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MADRID — Alberto Núñez Feijóo may not want to admit it but his hope of being Spain’s next prime minister may have to be lowered.
On Monday night, the leader of the center-right Popular Party, which won the most votes in last Sunday’s national election in Spain but fell short of securing a governing majority, was left without options to form a government after two key regional parties rejected his overtures.
To become Spain’s prime minister, a candidate whose party has not secured a governing majority needs to either get the backing of 176 of the total 350 MPs in an initial vote in parliament or wait for a second round of voting to secure a simple majority. MPs can also abstain, which means it can be difficult to determine the exact number of seats needed for a successful bid to form a government.
In a speech after a meeting of the Popular Party’s executive committee, Feijóo reaffirmed his determination to gather the support needed to advance with his candidacy, adding that as the leader of the party that garnered the most votes, it was his “duty.”
But his numbers don’t add up. His Popular Party controls 136 seats in parliament — all of its scenarios for victory require the support of the far-right Vox party’s 33 MPs. But because the combined right-wing forces only account for 169 seats, the conservative leader would also need the support of some regional parties.
While the conservative leader quickly secured the backing of the Navarrese People’s Union — a virtual offshoot of the Popular Party — the rest of his attempts to woo potential allies have gone nowhere, fast.
Vox Secretary-General Ignacio Garriga on Monday stated his party, with whom the Popular Party aspired to form a government, is not interested in supporting a prime minister that is also backed by the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), one of the groups whose votes Feijóo would need to become prime minster.
“You can’t have a patriotic vote alongside that of a separatist party,” said Garriga, referring to the PNV. “It’s impossible.”
Feijóo was similarly rebuffed by the PNV’s Andoni Ortuzar, to whom he sent a chummy text message proposing they sit down to talk.
Ortuzar ignored Feijóo’s message for most of the day and only responded in the evening, when he called Feijóo to tell him his group was not interested in even meeting to discuss the possibility of a Popular Party-led government, the PNV posted on social media.
Meanwhile, Fernando Clavijo, secretary-general of the insular Canarian Coalition, told the Spanish media that his party’s sole MP would not back any government that included Vox.
Feijóo does “not have any possibility to become prime minister,” the group’s outgoing MP, Ana Oramas, said.
A summer of magical thinking
The combined rejections from Vox and the regional groups leave Feijóo without realistic options.
At this point, the only way his bid could succeed is if Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s 122 Socialist MPs agree to not vote against his hypothetical candidacy — a fantasy scenario that has no chance of happening after a campaign in which the Popular Party’s primary message was that it was time to “repeal Sanchismo.”
Feijóo seemed determined to not let reality get in his way on Tuesday, insisting the Socialists needed to deal with him instead of negotiating with the left-wing parties and Basque and Catalan separatists, whose votes could allow Sánchez to remain prime minister.
“Spain holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, we’re negotiating finance rules in Brussels … We need stability, pro-European sentiment and centralism,” he said in Santiago de Compostela.
“It would be a huge mistake for separatists to govern Spain,” he added. “It’s the traditional parties that have won the greatest amount of votes.”
While Popular Party spokesperson Borja Sémper rejected the possibility of a grand coalition with the Socialists, in an interview with Spain’s public radio he floated the idea of a minority government led by Feijóo that could forge some sort of pact with the center left to address some of the nation’s “challenges.”
Deputy Prime Minister María Jesús Montero on Tuesday also rejected any possibility of a deal between the Socialists and the Popular Party, and instead underlined Sánchez’s determination to form a coalition with the left-wing Sumar coalition and secure the support of a hodgepodge of Basque, Catalan and Galician nationalist groups.
The hope is to secure 172 yeas for Sánchez’s candidacy — slightly more than the 170 nays that will come from the right — and convince Catalan separatist group Junts, which has said it will not back the Socialists, to abstain.
“A progressive majority has backed the continuance of the Sánchez government’s progressive policies and rejected the Popular Party and Vox’s Trumpian politics,” Montero told Cadena Ser.
The expat factor
Although Spain’s election was held last Sunday, the definitive results won’t be known until this Saturday, when the votes of Spaniards living abroad are added to the total. Spanish consular offices around the world have registered over 2 million citizens, but the turnout among them is not yet known.
While the foreign vote has never dramatically shifted the outcome of a Spanish election, it can alter the results of one or two seats — and that could make a difference in this particular parliament.
Pablo Simón, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University, said that while changes could further complicate Sánchez’s plan to remain prime minister, they would almost certainly not improve Feijóo’s chances of taking power.
The nightmare scenario, of course, would be if enough seats changed hands that the left and right-wing blocs were left controlling the exact same numbers. Simón said that while such a “catastrophic blockage” was highly unlikely, lack of information about participation rates or political leanings of expat voters made it difficult to guess what could happen.
Discretion is everything
Sánchez — officially in caretaker mode since Sunday’s election — is laying low these days. It’s a canny strategy that is focusing the public’s attention on Feijóo’s inability to gather support for his candidacy.
On Tuesday, Sánchez’s spokesperson announced that the traditional summer meeting between the Spanish PM and King Felipe VI in the Marivent Palace in Mallorca had been canceled; the two will meet in Madrid after the holidays. Pundits speculate Sánchez did not want to appear to be getting any special access to the monarch, who will decide who gets to try form Spain’s next government.
Meanwhile, Deputy PM Montero confirmed that behind-the-scenes talks between the Socialists and the groups whose support Sánchez needs were underway. “A successful negotiation depends on discretion,” Montero said.
The left-wing Sumar party, Sánchez’s projected coalition partners, has been entrusted with the delicate task of making contact with the Catalan separatist Junts party, whose abstention in a parliamentary vote on Feijóo’s candidacy will be key to the prime minister’s gamble.
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Montero said Sánchez is keen to negotiate with them but no blanket amnesties will be granted — including to its founder Carles Puidgemont, who is sought by Spanish authorities for his role in the 2017 Catalan independence referendum. Likewise, holding an official independence referendum in Catalonia is also off the table.
“The Socialist Party is a constitutionalist party, so everything we do has to be contemplated within the framework of the constitution,” she said.