The leader of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), Pedro Sanchez, has become prime minister after defeating corruption-tainted Mariano Rajoy in a parliamentary vote of no confidence. Sanchez has promised a few cosmetic changes but will keep the budget approved by Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP) and has vowed to “guarantee economic and fiscal responsibility” as well as to fulfill “European duties”.
PSOE filed the motion of no confidence after the verdict in the Gürtel corruption scandal condemned the ruling PP. The Socialist group in Parliament only has 84 members and Sanchez needed 176 votes to defeat Rajoy. He finally managed to get 180. The left-wing group Unidos Podemos (made up of Podemos, United Left and the Catalan and Galician left coalitions) had promised to support the motion from the start, adding its 67 votes. The Catalan nationalists of ERC and PDECAT also added their votes.
Sanchez still required the crucial votes of the Basque Nationalist party PNV, which the week before had provided the necessary votes for the passing of the PP-Ciudadanos budget in exchange for concessions in the form of investment. Pedro Sanchez then promised to respect the 2018 budget, which his group had opposed the week before. Once the PNV had agreed to support the motion of no confidence, Rajoy’s fate was sealed.
Sanchez forms minority government
Even at that late stage there was still a way out for the Popular Party. If Rajoy were to resign at that point, then the no confidence motion would not have been voted on and the process of Parliament selecting a new government would have started from scratch. Yesterday afternoon the PP general secretary, Cospedal, announced that Rajoy would not resign. In those conditions, the motion of no confidence has automatically led to Pedro Sanchez becoming the prime minister and he will now have to form a government.
This was never the prefered option of the ruling class. Pedro Sanchez only has 84 MPs out of 350, hardly a stable majority. Any policies he wants to pass will have to be negotiated with Podemos and the Catalan or Basque nationalists on a case-by-case basis. Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera described it as a “Frankenstein government”. Of course the right wing was hysterical about the formation of a government with the votes of “far-left” Podemos, “those who want to break up Spain” (ERC and PDECAT) and the “terrorists’ friends” (Basque left-nationalists EH Bildu also voted against Rajoy).
A minority PSOE government will be faced with vicious opposition from the right wing, with the PP still holding an overall majority in the Senate and therefore the power to amend and veto legislation. This will be a source of instability.
What the ruling class would have wanted, once Rajoy became a spent force, was for Sanchez to move quickly to early elections, which they think can produce a more stable coalition to implement the policies they need. This was also the prefered option of extreme liberal Ciudadanos, which is currently ahead in the opinion polls. For some time now sections of the ruling class had been playing with the idea of replacing the PP with some sort of coalition involving PSOE and Ciudadanos.
Of course, it is not in the interests of Pedro Sanchez to call elections immediately, as PSOE is doing badly in the opinion polls. The next general election is scheduled for 2020, after a round of municipal and regional elections in 2019. Sanchez has said that he will form a minority PSOE government but during the debate he also promised early elections. He will probably try to give himself sometime in office in order to improve his ratings and then call elections at a time that suits him.
This means that he will probably deliver some cosmetic reforms that cost no or little money, while maintaining the main planks of fiscal policy. He is already bound to keep the right-wing 2018 budget he opposed last week. Furthermore his assurances over fiscal responsibility and Europe will mean no substantial changes to a policy of cuts and austerity, only mildly alleviated by the economic growth Spain has experienced since 2014.
The ‘markets’ have already reacted positively to the imminent formation of a PSOE minority government. Goldman Sachs issued a note saying investors should not be “concerned” with the change of government. The stock exchange rebounded and rose to 2 percent higher than Thursday’s close. The cost of borrowing fell by 100 points.
In order to boost his progressive credentials Sanchez will probably repeal some of the most undemocratic aspects of the “Gag Law”, take some measures regarding gender pay gap and even throw some crumbs to the pensioners who have been in the streets for the last few months.
On the crucial issue of Catalonia’s self-determination he has said he will open “lines of dialogue” with the new Catalan president Quim Torra, but always “within the limits of the Constitution and the Catalan Autonomy Statute”. Torra’s government has already accepted the limits of what is allowed by the Spanish regime, replacing all his proposed ministers who were in jail or in exile. This, de facto, means a betrayal of the mandate of the 1 October independence referendum as well as what the mandate of the 21 December Catalan election.
Torra was elected promising to deliver a Catalan Republic but a fortnight later he has accepted the undemocratic limits of the Spanish Constitution. On this basis, any talks will just serve to ratify the fact that the Spanish regime has, for now, managed to smash the Catalan challenge.
The Unidos Podemos group in Parliament welcomed the victory in the no confidence motion with shouts of “Yes we can” and Pablo Iglesias asked Pedro Sanchez to include them in the government:
"I hope Sanchez understands that it is almost impossible to govern with 84 deputies and that Spain needs a stable, strong government that transmits guarantees to the EU that it can implement a progressive government program with a parliamentary majority of at least 156 deputies."
This is a serious mistake. A government which “transmits guarantees to the EU” can never implement a “progressive program”.
Defeat austerity with mass struggle
Of course it was correct to vote to bring down the hated, reactionary and corrupt PP government. The end of the Rajoy administration should be celebrated. However, we cannot forget that on all major issues, it counted on the support of the PSOE. This was the case when it trampled the democratic rights of the Catalan people. It was also the case when the PP and PSOE rushed the modification of article 135 in order to enshrine fiscal austerity in the Constitution.
The degree to which concessions can be wrested from the PSOE government will depend on the combination of parliamentary pressure with mass mobilisation in the streets. The removal of Rajoy will be welcomed by the masses of working people across the country. There will be some illusions that Pedro Sanchez can introduce significant changes. This is a necessary experience.
The left should not foster any such illusions but rather organise and mobilise to demand the PSOE government implements real change in a whole number of areas of economic policy, democratic freedoms, etc. Only the entry of the masses on the scene can fundamentally change the parliamentary arithmetic.
Rajoy has been defeated. His policies can only be defeated through mass struggle.