By the narrowest of margins (167 votes to 165 with 18 abstentions), the 350-seat Spanish Congress invested a coalition government of the social-democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the more radical Unidas Podemos (UP) on January 7.
No Spanish prime minister has ever been elected by so low and so close a vote: eight of the parliament’s eighteen parties voted in favour, eight against and two abstained.
The investiture sessions of PSOE candidate Pedro Sánchez took place amidst scenes of hysterical and bitter condemnation and attempted sabotage by the formerly governing People’s Party (PP), the ultra-right Vox and the neoliberal Citizens. In the debate, the leaders and MPs of this triple-headed Spanish-patriotic bloc strove to outdo each other in their abuse of Sánchez and the “social-communist” PSOE-UP coalition.
The PSOE candidate finally won office due to the 18 abstentions by what the right called the “secessionist coup-plotters” and the “terrorists” — the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the Basque left-independentist EH Bildu.
Their vote guaranteed Sánchez the relative majority needed to win office, after he failed to achieve an absolute majority in the first round vote on January 5.
For PP leader Pablo Casado, Sánchez had “forced a repeat election [on November 10] with the solemn undertaking not to depend on the far left, the separatists and the Batasunas [reference to former outlawed Basque left-independence force Batasuna], but today brings them here as allies without giving a single explanation for this massive con of Spanish voters.
“He lied, knowing that if he told the truth he would lose the elections. That’s the stigma with which this government against Spain, the most radical in our history, is born.”
In a similar vein, Vox leader Santiago Abascal, said the Sánchez government was “illegitimate”, “born of lying and treachery”, with “its insurance paid for by [now defunct Basque military-terrorist organisation] ETA”. Citizens’ leader Inés Arrimades pretended concern for those Spaniards whom the new government has left “orphaned and mired in distress”.
The right’s theatrics included: PP speakership panel member Adolfo Suárez Illana turning his back on EH Bildu speakers; Vox MPs abandoning the chamber while EH Bildu MP Oskar Matute was speaking; points of order against the speaker Meritxell Batet for allowing criticism of King Felipe; shouts of “traitors” against ERC, Together For Catalonia (JxCat) and People’s Unity List (CUP) MPs; and right orators ending their speeches with “Long Live the King!” and “Long Live Spain!” and being met with orchestrated standing ovations.
At times it felt as if 80 years of history, including the evolution of the PSOE into a reliable pillar of the status quo, had vanished as Spain’s politics reverted to the days of the 1931–39 Second Republic (which preceded the military dictatorship of General Francisco Franco).
In this atmosphere, the PSOE-UP’s ten-chapter agreement for a progressive government got hardly a mention: what was the point of discussing points of policy with people with a plan to “destroy Spain”?
Dirty tricks start to succeed...
The right’s onslaught targeted all the weak links in the long chain of support the PSOE and UP had worked to forge so as to win the investiture vote from a position 21 seats short of an absolute majority (176).
These links included middle-of-the-road regionalist forces like the Regionalist Party of Cantabria (PRC) and the Canary Islands parties New Canaries (NC) and Canary Coalition (CC), the centre-right Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), the Valencian force Commitment and the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG), as well as UP split Más País (More Country) and the new force Teruel Exists, voice of protest against central government neglect of southern Aragon.
However, even if all these groupings voted in favour, the greatest conceivable level of support could only be 170. Critical to any chance of the PSOE and UP forming government would be success in persuading the left and pro-sovereignty forces in disagreement with their project not to add their votes to the right’s 152.
Only if the chain of potential support did not break and the ERC (13 votes) and EH Bildu (five) abstained, could Sánchez scrape across the line. The right’s campaign, therefore, focussed on making such abstention as politically painful as possible, especially for the ERC.
On January 2, the Catalan party’s national council endorsed an accord with the PSOE that recognised the Spain-Catalonia dispute as a political conflict, set up a government-to-government dialogue table, and agreed to submit the result of any negotiations to a vote in Catalonia.
On this basis, the ERC committed to abstaining in the second round vote. At the same time, a binding consultation of the EH Bildu membership produced 81.4% support for abstention.
The right wing now turned up the heat on the weakest links in the PSOE-UP chain of support. First to crack was the PRC, which on January 2 withdrew its support on the grounds that no result of negotiations over Catalonia’s status could be voted on by Catalans alone.
Next to fall was Ana Oramos, MP for the Canary Coalition, who said she would defy the unanimous decision of the CC executive to abstain on Sánchez’s investiture and vote against “those who are beginning the demolition of the State”.
These successes brought Tomás Guitarte, Teruel Existe’s one MP, into the right’s sights. If he could be forced to change his party’s support for Sánchez, the investiture would fail.
Guitarte became the target of 8800 emails demanding a change in line, paint-ups in his home town denouncing him as a “separatist traitor” and this tweet from Abascal: “If I were an inhabitant of Teruel I would now be camped outside the Council until Mr Guitarte gives up betraying all Spaniards and acts so Teruel exists for Spain, and not so as to succumb to the separatists.”
Guitarte, however, held firm, publicly denouncing the right’s crusade against him, which was menacing to the point of forcing him to sleep away from home.
...but finally fail
The main shot in the right’s war came on January 3, when the Central Electoral Board (JEC) voted seven to six to suspend Catalan premier Quim Torra as a member of the Catalan parliament, and hence disqualify him from acting as premier.
The JEC conservative majority took this action on the basis of a sentence against Torra by the High Court of Justice of Catalonia (TSJC). This body had found the Catalan premier guilty of disobeying the JEC during the last Spanish general election campaign by delaying removal from the central Catalan government building in Barcelona of a banner in support of the Catalan political prisoners and exiles. As a public space the building should have been “neutral” during election periods.
Even though Torra had appealed this sentence to the Spanish Supreme Court, the JEC made use of its power to disqualify MPs before a verdict is finally confirmed against them. The blatantly political nature of the move was revealed by seven-six vote, but most of all by the fact that it was first announced, not by the JEC itself, but by PP leader Casado!
The goal was to provoke such outrage in Catalonia that it would force the ERC to break its deal with the PSOE, especially as the Catalan party was already coming under pressure from former president Carles Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia (JxCat) and the CUP for signing an agreement with the PSOE that made no mention of the right to self-determination.
The manoeuvre, however, flopped when the pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament (ERC, JxCat and CUP) voted that it still recognised Torra as an MP and as premier. This act of defiance will lead to a standoff with the Spanish Supreme Court if this body decides to support the JEC.
(The Supreme Court is in a bind. It has been severely discredited by two recent events: the December 19 ruling of the High Court of the European Union that jailed former Catalan deputy premier Oriol Junqueras enjoyed parliamentary immunity from the moment of his election as Member of the European Parliament in May last year, and the decision of the Euopean Parliament to recognise Junqueras, Puigdemont and former Catalan health minister Toni Comín as MEPs.)
In the end all the operations of the right came to naught. An El Mundo editorial calling on PSOE MPs to break ranks, a special appeal by Inés Arrimades to the PSOE’s regional “barons” to call Sánchez to order and the Catholic Episcopal Conference’s publishing of its “Moral Orientations on the Present Situation in Spain” were all in vain.
The decision of the six JxCat and two CUP MPs to vote against the investiture also had no effect, except, perhaps, to confuse their supporters as to what alternative they were proposing.
Catalonia still decisive
The investiture session of the new PSOE-UP government provided a clear preview of the shape of politics in the Spanish state in coming months. It will be marked most of all by how willing and able the PSOE is to grapple with the Catalan issue.
Those watching the investiture session would have gotten a very sharp reminder of this from the final intervention of ERC MP Montserrat Bassa, sister of jailed former Catalan social services minister Dolors Bassa.
Accusing the PSOE of being “hangmen” as much as the PP, Bassa said: “Personally, I don’t give a hoot about the governability of Spain.” Nonetheless, because her sister and the other ERC prisoners have been insisting that dialogue is the only way forward, the ERC would allow the PSOE-UP government to form. But the ball was now in the PSOE’s court.
Conflict in Spain can only intensify. The Sánchez government will not be able to make any meaningfrul concession to the Catalans without further enraging a right that will, in the words of Abascal, “give you no quarter, but fight you in the parliament, fight you in the courts, fight you in the streets”.
Abascal also used the session to flag an intensified attack on migrant youth, supposedly most responsible for the recent rise in violence against women.
In this context, the arrival of the PSOE-UP government make sustained social mobilisation indispensable — to prevent the PSOE itself from backsliding on the modest but real reforms contained in its platform for government, to prevent UP itself from adapting to the PSOE, and to hold off the right that is a threat to everyone.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will soon appear on the website of Links — International Journal of Socialist Renewal. For updates on the Catalan struggle, follow Foreign Friends of Catalonia on Twitter, or visit the website. You can stay up to date and read past articles in GLW’s coverage of Catalonia here. ]