The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Spain’s new coalition government could be an example to Europe — if it lasts

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, right, and Unidas Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias in Madrid on Dec. 30. (Susana Vera/Reuters)

Ignacio Escolar is the director of the Spanish news website

On Tuesday, following 10 months without a government and two general elections in one year, Pedro Sánchez finally became president of a new left-wing coalition by only two votes.

Since the return of democracy in 1977, never has a Spanish government had such a complex birth or such a slim majority. Today, there are 16 parties in Congress. To achieve Sánchez’s investiture and avoid another election, the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) had to negotiate the first coalition government in Spain in 80 years. It is an anomaly in Spain, but common in countries with parliamentary systems.

Leer en español: España cambia el bloqueo del gobierno por la grieta parlamentaria

That coalition will mostly be made up by the PSOE and Unidas Podemos, the leftist party born out of the Indignados movement (akin to Occupy Wall Street). The coalition supported Sánchez in exchange for a shared government platform, a vice presidency and four ministries. The PSOE also had to convince five other small parties to join the coalition. Each vote was decisive.

For the Spanish right, the pact was an intolerable “betrayal.” Not only because of the presence of Unidas Podemos in the government, but also because of the abstention of the 13 deputies of the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), which was essential to achieving the majority. The ERC is one of the pro-independence parties that promoted Catalonia’s separatist vote in 2017. To achieve this abstention, the PSOE promised to negotiate an agreement that will be voted on by the Catalans.

Achieving that abstention from the ERC was not simple. Its leader, Oriol Junqueras, was sentenced last year to 13 years in prison over the referendum. The sentence is now questioned, following a ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union — the highest judicial authority in Europe — which considers Junqueras to still be a member of the European Parliament.

To complicate things even further, the other party that abstained — with five seats — was EH Bildu, the leftist Basque independence party that years ago backed the now extinct terrorist group ETA. The PSOE did not negotiate anything in exchange for those votes, but the right accused them of complicity with ETA, whose last murder was almost 10 years ago but left 853 dead in its 60-year history.

For the right and its supportive media ecosystem, Sánchez now leads a “radical” government with “communist ministers” that support the “Catalan coup” and “Basque terrorists.” In the eyes of conservative voters, it is difficult to find a more explosive combination.

But that leftist radicalism is nowhere to be seen. Some of the agreed-upon measures by the new coalition are a new regulation of housing rental prices, similar to those already applied by Berlin or Paris — which the right presents as “an attack on private property” — and a small tax increase that affects the richest 0.4 percent of taxpayers, which the right has labeled as a “fiscal attack on the middle-class.”

Ultimately, the Sánchez coalition represents the end of a four-year deadlock in Spain. The left has been a majority in Congress since December 2015, but the divisions between PSOE and Unidas Podemos, and the lack of an agreement with the Catalan independentists, caused years of great political instability.

But the agreement has also accentuated the largest political division in Spain in decades. This parliament will undoubtedly be the most tense and divided since the return to democracy after decades of rule by Francisco Franco.

The most powerful new party to gain influence amid this division was the far-right Vox, which today has 52 members in congress. Vox is the third-largest political force in parliament and also the most reactionary. One of his deputies in the European Parliament publicly asked the Spanish Army to execute a coup to prevent Sánchez from being appointed president. The party leader, Santiago Abascal, has also questioned the legitimacy of the new government while accusing Sánchez of being “a tyrant.”

Their radical rhetoric has, in turn, dragged farther to the right other conservative parties, including the Popular Party (PP). Its leader, Pablo Casado, called the new president a “sociopath, liar, fatuous, arrogant and pathetic.” During the investiture session, he even threatened to take Sánchez to court if he did not suspend the autonomy of Catalonia. Thus, we can also expect more “lawfare” in Spain: the judicialization of politics. The right will try to win in court what it lost at the polls.

But as the new coalition government assumes power in the next few days, it must confront the historical responsibility before it: stop the growth of the far right and break the spiral of polarization in the country. Its leaders must demonstrate that there is another way of doing things, of managing public resources, of integrating Catalonia into Spain. If the coalition succeeds, it will be an example for Europe on how to stem the political rise of the dangerous, xenophobic far-right.

Read more:

Oriol Junqueras: Spain has no interest in a political solution for Catalonia

María Ramírez: How a right-wing party exploited Spain’s divisions to win

Anne Applebaum: Want to build a far-right movement? Spain’s Vox party shows how.