by Omar G. Encarnación
Call it the revenge of the separatists. At the end of last week, Spain’s leading nationalist-regionalist parties, the Basque Nationalist Party and the Republican Left of Catalonia, delivered the crucial votes for the censure motion that ousted Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the right-wing Popular Party (PP) from power. The motion was orchestrated by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). An obscure stipulation in the Spanish constitution borrowed from Germany, such a motion allows for the removal of a sitting government if a successful vote of no confidence is accompanied by the selection of the next head of government with an absolute parliamentary majority. The vote last week made Rajoy the first Spanish leader in the post-Franco era to exit office in such an ignoble manner. The Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez, now Madrid’s new prime minister, had given Rajoy multiple chances to resign, but Rajoy chose to be forced out rather than to leave of his own accord.
This was a spectacular fall for one of western Europe’s longest-ruling premiers, but not an altogether surprising one. An uncharismatic politician from the northwestern region of Galicia, Rajoy had been defying the laws of political gravity for decades. He twice sought the prime ministership, in 2004 and 2008, before finally prevailing in 2011. Along the way, Rajoy accumulated plenty of powerful enemies, especially in Spain’s separatist regions, Catalonia most notably. His most memorable and consequential decision was last year’s controversial shutdown of Catalonia’s autonomous regional government, after that government’s separatist leaders boldly defied Madrid by declaring the region an independent republic.
Rajoy’s removal of a popularly elected regional government, a removal which is allowed under the Spanish constitution, was preceded by his disastrous decision to send the national police to Catalonia to prevent the separatist government from holding a referendum on independence, a referendum that Spain’s Constitutional Court had already declared unconstitutional. The sight of police officers physically preventing people from exercising the right to vote was one of the darkest moments of Spain’s still young democracy. Rajoy’s overreaction foreclosed the possibility for a dialogue to solve the impasse in Catalonia, if only because it handed Catalan separatists a moral victory that overshadowed their own reckless and unconstitutional behavior.
Last week came the straw that broke the camel’s back: a stunning string of corruption indictments, including the charge that the PP had operated a slush fund to pay for bribes, an accusation that Rajoy had denied when it first arose about five years ago. According to reporting by The New York Times, Luis Bárcenas, a former PP treasurer, received a 33-year prison sentence and a 44 million euro ($51.3 million) fine for benefiting from a kickbacks-for-contracts scheme. The judges overseeing the case also sentenced another 25 party operatives and businesspeople on corruption charges, resulting in sentences collectively amounting to more than 300 years in prison, and they fined the PP 245,000 euros for operating a slush fund, a first for a political party in Spain.
What comes next is not altogether clear, but it is unlikely that Rajoy’s departure will put an end to the political instability that Spain has endured in recent years. The editorial page of El País, Spain’s leading daily, summed up the sentiment of the moment in one short headline: “An Unviable Government.” The PSOE controls only 84 of 350 parliamentary seats, which means that the party will have to rely on negotiations with the rest of the political parties to enact any legislation. These include Podemos, a left-wing populist party with which the PSOE has a toxic relationship, and nationalist parties from Catalonia and the Basque Country. Both pose significant dangers for the PSOE: Podemos will try to push the PSOE to the left on economic issues, such as by encouraging it to undo the labor-market reforms introduced by the Rajoy administration to reduce unemployment, which would upset the business community, and the nationalist parties will attempt to extract more autonomy for their regions from Madrid than the general electorate is willing to tolerate. After all, Rajoy, despite his lack of popularity, was able to stay in power by projecting an image of himself as the protector of national unity.
Reasons for optimism, however, do exist. Sánchez has already promised to continue Rajoy’s conservative economic program, which is credited with restoring stability and growth to the Spanish economy after the economic crisis triggered by the bursting of the housing bubble in 2007. Clearly, embracing Rajoy’s economic policies is intended to calm the markets. More encouraging, perhaps, is Sánchez’s pledge to negotiate with the Catalans, something Rajoy flatly refused to do. Of course, it is questionable that the genie of Catalan independence can be put back in the bottle at this point. But the prospects for a breakthrough in Catalonia cannot be ruled out, given that the new government has every incentive to strike a new deal with the Catalan leadership to improve its own chances of staying in power.
A new regional government was recently inaugurated in Catalonia that, although still committed to independence, has tried to put some distance between itself and last year’s aborted attempt to gain independence. And if one political party in Madrid can manage to at least get a handle on the situation in Catalonia, it is the PSOE. Going back to the liberal Second Republic of the 1930s, the party has supported the aspirations for autonomy in Spain’s regions, much to the chagrin of Spanish conservatives, who worship at the altar of a unified and culturally monolithic Spain. Spain’s last Socialist government, headed by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, endorsed the Catalans’ previous proposal for upgrading their autonomy charter with Madrid. But Rajoy blocked the proposal when he entered office, in 2011. He took the Catalans to court, and won, triggering the current crisis.
Sánchez, whom Rajoy defeated twice, in 2015 and 2016, will likely call for new elections to fully legitimate his government. Accusations of a democratic deficit are already being lobbed by the PP. All parties want to avoid the nightmare of what happened in 2015, and again in 2016, when no political party won a clear majority of the seats in the parliament and Spain remained without a government for almost two years. The biggest electoral threat for the new Socialist government is not its old right-wing nemesis, the PP, but Ciudadanos, or “Citizens,” which is currently challenging the PP’s standing as Spain’s leading conservative party. A Catalan party with statewide ambitions, Ciudadanos has benefited from the Catalan crisis; it has been a strong defender of Spanish unity and a fierce opponent of Catalan independence, but without Rajoy’s heavy-handedness (or authoritarianism, as some might call it). The party also enjoys a reputation for centrism in an environment of extreme political polarization. Despite having come to prominence in 2007 as an anticorruption party, Ciudadanos declined to support the no-confidence vote. The price that the party’s leader, Albert Rivera, put on his party’s support for the censure motion was simply unacceptable to the Socialists: that a consensus candidate be named the next head of the government. Rivera is clearly already looking ahead to the next elections, encouraged by polls that show Ciudadanos to be ahead of all the other parties. By not supporting Rajoy’s ouster, Rivera was likely trying to avoid upsetting conservative voters, who remain loyal to Rajoy. Rivera is well aware that any chance his party has to dislodge the Socialists from power hinges on either peeling off conservative support from the PP or entering into a coalition with it.
Having gained power though an arcane constitutional procedure, and now looking forward to having to negotiate public policy with a multiplicity of political parties whose only common ground appears to be a distaste for the departed administration, Spain’s new Socialist government can expect rocky times ahead. But if it manages to get some things done, especially a new autonomy agreement with the Catalans, the new government can set itself up for a successful reelection. This, in turn, could put Spain on the path back to the remarkable political stability that the country has for the most part enjoyed since it became a worldwide symbol of democratic transition and consolidation some four decades ago.
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.