Spain: Political instability at home continues, undermining influence abroad

Spain's left’s inability to unite against the right

Shaun Riordan | Pedro Sánchez has failed to secure election as Spain´s Prime Minister in the second investiture vote in the Spanish parliament today. He needed only a simple majority. But the break down in negotiations with Podemos, and their decision to abstain, left Sanchez´ socialist party (PSOE) in a minority. The problems between the two parties seem to have centred not on policy but on the distribution of ministerial portfolios in a coalition government. Sanchez conceded that Podemos could hold ministerial positions, but the far left party complained that the portfolios he offered lacked real substance.

The efforts to form a coalition government between PSOE and Podemos are not necessarily dead. Talks could resume after the summer break, with Sanchez offering himself again for election in September. Podemos leader Iglesias has the greater incentive to form a government. Podemos is not doing well in the polls, and his own political future may depend on his ability to form a coalition government with the socialists. However, Sanchez´ ability to form a government does not depend on Podemos alone. He also needs at least one of the Catalan separatist parties to abstain. That may be harder in September, when the judgement against the separatist leaders accused of sedition and rebellion is due.

The most likely outcome, therefore, are new elections on 10 November. Current polls suggest that both PSOE and the PP would improve their positions at the expense of Podemos and Ciudadanos. The danger is that the changes are cosmetic, with the same parliamentary deadlock between left and right. Sanchez will be hoping for a stronger position relative to a more fragmented far left. He may also hope for a change of position in Ciudadanos. Ciudadanos leader Rivera has seen off those within his party urging collaboration with PSOE rather than the PP, for now. That could change over the summer, especially if Ciudadanos´ results in new elections are disappointing. Ciudadanos could be a more comfortable partner for Sanchez than a mixture of the far left and nationalist parties.

If new elections are called, then, it may be no easier to form a new government than now. In the best of cases, a new government is unlikely to be in place until the new year. This means that the current provisional government will continue until then, forbidden by the Constitution from implementing any but the most necessary measures. Issues such as the budget and labour market and pension reform will have to be put off until 2020. The deficit target will be missed, and the tolerance of the European Commission will be tested again. Political instability will continue. At some point it will impact on an economy already showing signs of slowing.

The absence of a government will also affect Spain´s international standing. The provisional government cannot implement an effective foreign policy. Ministers must seek a mandate from the Parliament for every international meeting they attend, a process that ensures a foreign policy of the lowest common denominator. Recent events at the European level seemed to offer a prominent role for Spain in the EU: Brexit, disagreements between Paris and Berlin, the tensions between Rome and Brussels, the election of a new Commission … But political weakness and instability at home impact on influence abroad. Spain´s chance of playing a leading role in Europe will be seriously constrained as long as it lacks an effective government at home.

About the Author

Shaun Riordan
Shaun Riordan is Director of the Department for Diplomacy and Cyberspace in the European Institute of International Studies and a senior visiting fellow of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, “Clingendael”. He is also an independent geopolitical risk consultant. A former British diplomat, he served in New York, Taiwan, Beijing and Madrid, as well as the departments of counter-terrorism and the Eastern Adriatic in the Foreign Office. Shaun has taught at diplomatic academies in the Dominican Republic, Spain, Armenia and Bulgaria. He is the author of “Cyberdiplomacy: Managing Security and Governance Online” (Polity, 2019), “Adios a la Diplomacia” (Siglo XXI, 2005) and “The New Diplomacy” (Polity, 2003). He maintains a blog ( and can be followed at @shaun_riordan