s incentives point to PP-Ciudadanos minority government in Spain

Spain heads toward fresh elections on June 26

Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, could fall if his party drops to third place in June. (Facebook)

Shortly after the December general election, I wrote that Spain faced three possible choices — a German-style grand coalition, a Portuguese-style ‘coalition of the left’ or a Greek-style stalemate and fresh elections. Spain_Flag_Icon

Spain chose the Greek option.

Five months after a national election ripped apart Spain’s decades-long two-party system, the failure of the country’s four major parties to reach a coalition agreement means that Spain’s voters will once again go to the polls on June 26 for a fresh vote, after a deadline ran out on midnight Tuesday to find a viable government.

Notably, the rerun of Spain’s national elections will fall just three days after the United Kingdom votes on whether to leave the European Union, a critical vote for the entire continent.

spain deputies

The problem is that, with talks stalled for any conceivable governing majority, the Spanish electorate seems set to repeat results similar to last December’s election. For now, markets are not unduly spooked by the political impasse in Madrid, but continued uncertainty through the second half of 2016 could prove different if no clear government emerges from the new elections and, presumably, a new round of coalition talks brokered by Spain’s young new king, Felipe VI.

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RELATED: Three choices for new fractured political landscape

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So who are the four major parties and how do they stand heading into the June vote? Continue reading Spain heads toward fresh elections on June 26

Catalonia’s post-election future murky as Mas prioritizes power over secession

Amid increasing tensions since 2012 between prime minister Mariano Rajoy and regional president Artur Mas, the Catalan independence movement hovers like a dark cloud over the national debate. (Facebook)
Amid increasing tensions since 2012 between prime minister Mariano Rajoy and regional president Artur Mas, the Catalan independence movement hovers like a dark cloud over the national debate. (Facebook)

In the aftermath of a difficult national election that could well lead to fresh elections across all of Spain, Catalonia, the northeastern region with a swelling independence movement, was always set to be the largest puzzle piece that patches together any potential coalition to lead the national government.  Spain_Flag_Iconcatalonia

Now the region will take center stage even more fully in Spain’s unfolding political drama, with a high-stakes game of chicken reaching its peak this week between regional president Artur Mas and the left-wing Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP, Popular Unity Candidacy). The pro-independence CUP has refused to lend its support to the larger pro-independence coalition, Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), the broad, pan-ideological group that won last September’s elections.

The CUP’s leaders have for months maintained that they will not — and politically cannot — support Mas, a center-right regional leader who has skillfully attached himself to a sovereigntist movement that’s now dominated by figures on the Catalan left. He’s the ideological heir to a political elite that, under his predecessor, Jordi Pujol (regional president from 1980 to 2003), became synonymous with corruption. Moreover, as regional president since 2010, Mas has introduced tax increases and budget cuts designed to keep the region’s fiscal condition from deteriorating, even as the wider Spanish economy collapsed, taking the Catalan regional economy with it.

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RELATED: Madrid ignores Catalan vote at grave risk

RELATED: Catalan election results: pro-independence parties win narrow majority

RELATED: Three choices for new, fractured Spanish political landscape

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On Sunday, the CUP — a radical left group that would oppose an independent Catalonia’s membership in either NATO or the European Union — reiterated that it cannot support Mas for regional president and that it will block investiture of Catalonia’s executive government, the Generalitat, forcing new spring elections, so long as Mas is determined to lead it. Indeed, Mas has refused to step aside. If no one budges between now and January 10, Catalonia will hold fresh elections (along, perhaps, with Spain after the fractured result of the December 20 national elections). For Catalans, it would be the fourth regional election in five years.

But if there’s one thing that Junts pel Sí doesn’t lack, it’s a deep bench of political leaders, each of whom could easily step in as a regional president far more amenable to the radical CUP and its supporters, thereby forming a truly broad pro-independence front. If Mas doesn’t back away in favor of another of his coalition’s leaders, fresh elections could actually leave Catalonia’s parliament even more divided, potentially setting back the independence movement that he claims to represent. And that should tell you exactly where Mas’s heart lies — in maintaining power at all costs, not seriously advancing an independent Catalonia.

By forcing spring elections, Mas risks, first, prolonging the process of building both a national Spanish government and a regional Catalan government, and, secondly, discrediting the independence movement itself.  Continue reading Catalonia’s post-election future murky as Mas prioritizes power over secession

Three choices for new, fractured Spanish political landscape

Pablo Iglesias, a founder and leading spokesperson for the Podemos movement, has cause to be delighted with Sunday's result. (Twitter)
Pablo Iglesias, a founder and leading spokesperson for the Podemos movement, has cause to be delighted with Sunday’s result. (Twitter)

As predicted, Spain’s messy general election resulted in no clear winner, and none of its two largest parties could claim a majority in the lower house of Spain’s parliament.Spain_Flag_Icon

What’s more, though two upstart parties upended the political status quo that’s existed for nearly 40 years in Spain, neither did so well that they can form a government — or even serve as a kingmaker for one of the two established parties.


While the conservative Partido Popular (PP, the People’s Party) emerged with the largest share of the vote, prime minister Mariano Rajoy has plenty of reason to despair. Much of the party’s support comes from older voters in the Spanish countryside, and the PP benefited from an electoral system that delivers slightly more seats to parties with support outside Spain’s urban centers. Nevertheless, he has lost his absolute majority, dropped 64 seats and, worst of all for Rajoy, there’s no clear or easy path to a governing majority. Though Spain’s economy has stabilized under the past four years of PP rule, unemployment remains staggeringly high (21.2%). The party’s leader since 2004, Rajoy might ultimately be pushed aside during coalition talks for a younger or more charismatic leader, like deputy prime minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría.

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RELATED: Spain readies for historic four-way election on December 20

RELATED: Can Felipe VI do for federalism
what Juan Carlos did for democracy?

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Meanwhile, the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) suffered its worst defeat since the transition to democracy in the late 1970s. Its new leader, Pedro Sánchez, a moderate economist, simply could not convince voters to look beyond long-simmering corruption scandals (which, by the way, also plague Rajoy’s party) and the record of the prior PSOE government, which took the first steps toward the path of austerity measures in the aftermath of the 2009-10 eurozone debt crisis.

Indeed, the PSOE just barely outpolled Podemos, an anti-austerity alternative that burst onto the Spanish political scene in 2014, embracing the anti-establishment protests of the ‘indignados’ movement. Despite leading polls earlier this year, Podemos crashed as fears grew that it would cause the kind of economic pandemonium that plagued Greece after the election of the far-left SYRIZA this year. Its leading spokesperson, Pablo Iglesias, began to moderate his movement’s rhetoric, and rallied to a strong third-place finish.

The center-right liberal Ciudadanos (‘C’s,’ Citizens), a federalist, economically liberal party founded in Catalonia in 2007, made the leap from regional politics to national politics, but its leader Albert Rivera must be disappointed that it failed to steal more voters from Rajoy.

With another handful of seats going to various pro-independence Catalan parties, as well as Basque and Galician regional parties, the net result is that no one has enough seats in the 350-member Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), the lower house of Spain’s legislature, the Cortes Generales (General Courts).

spain deputies

Notably, Rajoy maintained the PP’s majority, however reduced, in the far less powerful upper house, the Senado (Senate), which can be overruled on most matters (i.e., not ‘organic laws’ that deal with constitutional matters, civil rights and federalism) by majority vote of the Chamber of Deputies. Voters elected 208 senators on Sunday as well (an additional 58 senators are appointed by regional assemblies).

Two sets of statistics are worth considering.

First, the traditional major parties (the PP and PSOE) won just 50.7% of the vote in aggregate, compared to 83.8% in the 2008 election and 73.4% in the 2011 election. Obviously, that means Spain is entering a new era where coalition politics are more important. That’s not entirely unprecedented — when José María Aznar won 156 seats after the 1996 elections, he had to work with Catalan, Basque and Canarian nationalists to form a stable government. But the success of Podemos and Ciudadanos has transformed Spain’s politics from a two-party matter to a multiparty affair.

Secondly, among the four major parties to emerge from the 2015 election, it’s staggering just how evenly divided the Spanish left and right are. Together, the PP and Ciudadanos won 42.65% of the vote and the PSOE and Podemos won 42.67%. Spain’s electorate, in the broadest sense, delivered neither a mandate to a sharp left turn or a sharp right turn.

What Spain now faces is a difficult choice of among three different paths, all of which carry their own risks and challenges. Spain’s new young king, Felipe VI, will also take a more hands-on role in the coalition formation process than his father, Juan Carlos I, ever did. The good news for Spain is that the three options each mirror paths taken by three of its fellow European Union member-states in the last three years:

  • Germany 2013: a ‘grand coalition’ between the two established parties;
  • Portugal 2015: a fragile coalition government that brings together all of the parties and movements of the left; and
  • Greece 2012: deadlocked coalition talks lead to fresh elections.

To the extent that Spain is entering a new coalition-based era of its parliamentary politics, a reshaped Spanish political landscape might transcend 20th century fractures and the transition to democracy that’s dominated Spanish political life for a half-century.

Continue reading Three choices for new, fractured Spanish political landscape

Spain readies for historic, four-way election on December 20

Spain's new young king, Felipe VI, may ultimately shape his country's new country from the Palacio Real if the unprecedented four-way race leaves no party with a majority after December 20.
Spain’s new young king, Felipe VI, may ultimately shape his country’s future from the Palacio Real if the unprecedented four-way race leaves no party with a majority after December 20.

Five days before the Christmas holiday, Spanish voters will go to the polls to choose a new government in an election that’s being hailed as the country’s most important since 1982.Spain_Flag_Icon

Indeed, voter turnout may well exceed the 80% levels not seen since 1982, when Spain had only just emerged from its Francoist dictatorship and was four years away from joining the European Economic Community, the predecessor to today’s European Union. Moreover, it will also be the first general election to take place under Felipe VI, whose father Juan Carlos I abdicated in June 2014 after guiding the country’s transition to democracy in the mid-1970s.

But what makes the December 20 election so unique is that economic crisis has shattered Spain’s stable two-party electoral tradition, leaving a four-way free-for-all that could force unwieldy coalitions or a minority government at a time when the country has only just started its economic recovery. Distrust in both major parties, moreover, has opened the way for a popular far-left movement at the national level and greater discord at the regional level, most notably in Catalonia, where support for the independence movement is growing. No matter who wins power in the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy, the next Spanish government will face difficult decisions about GDP growth, lingering unemployment, and federalism and possible constitutional change.

For decades, Spanish elections were essentially, at the national level, a fight between the conservative Partido Popular (PP, the People’s Party) and the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party). In the most recent 2011 election, the PP won 186 seats in the 350-member Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), the Spanish parliament’s lower house, while the PSOE won 110 seats.

Both parties can point to massive successes over the past three decades. Under longtime PSOE prime minister Felipe González, Spain consolidated its liberal democracy and benefited greatly from closer economic and financial ties to Europe, while Barcelona’s emergence as the host of the 1992 Summer Olympics catapulted it into a world-class city. Under conservative prime minister José María Aznar, Spain joined the core of western European countries as a founding member of the eurozone in 2002 and developed widening security ties with the United States. When the PSOE returned to power in 2004 under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the government enacted same-sex marriage in 2005 and later negotiated a peaceful ceasefire with the paramilitary Basque nationalist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA).

The pain in Spain

Widespread anti-austerity protests, spearheaded by the 'indignados' movements mobilized even before the previous elections in 2011. (El País / Carlos Rosillo)
Widespread anti-austerity protests, spearheaded by the ‘indignados’ movements mobilized even before the previous elections in 2011. (El País / Carlos Rosillo)

But the global financial crisis of 2008-09 and subsequent eurozone crisis of 2010 knocked Spain off its pedestal.

Not unlike Florida, Nevada and parts of California in the United States, property values in Spain fell as rapidly as they once climbed, and an economy driven by construction and easy credit sputtered to near-depression levels of contraction. Despite running a more parsimonious fiscal policy in the 2000s than even Germany, Zapatero’s government soon found its expenses far exceeding revenues, and his government engaged in a series of tax increases and spending cuts.

The Spanish electorate ousted Zapatero in December 2011, ushering the People’s Party back to power under Mariano Rajoy, whose main goal was to prevent Spain from needing to seek an emergency bailout. Despite some scares over the Spanish banking system in 2012, Rajoy succeeded in keeping Spain bailout-free, but at the cost of ever greater spending cuts and tax hikes. The Rajoy government’s tough fiscal medicine, to some degree, has worked. Yields on Spanish 10-year debt have steadily fallen from a high of over 7.2% in July 2012 to less than 1.8% today. For a country without economic expansion since 2008, the Spanish economy returned to fragile growth in 2014, and it maintained growth throughout 2015 — notching 1% growth in the second quarter of this year and 0.8% in the third.

But voters are not enthusiastic about the prospects of reelecting Rajoy, a leader who never quite managed to win over Spanish hearts. Spain’s unemployment rate today is still 21.2%, a drop from the record-high 26.9% level recorded in early 2013. But that’s still a far higher jobless rate than anywhere else in the European Union (with the exception of Greece).

In the 2008 election, before the bottom fell out of the Spanish economy, the two major parties together won 83.8% of the vote. By 2011, that percentage fell to 73.4%. If polls are correct, that percentage could fall below 50% on Sunday, as both the PP and the PSOE struggle against the surging popularity of the anti-austerity Podemos (‘We can’) on the left and the liberal, federalist Ciudadanos (C’s, Citizens) on the right.

If the election were held today, the PP would win around 110 seats, the PSOE around  90, and Podemos and Ciudadanos would each win around 60, leaving none of them with a clear majority. The uncertainty of the four-way race has both energized the electorate (in  a manner reminiscent to those first early elections in the post-dictatorship era) and enhanced the chances of post-election uncertainty that both Greece and Portugal have endured this year.  Continue reading Spain readies for historic, four-way election on December 20

Socialists thrive in Andalusian regional elections


After last Saturday’s election, it’s no exaggeration to say that Andalusia’s regional president Susana Díaz might be the most popular politician in Spain.Spain_Flag_Iconandalucia flag

Díaz, who heads the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) in Andalusia, the largest region — or ‘autonomous community’ — in Spain, won her first term as regional president since taking power in 2013 upon the abrupt resignation of her predecessor, José Antonio Griñán. Both Griñán and Manuel Chaves, who governed the region between 1990 and 2009, are under investigation for their connection to a wide-ranging ‘ERE’ corruption scandal involving the diversion of funds designated to assist laid-off workers in Andalusia, where the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high at 34%, the worst in Spain, where joblessness also remains stubbornly high, despite its economy’s tepid 1.4% growth last year — the first year of GDP expansion since 2008.

Those two concerns, jobs and corruption, dominated the campaign in Andalusia, the sprawling southern region of Spain.

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RELATED: In Andalusia, Díaz takes office with staggeringly high unemployment, economic woes (September 2013)

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Though Andalusia has been a Socialist stronghold since the return of democracy in the late 1970s, disillusionment with widespread corruption and with Spain’s deteriorating economy gave the center-right Partido Popular (PP, People’s Party) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy its first Andalusian electoral victory in March 2012. Despite the Socialists’ losses, the party remained in power by forming a coalition with a smaller left-wing coalition of parties, Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left).

The Socialist-IU coalition continued under Díaz, who at age 40 is pregnant with her first child and who still marks a sharp contrast, generational and otherwise, with the region’s previous Socialist leaders. Díaz, a sharp-tongued populist who declined to contest the party’s national leadership, has also declined (so far) to challenge the PSOE’s leader Pedro Sánchez to become the prime ministerial nominee in November’s general elections.

andalusia2015 andalusia parliament

Her victory in Andalusia’s March 22 snap election, called in January after Díaz wearied of the IU’s demands as junior coalition partner, will give hope to Sánchez and the national PSOE leadership that it can thrive throughout the 2015 electoral gauntlet.

An additional 13 regions will hold elections on May 31, including Madrid, the Valencian Community and Castile and León, the third, fourth and sixth most populous regions in Spain, respectively. Rajoy’s PP and its allies are defending governments in 11 of the 13 regions, including each of Madrid, Valencia and Castile and León. The party’s 17-seat loss in Andalucia, therefore, is an alarming sign for the ruling party.  Continue reading Socialists thrive in Andalusian regional elections

Madrid ignores Catalan vote at grave risk


Though Sunday’s unofficial referendum on Catalan sovereignty may have been legally murky, it is nonetheless clear that Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s strategy of ignoring the groundswell of support for regional self-determination and autonomy has been a failure.cataloniaSpain_Flag_Icon

So what actually happened on Sunday — and where do the Catalan nationalist movement and the Spanish government go from here?

What happened in Sunday’s ‘consultation’ vote

2004155Photo credit to AFP.

Catalans voted in a non-binding, unofficial ‘consultation’ that its Generalitat (or regional government) once hoped would be a legal referendum not unlike the recent September vote on independence in Scotland. But Rajoy has refused to countenance even the idea of negotiating the terms of such a referendum, and he has consistently ruled out any vote as unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, Catalunya’s regional president Artur Mas (pictured above) has championed a referendum since at least 2012, and his party and other more radical groups in the Catalan regional parliament overwhelmingly voted to hold the referendum, setting the central and Catalan regional governments on what has been a divisive battle over the past year.

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RELATED: Mas cancels official Catalan independence vote

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Mas backed down on the ‘official’ nature of the referendum, which in any event was always designed to be non-binding, when Spain’s constitutional court ruled that the vote was illegal last month. Much to the chagrin of other, more leftist nationalists, however, Mas instead moved forward with an unofficial referendum, taking care not to use official Spanish government resources to conduct the vote.

The Spanish constitutional court ruled last week, in a second decision, that even this unofficial, non-binding ‘consultation’ should be delayed until it could have time to rule on its further legality. Mas went ahead with the vote, anyway, however, prompting a sharp rebuke from Rajoy’s government on Sunday:

Justice Minister Rafael Catalá described the November 9 vote as an “act of political propaganda with no democratic validity; a sterile and useless act.”

The minister went on to announce that the public prosecutor would evaluate the facts of Sunday’s vote and decide whether or not to begin legal action in the courts.

Though the law is squarely on the side of the Spanish government, the Catalans seem to have valid political and moral reasons for demanding at least a voice over their own future. In any event, at least 2.3 million Catalans turned out for the vote, representing around 35% of the total Catalan electorate, nearly all of them were pro-independence voters.

The vote asked two questions: first, ‘do you want Catalunya to be a state?’ and second, ‘if so, do you want Catalunya to be an independent state?’

The so-called ‘yes-yes’ vote won with around 80.8% of the vote. The so-called ‘yes-no’ vote (i.e., those supporters of a Catalan state, but not necessarily an independent state) won another 10.1%. ‘No’ won just 4.5% of the vote.

While that’s skewed in favor of the independence movement, it’s also not insignificant — and it indicates that a large portion of the Catalan people want a legal and valid vote on their status. The longer that Madrid assumes an ostrich position over what’s become a very real sense of grievance among everyday Catalans, the worse the standoff over independence will end. By refusing to discuss the possibility, Rajoy and the central government risk pushing moderate unionists into the arms of the Catalan nationalists.

Nevertheless, Sunday’s turnout fell far short of the 3.7 million voters who participated in the most recent November 2012 regional elections, indicating that a substantial number of voters (who presumably aren’t as enthusiastic about independence) didn’t bother to turn out. The two-pronged ballot question demonstrates the kind of too-cute-by-half ambiguity that British prime minister David Cameron refused to entertain when negotiating the Scottish referendum — what, after all, does it mean for Catalunya to be a state if not independent?

A frustrated electorate trapped between Rajoy and Mas


The most obvious solution to the standoff is a calm, rational conversation between the Mas and Rajoy governments that would result in greater autonomy for Catalunya’s Generalitat with respect to its own finances and spending. Incredibly, however, the two leaders went months earlier this year without even talking.

Rajoy, whose center-right Partido Popular (PP, People’s Party) won the November 2011 Spanish general elections, has consistently refused to discuss greater autonomy for Catalunya. In part, this is because Rajoy’s party has fairly little support within Catalunya — the Partit Popular de Catalunya (PPC, People’s Party of Catalonia) is just the fourth-largest bloc in the regional parliament. So Rajoy feels little immediate political pain from snubbing the region.

When he took office, Rajoy faced the likelihood that Spain would be essentially forced into a European bailout. As it turned out, Rajoy was forced into implementing budget cuts and tax increases to stave off a bailout — in addition to similar austerity measures introduced by his predecessor, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the center-left prime minister whose Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) came to power in 2004 at the dawn of the Spanish construction and finance boom.

Accordingly, Rajoy has a decent argument for avoiding a full-fledged independence referendum: with a 23.7% unemployment rate as of September, Spain is still in the midst of the worst financial and economic crisis in decades. An independence referendum in Catalunya might credibly be followed by a referendum in the Basque Country/Euskadi, another economic powerhouse with an even more painful history of separatism. Copycat movements could thrive in Galicia and elsewhere. So Rajoy has a reasonably sympathetic argument that a Catalan referendum in the midst of the current crisis could eventually pose an existential threat to the Spanish nation.

But that’s not an excuse for ignoring the problem. What’s worse is that the Spanish economic crisis is itself also fueling greater discontent among Catalans, who believe they send far more in revenue to the Spanish central government than they receive back in services and infrastructure. Though the data isn’t entirely clear, the Catalans are essentially correct. It rankles that all high-speed trains in Spain run through Madrid, for example, and that almost all of the country’s international flights arrive at the Madrid airport. Catalunya, with just 7.5 million of Spain’s 47 million citizens, is responsible for 19% of the economy.

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RELATED: In refusing Catalan vote,
Rajoy risks isolating himself and Spain’s future

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The Scottish referendum was also about economics (nationalists believe they can thrive as a smaller, oil-rich country within the European Union) and about politics (like the PP in Catalunya, the Conservatives have relatively little support in Scotland). But the Catalan movement is also colored by additional layers of complexity that Rajoy shows virtually no sign of appreciating — notably decades of suppression of its language and culture by the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. When Rajoy’s education minister, a few years ago, suggested a stronger national program in the Castilian language, it particularly rankled Catalans, many of whom remember the days when the Catalan language was legally banned.

But Mas, the leader of the Convergència i Unió (CiU, Convergence and Union), a two-party, center-right nationalist coalition that’s traditionally been the most powerful force in Catalan politics since the return of democracy, is hardly an honest broker. CiU has always been more comfortable with greater autonomy than full independence, and Mas only recently converted to the cause in 2012 following widespread protests. Since taking power in 2010, Mas has made many of the same painful, unpopular budget decisions at the regional level that Rajoy has made at the national level. What’s more, Jordi Pujol, the former CiU leader and Catalan president between 1980 and 2003, has been subject of increasing scrutiny over his personal wealth and corruption accusations.

Accordingly, neither Mas nor Rajoy come out of the current showdown from a incredible position of strength. That might not necessarily matter if they could at least find a middle ground to discuss the most sensible solution to the political crisis — constitutional reform, greater regional autonomy and the possible creation of a federalist system in Spain.

As elections loom, what comes next?


So far, however, the chances of any productive talks between Madrid and Barcelona seem small.

Mas has given Rajoy a two-week deadline to begin negotiations for a formal referendum. Rajoy, however, is almost certainly unlikely to take Mas up on that offer.

What happens thereafter is murky, though.

Mas’s party, the larger, more moderate and more aggressive Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC, Democratic Covergence) within the CiU, would like to hold early regional elections, rolling the dice that they would become a de facto referendum on Catalan independence — or at least the right of the Catalan government to call a vote. The smaller, Christian democratic Unió Democràtica de Catalunya (UDC, Democratic Union) has always been less enthusiastic about Mas’s push for independence and would prefer to wait on snap elections.

Part of the political calculus for Mas, Rajoy and the CiU are polls that show that the most popular party in Catalunya is now the leftist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalonia), an even more radical pro-independence party led by historian Oriol Junqueras.

On paper, at least, the PP and the CiU have much more in common than the PP and Esquerra, so both Rajoy and Mas have an incentive to reach some kind of face-saving deal in the next few days.

But at the rate Rajoy is going, he may not have the opportunity to negotiate anything in the long run.

The rise of the anti-establishment Podemos (‘We can!’), the movement founded earlier this year by professor Pablo Iglesias (pictured above), has scrambled all pretenses of Spain’s two-party system. Winning five of the country’s seats to the European Parliament in May, Podemos wants to reevaluate Spain’s public debt, lower the retirement age to 60 to free up more jobs for younger workers and reverse the austerity of the past two PSOE and PP governments, using government spending to create jobs for a country that still has the highest unemployment within the European Union, despite signs of new growth. A Podemos win would be a significant setback to the orthodox policies that German chancellor Angela Merkel has attempted to establish throughout the eurozone, including the 2011 ‘fiscal compact’ that firmly limits national budget deficits to less than 3% of GDP.

Podemos, in a shock Metroscopia poll a couple weeks ago, gained the lead among potential voters in advance of the next Spanish general election, which must be held before December 2015 — it would win 27.7% to just 26.2% for the PSOE, under the leadership of Pedro Sánchez, who won his party’s July leadership contest, and 20.7 for Rajoy’s PP. Sánchez, for his part, opposes Catalan independence, but has indicated much greater willingness to hold discussions with regional leaders over constitutional reform.

The local Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC-PSOE, Socialists’ Party of Catalonia) controlled the regional government between 2003 and 2010, and many of its members are sympathetic to the idea that Catalans should have the right to self-determination.

Though Podemos is widely viewed as a leftist alternative, it has attracted widespread support from many Spaniards who have lost faith in both major parties, especially among young voters who face the worst job prospects, and the indignados, the unemployed protestors who have given voice to the harsh effects of what are now a half-decade of austerity policies.

Ironically, Podemos has attracted little support within Catalunya, where voters have a nationalist (and leftist) alternative in Esquerra.

But as Spain nears the one-year mark until its elections, with the November 9 referendum now in the rear-view mirror, the brinksmanship between Rajoy and Mas won’t matter if they can’t find a path toward reconciliation. At this time next year, their respective governments could be headed by much more radical figures.

Mas cancels official Catalan independence vote

diadaPhoto credit to Diario de Navarra.

If you thought that the Scottish independence referendum was a  divisive matter, just wait another three weeks.Spain_Flag_Iconcatalonia

Even though Catalunya’s regional president Artur Mas officially cancelled a scheduled referendum on Catalan independence originally scheduled for November 9, diffusing a constitutional crisis with the national Spanish government, Mas announced that Catalans will instead have the option to participate in a non-binding ‘consultation.’

From referendum to ‘consultation’


In substance, the informal ‘consultation’ isn’t incredibly different than the formal vote that Mas (pictured above) and the Catalan regional parliament initially scheduled, given that Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy denounced the vote and questioned the ability of Mas or a majority of the Catalan parliament to call a referendum legally. Spain’s constitutional court ruled the referendum unconstitutional at the end of September, and Mas originally declared that the vote would go forward.

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RELATED: In refusing Catalan vote,
Rajoy risks isolating himself and Spain’s future

RELATED: Can Felipe VI do for federalism what
Juan Carlos did for democracy?

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Mas’s admission this week that the vote will be informal and non-binding reduces many of the tensions with Madrid, though the original vote wasn’t entirely binding, either. But his announcement may dampen his credibility with pro-independence Catalans (critics took to Twitter to declare it was ‘game over’ for Mas) and force the third regional election in four years.

Nevertheless, the referendum will still ask Catalan voters the same two questions as before:

Do you want Catalonia to be a state?

If so, do you want Catalonia to be an independent state?

No matter what happened on November 9, no one believed that the issue of Catalan sovereignty would be definitively settled anytime soon.  Continue reading Mas cancels official Catalan independence vote

Ruiz-Gallardón resigns after Rajoy drops Spanish abortion bill

spainabortionsPhoto credit to Susana Vera/Reuters.

It’s not just the United States that struggles over competing beliefs about abortion. In Spain, pro-choice advocates won one of their biggest international victories of the decade when the country’s conservative government this week backed down on plans to implement a restrictive new abortion law. Spain_Flag_Icon

Spanish justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón resigned Tuesday after prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s cabinet dropped plans for legislation that would heavily restrict abortion rights in the European Union’s fifth-most populous country. The law would have largely rolled back liberalizations enacted by the previous center-left government of prime minister José Luis Zapatero.

Though Rajoy and the Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party) promised abortion reforms in the campaign that led to their election in December 2011, the legislation has been stalled by political opposition, not just from regional and leftist parties, but within corners of the People’s Party itself, including several prominent party leaders. They include the regional president of Galicia, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, who in January called on the national government to tone down the ambitions of its abortion bill, and the deputy speaker of the Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), Celia Villalobos.

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RELATED: New PSOE leader Sánchez faces uphill struggle to unite Spanish left

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Nevertheless, Gallardón had increasingly staked his credibility as justice minister on the bill’s success, arguing earlier this year that the legislation would advance by the end of the summer. That didn’t happen and, on Friday, Rajoy’s cabinet refused to advance the bill.

Continue reading Ruiz-Gallardón resigns after Rajoy drops Spanish abortion bill

New PSOE leader Sánchez faces uphill struggle to unite Spanish left


He’s a disarmingly handsome economics professor, and he’s the first major Spanish party leader who grew up chiefly in the post-Franco era and in the era of Spanish democracy.Spain_Flag_Icon

But Pedro Sánchez, who leapfrogged the more well-known Eduardo Madina to become the leader of Spain’s Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) earlier this month, and who will assume the leadership later this week, will have his work cut out for him before elections that will take place within the next 17 months, with the party’s traditional voting base increasingly supporting both new and established alternatives on the Spanish left. 

Sánchez (pictured above), just 42 years old, has only been a member of the Congreso de los Diputados (Congress of Deputies), the lower house of the Spanish parliament, the Cortes Generales, from 2009 to 2011 and  since January 2013, representing Madrid, where he served as a city councillor for the preceding five years.

Sánchez won the PSOE’s first direct contest to elect the party’s general secretary in a three-way race, with 48.7% of all votes against just 36.1% for Madina and 15.1% for the more left-wing José Antonio Pérez Tapias.

Though Madina, at age 38, is even younger than Sánchez, he’s been a member of the Congress of Deputies since 2004 and the secretary-general of the PSOE’s congressional caucus since 2009. A Basque federalist, he was perceived as the frontrunner in the race, especially after taking a republican stand in the aftermath of Juan Carlos I’s abdication from the throne. But the favorite to lead the PSOE, Andalusia’s 39-year-old regional president, Susana Díaz, endorsed Sánchez instead, as did many former officials from the administration of former prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, including former public works and transportation minister José Blanco.

That effectively lifted the more unknown Sánchez, who holds a doctorate in economics, above Madina, who once lost part of his left leg in a Basque nationalist bomb blast.

On his election, Sánchez declared the ‘beginning of the end of Rajoy,’  challenging the unpopular center-right government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy, which has presided over the worst of Spain’s recent economic crisis.

Not so fast.  Continue reading New PSOE leader Sánchez faces uphill struggle to unite Spanish left

With Spanish left reeling, Rubalcaba steps down as PSOE leader


The European parliamentary elections have claimed their first national leader in Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the general secretary of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), Spain’s traditional center-left party.Spain_Flag_Icon

In Sunday’s elections, Spanish voters elected 54 members of the European Parliament. The ruling Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy won the largest share of the vote, around 26%, and the largest number of seats, 16.

The PSOE placed second with just 23% and 14 seats — that’s a loss of nine seats in the European Parliament.


Rubalcaba, taking the blame for his party’s losses, announced he would step down from the leadership, calling a meeting on July 19-20 to select a new general secretary of Spain’s largest center-left party:

“We have not managed to regain the trust of the citizens,” Mr Rubalcaba told a press conference in Madrid on Monday, adding that he would not stand for re-election at an extraordinary party conference in July. “We have to take political responsibility for the bad results, and this decision is absolutely mine,” he added.

There’s no guarantee that the next PSOE leader will be able to unite the Spanish left, which has fractured in the face of the economic crisis in the past five years.

The PSOE’s performance was hardly much worse than Rajoy’s party, which lost eight seats. Taken together, the two major Spanish parties won around 49% of the vote. That’s down from nearly 84% in the 2008 Spanish general election, 80% in the previous 2009 European elections and 73% in the 2011 general election.

So while the greater pressure fell on Rubalcaba and the PSOE, the results are hardly heartening for Rajoy. Continue reading With Spanish left reeling, Rubalcaba steps down as PSOE leader

A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 1)


We now have most of the results from across Europe in the 28-state elections to elect all 751 members of the European Parliament.European_Union

At the European level,  the center-right, Christian democratic European People’s Party (EPP) emerged with about 25 more seats than the center-left, social democratic Party of European Socialists (PES).

That immediately gives former the EPP’s candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, former Luxembourgish prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, a boost in his efforts to actually become the Commission president. But it’s still far from automatic, despite Juncker’s aggressive posture at a press conference Sunday evening:

“I feel fully entitled to become the next president of the European Commission,” Juncker, a former Luxembourg prime minister, told supporters late yesterday in Brussels after the release of preliminary results. Premier for 18 years until he was voted out of office in December, Juncker also gained recognition in his dual role as head of the group of euro-area finance ministers during the debt crisis.

Juncker (pictured above) still must to convince the European Council to propose him as Commission president, and he’ll still need to win over enough right-wing or center-left allies to win a majority vote in the European Parliament.

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RELATED: Here come the Spitzenkandidaten! But does anybody care?

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That process, which could feature a major battle between the European Council and the European Parliament, will unfold in the days, weeks and possibly months ahead.

But what do the results mean across Europe in each country? Here’s a look at how the European elections are reverberating across the continent.  Continue reading A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 1)

In refusing Catalan vote, Rajoy risks isolating himself and Spain’s future

rajoy isolated

It’s not like Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy didn’t have any warning.cataloniaSpain_Flag_Icon

Catalan regional president Artur Mas called early regional elections for November 2012 for the express purpose of winning a mandate behind the call for greater autonomy and/or independence for Catalunya.  That didn’t work out so incredibly well for Mas and his autonomist center-right Convergència i Unió (CiU, Convergence and Union), which lost 12 seats in the 135-member Catalan parliament, and was forced to form a unity government with the pro-independence, leftist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalunya).  Nonetheless, the election largely ratified the strength of the Catalan separatists, who control 87 seats to just 48 for Catalunya’s federalist parties. catalanmap

Three months ago, on September 11 — upon the celebration of Catalan national day — nearly 400,000 Catalan citizens formed a human chain stretching from the Pyrenees to the coast to emphasize just how fervently they support their right to self-determination.

Rajoy, much to his discredit, has ignored those Catalans, and Mas’s government has now set November 9, 2014 as the date for a referendum on Catalan independence — with or without the Spanish federal government’s blessing — after a vote last Thursday in the Catalan parliament that enjoyed the universal support of Mas’s Convergence and Union, the Republic Left and the Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds (ICV, Initiative for Catalonia Greens).  Rajoy (pictured above) and his justice minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón (pictured below) have made clear that not only is a referendum unacceptable under the Spanish constitution, but that they won’t be coerced into negotiating with Mas over devolving greater power (and funds) back to Catalunya, one of the wealthiest regions in Spain.  With over 7.5 million people, the region account for one-fifth of Spain’s economic output.


If the vote actually goes ahead next November (and there’s some reason to believe that Mas is bluffing), it could constitute the most severe constitutional crisis since Spain’s return to democracy in the late 1970s.

To some degree, it’s easy to sympathize with Rajoy.  Though he took office just over two years ago when the center-right Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party) ousted the center-left government headed by José Luis Zapatero and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) in November 2011, Rajoy’s popularity has plummeted as he’s pushed Spain through higher taxes and budget cuts.  That fiscal adjustment is plausibly both the cause and effect of a cycle of economic depression that’s left Spain reeling, including an unemployment rate of 26.6% that may be peaking only after five years of GDP contraction.  Spanish finances remain in tatters, despite the budgetary efforts of both the Zapatero and Rajoy governments, and Rajoy simply can’t afford to send more euros to Barcelona.  It’s not difficult to see the slippery slope that would begin once Rajoy starts negotiating with Rajoy over Spanish federalism.  An equally pro-autonomy regional government in Euskadi (Basque Country), which is also wealthier than the Spanish average, will be sure to follow with their own demands.  Other regions, like Galicia and Andalusia, the latter one of Europe’s most economically forlorn, might also make demands for stimulus.

It’s equally easy to see the naked political game that Mas is playing.  You need only look to the way that the referendum will be structured — Catalans will first be asked, ‘Do you want Catalonia to be a state?’ Those who agree with the first question will subsequently be asked, ‘Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state?’  The vote will be an easy way for Catalans to register their disapproval with Madrid without taking the kind of steps that could truly rupture Catalunya from Spain and that could leave Catalunya as an independent country outside the European Union (if only temporarily).  Mas is clearly using the referendum as a game to strengthen his hand vis-à-vis negotiations with Rajoy and, perhaps, to maximize his own standing within the Catalan electorate.  Some relatively moderate voices within the CiU coalition have even said that the referendum should only be held if it’s ultimately deemed ‘legal’ by Madrid.  The shell game of posing two questions to determine whether Catalunya should be a state or an independent state conveniently blurs the line of independence — it’s such a cynical ploy that it’s hard to take Mas seriously as a statesman, despite the legitimate sentiment of millions of pro-independence Catalans.

But Mas can get away with such demagoguery largely because of Rajoy’s intransigence.   Continue reading In refusing Catalan vote, Rajoy risks isolating himself and Spain’s future

Catalans form region-wide human chain to demand vote on independence


Unwilling to wait until 2016 or later for Catalan independence, regional political leaders organized a protest today — on September 11, the Catalan national day — in the form of a human chain that stretched from the French Pyrenees to the Mediterranean coast. Spain_Flag_Iconcatalonia

They did so as more of Catalunya’s 7.5 million citizens favor independence from Spain, with Catalan president Artur Mas still locked in a battle with Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy over federalism and over the issue of whether Catalunya can unilaterally call a referendum to determine its future.

‘La Via Catalana’ — which drew over 500,000 people today — highlights just how strongly many Catalans feel about independence these days, especially in light of an economic crisis that’s taken a toll on all of Spain.  Catalunya, as one of the wealthier regions of Spain, contributes a relatively greater amount to the federal budget and receives comparatively less back from the federal government in return.  Ultimately, Catalans resent sending revenue to poorer regions of Spain in the same way that Germans resent sending revenue to bail out Greece and other poorer countries in the European periphery.  A recent survey shows that 52% of Catalans prefer independence to just 24% who favor remaining part of Spain.

Mas took his case today global with a high-profile op-ed in The New York Times demanding a referendum for Catalan independence:

We also seek no harm to Spain. We are bound together by geography, history and our people, as more than 40 percent of Catalonia’s population came from other parts of Spain or has close family ties. We want to be Spain’s brother, as equal partners. It goes beyond money or cultural differences. We seek the right to have more control over our economy, our politics, our social services.

The best way to solve any problem is to remove its cause. We seek the freedom to vote. Every individual has a right to expect this from his government, while also sharing equally in the benefits. In Europe conflicts are resolved democratically, and that is all we ask.

Mas pointed to the examples of Canada, where the federal government worked with Québec to hold two independence referenda in the past three decades, and to the United Kingdom, where prime minister David Cameron and Scottish first minister Alex Salmond have agreed to the terms of a September 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.

Last week, Mas hinted that he would be willing to back down from his demand of a 2014 referendum, indicating that a vote in 2016 would be largely acceptable.  Mas is still requesting Madrid’s approval to hold a status referendum, but Rajoy, the leader of the center-right Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party) unequivocally opposes Catalan independence and has warned Mas that any referendum held without Madrid’s consent is a violation of the Spanish constitution.  But as popular support for Catalan independence rises to even higher levels, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Rajoy to refuse the opportunity for a clear vote — even Cameron has gently nudged Mas toward agreeing to a referendum.

Complicating the matter is the fact that many Catalans now believe they have the right to hold a vote in 2014 no matter what Rajoy says — and not in 2016 or some future date.  The ‘referendum now’ camp includes the pro-independence, leftist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalunya) as well as many members of Mas’s own autonomist center-right party, Convergència i Unió (CiU, Convergence and Union).

For his part, Mas is willing to delay the referendum until 2016 because a constitutional confrontation with Rajoy might prompt another round of early elections — a mistake Mas is unlikely to make again after calling snap elections shortly after last year’s Catalan national day for November 2012.  Mas did so with a thinly veiled goal of riding the pro-independence wave to an even larger majority in the 135-member Catalan parliament (the Parlament de Catalunya).  But the strategy backfired and the CiU instead lost 12 seats, mostly to the pro-independence Republican Left that, for now, is supporting Mas’s regional government.  Polls earlier this summer showed the Republican Left leading voter opinion for the first time ever, which means that Mas hopes to avoid elections anytime in the near future.  Continue reading Catalans form region-wide human chain to demand vote on independence

Can Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy survive the kickback scandal?


It’s hard not to feel some compassion for Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s government, which limped to its one-year anniversary only in December 2012.Spain_Flag_Icon

In that time, Rajoy’s government has weathered all of the following:

  • the passage of four budget cut packages and painful tax increases — income tax rates have increased, tax breaks for home owners have been eliminated and the Spanish value-added tax increased from 18% to 21%;
  • a volatile bond market that saw Spanish 10-year rates peak at 7.50% briefly at the end of July 2012, and the constant specter of yet another sovereign debt crisis;
  • an increase in the Spanish unemployment rate to 26%, just narrowly below Greece’s 26.8% unemployment rate;
  • yet another contraction in 2012 to Spanish GDP (1.4%) with a 1.5% contraction forecast for 2013;
  • a European bailout in June 2012 of €40 billion for Bankia, a conglomerate of conglomerate of cajas (savings banks) with exposure to Spain’s sagging real estate market, despite Rajoy’s campaign promise not to seek or accept a bailout;
  • the avoidance of a full European bailout of Spanish sovereign debt, while cagily working to ensure that the terms of any eventually bailout are on terms as favorable as possible (in part by holding out until the last possible moment for any potential future bailout);
  • a separatist coalition, propped up by former leftist supporters of the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), took control of the regional Basque government in October 2012;
  • a high-profile showdown with Catalan premier Artur Mas in advance of Catalunya’s regional elections in November 2012 that exacerbated federal-Catalan tensions and all but assured a showdown over holding an independence referendum in 2014.

But now Rajoy’s government — and Rajoy personally — is facing perhaps its biggest crisis yet, in the form of an entirely self-inflicted scandal over slush funds, when it was reported last week that Luis Bárcenas, the former treasurer of Rajoy’s Partido Popular (PP, People’s Party), had been keeping unofficial books that provided expense payments for party leaders, including Rajoy, who received payments of up to €25,000 annually from 1997 to 2008.

The accusations come in addition to an ongoing investigation into the prior PP government of José María Aznar, the so-called Gürtel scandal involving kickbacks for contracts.  The most recent allegations involve slush funds, whereby proceeds came to Bárcenas from private construction companies and went out as payments to top party officials.  So the latest allegations could now also become a major focus of a judicial inquiry into the Gürtel corruption matter, endangering Rajoy’s government.

Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, leader of the center-left opposition Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), called on Rajoy to resign as prime minister last Sunday, and 10-year bond rates are already creeping back up once again.

Rajoy’s resignation could open a further Pandora’s box of adverse outcomes for Spain, including the appointment of an even more right-wing prime minister (ahem, Esperanza Aguirre) and early elections result in strengthening more radical leftists, in the same way that Greece’s 2012 parliamentary elections strengthened SYRIZA, a coalition of the radical left, in the Hellenic parliament.

Rajoy didn’t help matters much on Monday, when he perplexingly explained that reports are all ‘untrue — except for some things.’

That’s certainly not a great reassurance for Spain or for Europe — the last thing the European Union wants, with a Cyprus bailout now on the horizon, is for a political scandal to launch Spain into even more turmoil or cause financial panic anew.  German chancellor Angela Merkel, of course, is widely seen as hoping to wait through her reelection campaign later this year before pursuing any dramatic action on a new European treaty or more decisive action in the eurozone.  Continue reading Can Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy survive the kickback scandal?