Spain’s Sanchez wins cliffhanger vote to form government

Spain's caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez applauds at the Spanish parliament in Madrid Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020. Spain's parliament chose Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez to form a new government Tuesday, ending almost a year of political limbo for the eurozone's fourth-largest economy. Sánchez won a cliff-hanger confidence vote 167-165, with 18 abstentions. It was the slimmest victory for a prime minister candidate in decades.(AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Spain’s Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez scraped through a confidence vote Tuesday with hard-fought support from smaller parties, allowing him to form a new leftist coalition government and end almost a year of political limbo in the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy.

Sánchez’s cliffhanger victory by just two votes in parliament — the final tally was 167-165, with 18 abstentions — was the slimmest for a prime minister candidate in decades. The left-wing United We Can party will be a junior partner in the coalition.

Sánchez needed the votes or abstention promise of an array of smaller parties to get past. His supporters in parliament erupted into a standing ovation when the result of the vote was announced in the Chamber of Deputies.

The hair-line margin of victory has raised doubts about how long the coalition government will last, as its policies require regular parliamentary approval. A government term is normally four years. Arrayed against Sánchez ’s administration will be three main right-of-center parties.

Coalition governments are common in Europe, but it is Spain’s first since the country returned to democracy in 1978, three years after the death of long-time dictator Gen. Francisco Franco.

“A progressive coalition is going to govern because that is what Spaniards decided,” Sánchez told the house before the vote.

Sánchez, 47, has been caretaker prime minister since early last year.

He is expected to sworn in Wednesday and hold his first Cabinet meeting of ministers Friday.

Sánchez’s Socialists won two consecutive general elections in 2019, but both times they failed to capture a parliamentary majority. That meant they couldn’t win the parliamentary confidence vote that is required before taking office.

In weeks of negotiations since the last election in November, Sánchez mustered enough support — or promises to abstain — from a handful of small regional parties to take power.

Andrew Dowling, an expert on Spanish contemporary politics at Cardiff University in Wales, said Sanchez attained power through “a very fragile agreement” with other parties and will now be “subject to intense political pressure” by his right-of-center political opponents.

“They’re not going to give any quarter to this new government (which has) a very, very fragile majority. They are going to use all means necessary to prevent this government passing legislation,” Dowling said in a telephone interview.

Dowling said he didn’t expect any radical policies from the new administration, predicting it will present “a moderate social democratic program” focusing on workers’ and womens’ rights.

Sanchez has been widely criticized for the deal he clinched with the regional Catalan ERC party for it to abstain in Tuesday’s vote. ERC, which holds 13 seats, is one of several groups that want Catalonia’s independence from Spain.

Opposition parties, most of them right-wing, have lambasted Sánchez for striking deals with parties intent on breaking up Spain, though Sanchez has insisted he won’t allow the wealthy region’s secession.

Pablo Casado, leader of the main opposition center-right Popular Party, described Sánchez as an “extremist” for putting the government in the hands of “terrorists and coup supporters” in references to the deals made with Basque and Catalan separatist parties to abstain in Tuesday’s vote.

The Catalan independence push has brought Spain’s most serious political crisis in decades.

The Socialists defend the deal with ERC, saying the Catalan crisis must be resolved through talks, something they have agreed to do with the ERC.

Dowling, the analyst, said Sanchez’s promises to the ERC will expose him to attacks from the right. “Any concessions to the Catalan independence forces will be like a red rag to a bull” to his opponents, Dowling said.

Sánchez tried to get elected in a first parliamentary confidence vote last Sunday, but he fell far short of the target of 176 votes. Under Spanish law, in the second round of voting Tuesday he needed only a simple majority — more votes for him than against him.

King Felipe VI asked Sánchez to try and form a government following the Nov. 10 ballot, when the Socialists got the most votes but only 120 seats in the 350-seat Chamber of Deputies.

Sánchez and pony-tailed United We Can leader Pablo Iglesias say they want to raise minimum salaries, income tax for high earners and capital gains tax. They also vow to defend women’s and immigrants’ rights.

Iglesias, whose party was created just three years ago, wrote on his Twitter account, “Yes, we can.”

Until recent years, Spanish politics had been dominated by the Socialists and the Popular Party. But that began to change when Europe’s recent financial crisis gave rise to new parties, including United We Can and most recently the far-right and anti-immigrant Vox, now Spain’s third-largest parliamentary group.

Besides opening talks with the Catalan separatists, Sánchez’s first challenge will be to get a 2020 state budget through parliament.

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