The recent general election has brought out into the open in spectacular fashion the multiple fissures that beset Spain. These fissures run deep and generate much heat and passion. So much that it is almost impossible to envisage a stable government emerging from the election. There were no real winners, but lots of losers.
In conventional left and right terms the outcome is pretty much a draw. The two right wing parties – the conservatives (PP) and Citizens (Cs) won 163 seats, while the three left parties – the socialists (PSOE), the new radical alternative party Podemos and United Left (IU), won 161 seats. IU won only two seats, so will not have a great deal of influence in the post election negotiations. As 176 MPs are needed for an overall majority, neither grouping could form a government on their own.
All the other 27 seats were won by parties that are either in favour of independence from Spain, or in favour of greater regional powers within Spain. Though all of these parties are either right of centre or left of centre, their prime political objective is either independence or a radical restructuring of the Spanish state. Herein lies the problem for the other Spanish wide parties.
None of the Spanish parties are in any way in favour of independence for either Catalunya or the Basque country. In fact only Podemos is in favour of a radical restructuring of Spain to accommodate the national aspirations of Catalunya and the Basque country. The key here is the right of self-determination, or in practical terms, the right to hold a binding referendum on independence. Podemos is in favour of changing the constitution to allow this, though most of Podemos voters would then vote against independence. However both the conservative and the socialists have repeatedly vowed to never allow a referendum to be held anywhere. They are not just against independence, but against the right of self-determination. They are viscerally opposed to all nationalism, other than the Spanish variety.
It is therefore hard to see how any stable coalition could be formed that included some of the Basque or Catalan nationalists. Neither the PP nor PSOE are likely to be willing to give enough on the constitution and a referendum to meet even the most minimum demands from the nationalists. A further complication is that in Catalunya the various pro-independence parties now control the Catalan parliament and government, and they are it seems no longer much in favour of a referendum. They are working to their own timetable towards a declaration of independence, on the grounds that Madrid will never allow a referendum.
A minority government of PSOE, Podemos and IU is theoretically possible, with the passive support of the nationalists. The difficulty here is that Podemos would in all probability insist on making a reform of the constitution, including electoral reform, a precondition for any coalition. So far there is nothing to indicate that the socialists are prepared to even contemplate such a possibility.
It must be pointed out here that no reform of the constitution is possible in the next legislature as the PP have enough MPs to ensure that not reform can happen without their approval. A two thirds majority is needed for a change to the constitution. What a PSOE/Podemos government could do though is jointly commit to a radical restructuring, work out the details and then put it to the voters in another election in two years time, and hope for a large enough majority to get the changes through parliament. Not at all sure that the socialist would be up for this.
The only feasible option for a stable coalition is a Grand Coalition on the German style. PP and PSOE together have the votes to guarantee stability. They also have much in common policy wise. Especially on their opposition to any accommodation with the nationalists. PSOE is in theory a bit more open to changes to the constitution, but in practice they are as committed to a united and permanent Spain as the conservatives. Such a coalition would probably adopt a slightly less aggressive austerity programme. It might be enough to keep the socialists happy at any rate.
However, however, tantalising though this might appear to the PSOE leadership, to would be the most risky option for the party. They are already under great electoral threat from Podemos to their left, and any kind of capitulation to the hated conservatives could be a four year death sentence. Even if the socialists did not enter into a formal coalition, but merely abstained and allowed the conservatives to govern for another four years, this would make little or no difference.
It is very difficult to see a way through this impasse. It must also be very frustrating for Podemos. They have done well, but not quite well enough. There is probably a majority in favour of their anti-austerity programme, but until the constitutional questions are resolved, they will not be in a position to implement them. Either the catalan nationalists give up on independence or the socialists become open to fundamental reform of the constitution. Unless at least one of these political changes happens soon, we are likely to be heading for another general election in March. With little prospect of much change.
The other difficulty for Podemos is that unless the socialists come on board for a new plurinational Spain with a radically reformed constitution, Podemos itself is likely to lose out badly in Catalunya and the Basque country. Podemos is for a new Spain, but what if, as these results show, the overwhelming majority of Spaniards outwith Catalunya and the Bas que country are adamantly opposed to this new Spain? What if the Spanish state is effectively unreformable? Will enough of Podemos voters in Catalunya faced with the unwillingness and inability of Spain to change, in future decide that an independent Catalunya is a far more welcoming prospect?
It could just be that the biggest winner in the long run from these elections turns out to be the Catalan independence movement.