Mark Nayler

‘We demand our right to vote’: what Spaniards really think of their new socialist PM

'We demand our right to vote': what Spaniards really think of their new socialist PM
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Spain has a new prime minister, but Spaniards are not happy about it. A WhatsApp message is circulating across the country at the moment, saying:

“We Spaniards demand our right to vote. We demand the right to decide who is the president of Spain. ‘No’ means ‘no’ to Pedro Sánchez. If you’re in agreement, pass this message on until elections are called”

The message refers to the leader of the Spanish Socialists (PSOE), Pedro Sánchez, who sneaked in as the country’s leader last Friday after his predecessor, Mariano Rajoy, lost a no-confidence vote. While that vote had disastrous consequences for Rajoy, for Sánchez – who tabled it in the first place – it has propelled him into Spain’s top job. 

The 46-year-old’s ascension reveals him to be a career politician who knows how to work the system. In a well-timed move in 2016, Sánchez resigned his leadership of the PSOE after refusing to take part in a parliamentary vote that allowed Rajoy to carry on as prime minister. Last May, Sánchez was back at the helm of his party, aided by a lack of credible alternatives and a crisis within the PSOE.

In the run-up to the confidence vote, Sánchez was determined to sling mud on Rajoy, painting his rival's PP as dogged by corruption over an alleged party-wide cash-for-contracts racket. Yet his fervour in rooting out wrongdoing didn't seem to apply to his own party, which is no stranger to corruption either. Indeed, unhappiness levelled at the PSOE – as well as the PP – was one of the big reasons for Spaniards deserting the two main parties in their droves at the last election. Instead, many plumped for two new parties – centrist Ciudadanos (“Citizens”) and leftist Podemos (“We Can”) - in 2015. This ended decades of dual dominance by the PP and the PSOE. But Sánchez, it seems, didn't get the message; now, his political coup has lumbered his country with another member of a distrusted political class.

Before last Friday’s vote, the PSOE leader indicated that he might call early elections if made prime minister (the current term runs until late 2020). But now he is securely in office, it seems he is changing his mind about the merits of asking people to vote. Yesterday, his top aide revealed that fresh elections were now unlikely to happen. Sánchez wants his time in power, it seems, even though Spaniards didn’t give it to him. No matter how short-lived his premiership is, the PSOE leader will now receive a salary of €77,000 (£67,000) for life.

Yet while Sánchez is a winner from last week's political upheaval, it is Spain that will the price. Sánchez’s leadership is likely to be even less effective than that of the PP under Rajoy. Rajoy’s party have 134 seats in congress, well short of the 176 needed for a majority. This has led to serious difficulties in passing legislation; the 2018 budget, for example, is yet to be approved, even though we are halfway through the year it is intended to cover. But if things were hard for Rajoy, they will be worse for Sánchez's PSOE outfit which has just 84 seats in the 350-seat lower chamber. This means that the party is desperate for allies, but it’s unclear where they can be found. The Socialists will face staunch opposition from the PP, of course, but Sánchez has alienated a potential leftist partner, too: although Podemos supported last Friday’s vote, Sánchez has revealed that the party will have no lawmakers in the new Spanish government.

Neither can the PSOE expect support from Ciudadanos, the pragmatic centrists that polls say would finish first if an election were held today. Although party leader Albert Rivera opposed last week’s no-confidence vote, he maintains that Sánchez is not entitled to take over as prime minister. Rivera is said to be working for a dissolution of congress and a snap election, although with just 32 seats in the lower house it’s unclear how Ciudadanos could pull this off. Unless it can, Spain faces eighteen months under a prime minister that no one asked for.