Spain's new coalition government faces a challenging legislative period
- Sumar will have a vice-presidency and 5 ministries, but with limited powers.
- Among the MPs who have said yes to Sánchez are the conservative Catalan nationalists of Junts and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV).
- Podemos is left out of the government and leaves the coalition to join the mixed group of independent politicians in the parliament.
The President of the Spanish government, Pedro Sánchez (centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, PSOE), won the support of the absolute majority of the Spanish Congress on 16 November, with 179 votes in favour and 171 against, thus bringing back in the possibility of a coalition government. This time the support comes from 121 PSOE MPs, 31 from the more radical left-wing party Sumar, seven from Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia, ERC), seven from Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia, known as Junts), six from Euskal Herria Bildu (Basque Country Unite, or EH Bildu), five from the Partido Nacionalista Vasco (Basque National Party, PNV), one MP from Bloque Nacionalista Galego (Galician Nationalist Bloc, BNG) and one from Coalición Canaria (Canarian Coalition, CC). Of the 31 Sumar seats, 5 belong to Podemos, that decided to move to the mixed group barely three weeks after the investiture.
This decision marks a clear intention to act independently throughout the legislative term. It seems Podemos wants free itself from the contradictions that come with being in government. They will push for more progressive policies than those set by the Council of Ministers, probably in coordination with ERC.
This, then, will upset the balance when it comes to passing legislation, given the opposing pressure from Junts per Catalunya’s seven - and the PNV’s five – representatives. These make up a conservative bloc that has nothing in common with the left except the will to resolve the territorial conflict in the Spanish state. In fact, Junts per Catalunya ultimately voted in favour of Sanchez in exchange for amnesty for the prisoners and exiles from the 2017 failed referendum on the independence of the Republic of Catalonia. At that time, the government of Mariano Rajoy (Popular Party, PP) reacted to the events taking a defensive an uncompromising stance, interpreting the Spanish Constitution in the harshest sense, and opting to abandon diplomacy and apply force.
After the Partido Popular's corruption scandals finally caught up with it, Mariano Rajoy's government was replaced by the PSOE-Podemos coalition. In the years of the coalition government, relations with pro-independence parties - right and left - gradually normalized. Territorial tensions have eased, and both the Basque and Catalan nationalist parties hope that progress can be made in this new legislature. Junts will propose, according to its coalition pact with the PSOE, "a referendum of self-determination on the political future of Catalonia". In the Basque Country, the pro-independence left awaits a process that does not look easy to set in motion, and both the PSOE and Sumar will have to tread carefully so that managing these territorial issues does not cost them their support in the rest of the country.
Beyond this issue, the coalition government will face the problem of its dependence on these six other parties not simply in forming a government, but in every legislative process from now on. The government will be able to use decree laws to push through some changes without needing to rely on the support of the other parties, but this mechanism can’t be used in cases of rights, duties or freedoms.
On issues such as health, education and housing, Junts and PNV will tend to maintain their pro-privatization positions. The PSOE has not shown much appetite for recovering lost public services, and this will probably be one of the main obstacles that Sumar's ministers will encounter.
Sumar's five ministries
The Ministry of Labour is Sumar's – and perhaps even the government’s – major strength. Yolanda Díaz is once again Second Vice-President and is the only person from the left-wing’s 'space for change' to come back as a minister. She does so in a position in which she is comfortable, with a subject that she masters, and with high public approval of her previous term in office. She is starting this term with the aim of reducing job insecurity. Clear measures include, on the one hand, raising the minimum wage (SMI) and, on the other, reducing the working hours. Díaz raised the SMI from €707 to €1080 in the government’s previous term of office, and in this one she intends to raise it to €1,200. As this article went to press, meetings with trade unions and employers were already underway. As for job security, her aim is the reduction and distribution of working hours without a reduction in salary. The plan is to establish a maximum working week - currently officially set at 40 hours - of 37.5 hours a week by 2024, and to open a process of social dialogue with the aim of further reducing the working week to 32 hours.
Pablo Bustinduy takes on a portfolio combining Consumer Affairs, which Alberto Garzón has left, with some of the responsibilities held by Ione Belarra, including Social Rights and the Agenda 2030. Bustinduy has spent much of his working life as a university lecturer in the USA, and was coordinator of Podemos in the European Parliament during the party’s infancy, and secretary for International Affairs in its Coordinating Council. He left Podemos after internal struggles between supporters of Íñigo Errejón (errejonistas) and Pablo Iglesias (pablistas), and now returns to state politics, along with Díaz, to take on "the challenge of extending social rights and guaranteeing a fair consumer system". A starting point will probably be to unblock the Family and the Social Services bills, which were advanced by Belarra but did not go through due to the early elections.
Among Sumar's platform promises are the approval of a strategy to reduce the ecological impact of consumption, and to guarantee access to basic supplies of water, energy and heating for all households. On Bustinduy’s to-do list will be one of the tasks that his predecessor Alberto Garzón failed to implement: the approval of a law to regulate advertising for unhealthy foods aimed at children.
Mónica García, doctor, leader of the Podemos splinter group, Más Madrid, and until now parliamentary spokesperson in the Assembly of the Community of Madrid, is the new Spanish Minister of Health. She faces the challenge of halting and reversing the privatisation of the National Health System, and of making Spanish public health care universal again, repealing laws that under Mariano Rajoy's mandate left thousands of migrants without health care.
She has also promised to provide public health coverage in fields that have previously not been covered or had minimal coverage, such as mental health, ophthalmology and dentistry.
Sira Rego, national spokesperson for Izquierda Unida (United Left), and MEP since 2019, has been appointed Minister for Youth and Children. Spain is the EU country with the highest number of children living in monetary poverty. In other words, they live in households whose income does not allow them to cover the basic requirements of food, services, housing and education, and one of Rego's objectives is to get the country out of this trend. She has not yet specified how, beyond a commitment to redistributive taxation.
Finally, the economist Ernest Urtasun, a member of Catalunya en Comú (Catalonia in Common) and an MEP since 2014, has taken over the portfolio of Culture. In his inaugural speech, the Catalan praised the cultural and linguistic plurality of the Spanish state. He stressed the need to guarantee freedom of expression, as well as to put an end to inequalities in access to culture and to the precarious employment conditions within the sector.
A government without Podemos
The internal struggle in the political space to the left of the PSOE over the last three years has ultimately left Podemos outside government. The positions seem irreconcilable at present. "Dear Minister Belarra, today Pedro Sánchez is kicking us out of the government", said the former Minister of Equality Irene Montero, in the transfer of her portfolio to PSOE’s Ana Redondo, pointing to the Socialist president, rather than to her former colleague, Yolanda Díaz.
It is worth highlighting the loss of the Ministry of Equality, because it is probably the most painful aspect for the left in general and for Podemos in particular. The more optimistic are hoping that the legislature will consolidate the advances made by Montero, and not go backwards in terms of the rights of transgender people. In her first days as minister, Redondo has defended the law known as the “Sólo sí es sí” (only yes is yes) Law, which places consent at the centre of legislation on sexual violence and which was one of the initiatives for which Montero received the most criticism. On the other hand, she decided to take part in the demonstration on 25 November against sexist violence, accompanying the trans-exclusionary feminist (so-called called TERF) community. She did so with a speech about unity, but it was seen as an affront by the trans-inclusive feminist movement.
The new government still has some key unmet demands from the state’s social movements, such as the repeal of the Ley de Extranjería (Law on Foreigners), which discriminates against migrants, or the Leyes Mordaza (Gag Laws), which limit the ability to demonstrate and organise by facilitating police impunity. These are right-wing laws that the progressive government did not repeal in the last legislature and does not seem likely to do so in this one.
María del Vigo is a journalist and works as a freelance communications consultant at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Madid Office.