Another long, hot Spanish summer is coming to an end. The new football season is under way, schools are reopening, office workers are back at their desk. Life is returning to normal; everything is as it should be.
Except, of course, in the one place that really matters right now — Spain’s fragmented, divided, dysfunctional and increasingly shortlived parliament.
Last week, the Spanish legislature was presented with a fresh opportunity to end the country’s eight-month political deadlock. Yet again, it failed to back a candidate to lead a new government. Mariano Rajoy, acting prime minister and leader of the conservative Popular party (PP), fell short in Friday’s final vote, just as Pedro Sánchez, his Socialist rival, did in March. Unless party leaders come up with a radical new idea in the next two months, parliament will be dissolved, clearing the way for yet another national ballot.
It would be Spain’s third general election in the space of a year — an unprecedented failure for the country’s four-decade old democracy. In Madrid and beyond, the tone of political debates now oscillates between bemusement, boredom, concern and genuine anguish. The fear is of an “Italianisation” of Spanish politics, with frequent changes of government and little hope of stable majorities and strong coalitions. The country, some fear, is starting to look ungovernable.
Amid all the hand-wringing, however, one underlying truth of the political stalemate seems obvious enough: if the country’s main politicians are now ambling towards a third election, it must be because they feel they have little to lose — and possibly a lot to gain — from yet another ballot.
Take the Socialist party (PSOE). Over the past couple of years, the traditional voice of Spain’s centre-left has lost millions of votes to Podemos. The anti-austerity upstart party has attacked the PSOE mercilessly, portraying it as part of a corrupt and tired political cartel, barely distinguishable from the PP. It is that line of attack — and the apparent resonance it has found with voters — that explains the Socialist’s current stance.
The Socialists’ steadfast refusal to support Mr Rajoy’s bid for another term (if only by way of a partial abstention) is intended as a clear signal to leftwing voters: the PSOE can, after all, be trusted to lead the charge against Spain’s conservatives. There is no need for another, more radical, leftwing party.
Inside the PSOE there is growing confidence that its uncompromising position is helping it win the battle with Podemos. With Podemos leaders struggling to contain all kinds of internal strife, another election would catch them at a difficult time. This could end up relegating Podemos from a serious threat to the PSOE to just another far-left party. For Spain’s Socialists, that is where the battle lies now: on the left, with Podemos, not in the centre, with the PP.
But the PP, too, has reason to look ahead to a fresh vote with hope. It was the only party to increase its share of the ballot between the first and the second election. As the biggest party in parliament, it should be well-placed to attract voters who yearn for strong government, and have tired of the fragmentation of Spanish politics.
For the PP, which controls 137 out of 350 seats in parliament, a dozen or so additional deputies could make the difference. With its current strength, Mr Rajoy can at best hope to lead a shaky minority government facing a hostile majority in parliament from day one. After December, the PP might be able to put together a reasonably stable government with a working parliamentary majority.
Needless to say, the new fluidity of Spanish politics might still make a mockery of such calculations. Mr Rajoy’s political fortunes have been buried, dug up and reinterred so many times this year that any prediction over his future — or that of his rivals — seems fraught with risk.
Yet the emerging consensus among Spanish officials and analysts is that a third election is becoming ever more likely. And Spain’s two mainstream parties, for all their protestations to the contrary, seem to be just fine with that prospect.