Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez attends a debate on the government's 2019 budget during a parliament session in Madrid on February 13, 2019. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images
Prime minister Pedro Sánchez has little choice now but to convene a snap general election, possibly in mid or late April © AFP

Spain’s experiment with a minority socialist government supported by the far-left has proved shortlived — and short on significant achievements, bar a sharp increase in the minimum wage and a manufactured controversy about exhuming the remains of former dictator Francisco Franco.

After failing to pass the 2019 budget on Wednesday, prime minister Pedro Sánchez has little choice now but to convene a snap general election, possibly in mid or late April. The socialist leader came to power in June 2018 after ousting the conservative government of Mariano Rajoy in a no-confidence vote over a corruption scandal. The ad hoc coalition Mr Sánchez assembled for that parliamentary exploit — the far-left Podemos together with Catalan and Basque nationalists — has now fallen apart.

The latest turmoil confirms that Spain is stuck in a cycle of political instability. A vote this spring would be the fourth general election in eight years.

The outcome is also likely to confirm that Spain has become a five-party political system, not counting Catalan and Basque nationalists and other regional representatives. Vox, a far-right party that made its breakthrough in November, winning seats in the regional parliament in Andalucía, has since surged in the polls to an astonishing 11 per cent.

Meanwhile, the three mainstream parties are tightly bunched. According to a poll of polls, the socialists (PSOE) are on 24 per cent, the centre-right (PP) on 21 per cent and the liberals (Ciudadanos) on 19 per cent. Spain has become one of the more extreme examples of political fragmentation taking hold across Europe.

Podemos may have shaken up Spain’s political establishment when it erupted from anti-capitalist activist movements, but its best days could be behind it. Its image has been tarnished by infighting among its leading lights and its support has fallen to 14 per cent. If it sinks much further, so do Mr Sánchez’s hopes of forming another leftwing coalition.

As shown elsewhere in Europe, such as Sweden and German, the presence of far-left or far-right parties in parliament makes forming viable coalition governments of centre-left or centre-right so much harder. The PP and Ciudadanos have formed a government in Andalucía with tacit far-right support. But doing so at a national level would prove much more contentious.

When Mr Sánchez took power last summer, one of his aims was to ease tensions with Catalonia following its illegal independence push in 2017. His government re-engaged with regional leaders and tried to ease some constraints imposed on the region’s government in the wake of the abortive secession attempt.

The political turmoil of recent weeks has shown any hope of short-term detente to be a pipe dream. Tensions between Catalonia’s independence supporters on one side and Catalan unionists and increasingly resentful Spaniards on the other remain fierce.

As a dozen leaders of the independence push went on trial this week charged with sedition and rebellion, positions have became entrenched. A clumsy attempt by the government to pursue conciliation, by proposing an intermediary to help Catalan secessionists sort out their own bitter differences, backfired. The liberal, centre-right and far-right united in protest. Meanwhile, Catalan demands for a right to self-determination in return for backing the budget were impossible for Mr Sánchez to meet. Catalan leaders could end up facing a more hostile rightwing government. The Catalan question looks like it will poison Spanish politics for years to come.

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