The $1 Billion Vote: A Divided Spain Learns the Cost of Stability
(Bloomberg) -- Spain’s next government may prove expensive for taxpayers.
As acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez begins talks this week on clinching a second confidence vote, his potential partners are submitting their offers and one minor party from northern Spain is hoping to cash in.
In a fragmented parliament, every lawmaker will prove crucial and the Regionalist Party of Cantabria wants Sanchez to promise a cool 1.1 billion euros ($1.2 billion) in public spending in exchange for its one vote. That’s the price tag for completing a high-speed rail link along the Madrid-Santander route to Spain’s northern coast, and bailing out a local hospital.
“We’re just asking for something that others already have,” Jose Maria Mazon, the party’s first-ever member of parliament, said in a phone interview. “We can’t allow Cantabria to fall behind.”
Haggling for votes is a political necessity for Sanchez. The 123 seats his Socialist Party won in April’s general election was twice as many as his nearest rival but still well short of a majority. Horsetrading has become the norm in Spain since the financial crisis disrupted the traditional two-party system.
Spain’s King Felipe VI on Thursday invited Sanchez to try to form a government. But the math is tricky.
The anti-austerity group Podemos has offered its 42 votes, giving Sanchez 165 out of 350 -- assuming the two parties can agree on what role the smaller group will play, if any, in a new government. The more moderate Basque Nationalists have another six votes that will probably be available. But from there it gets harder.
A left-wing group from Valencia and the Cantabrians have one lawmaker each. They would take Sanchez to the brink of a majority with 173 votes, if he can broker deals with them.
Sanchez doesn’t need the traditional 176 votes for a majority, because three Catalan lawmakers facing trial over the illegal referendum on independence in 2017 have pledged not to give up their seats. And since they’re in jail during the trial, they will effectively be abstaining from the vote.
If two more deputies from Navarre also abstain, that would cut the number of votes against the Socialists to 172.
Sanchez does have alternatives to that patchwork majority but both bring their own problems.
Catalan separatist parties backed Sanchez’s no-confidence in May last year to oust the People’s Party’s Mariano Rajoy and they have another 22 votes, enough to complete a majority with the Socialists and Podemos. But the trial of a dozen of their leaders in Madrid makes any deal prickly for both sides.
Another center-right party, Ciudadanos, could give Sanchez a majority without even relying on Podemos. Those two groups agreed on a centrist coalition pact in 2015 that ultimately failed to win a majority. But the relationship has soured since then and Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera has vowed not to support Sanchez, labeling him soft on separatists.
Sanchez’s Socialists again pressed their two main rivals to its right, the People’s Party and Ciudadanos, and Podemos to its left, to reflect on the results of the general and European elections that showed Sanchez was the clear favorite with voters.
“Governability passes through the main parties,” Jose Luis Abalos, Sanchez’s acting public works minister, said in a news conference after a meeting of the Socialists’ executive committee on Monday. He pointed out that enough Socialist deputies had abstained to allow Sanchez’s predecessor, the PP’s Rajoy, stay on in government in 2016 when his party had the most seats in parliament but not enough for a majority.
The Train to Santander
Javier Esparza, leader of the center-right group from Navarre, has said his two lawmakers might abstain if the Socialists drop their efforts to form a government in his home region -- a request that provoked outrage from the local Socialists. But Abalos said Monday that Sanchez’s ability to govern could not be “a function of two votes” in apparent reference to Esparza’s potential offer of support.
Tough decisions will be required to muster the rest of votes Sanchez needs -- and it’s possible the support of the Cantabrians may still come into the reckoning.
“We’re not blackmailers,” said Mazon from Cantabria. “But we do have some longstanding demands.”
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