Poker players

Whereas Catalan politics has cyclically experienced historic moments charged with overwhelming emotion, Spanish politics is always conditioned by the paralysing, tired values of the lesser nobility which stand in the way of dialogue and prevent the sort of pragmatism required to compromise with someone who holds diverging political views. An exception might have been Spain’s political Transition [following General Franco’s death], a period which Spain embarked upon after a traumatic civil war followed by a forty-year-long military dictatorship. The agreements reached during the Transition on the subject of inter-regional cohabitation were eventually amended through several outright parliamentary majorities that tended to impose a same-size-fits-all model on Spain’s system of autonomous regions.

A recent example of the sort of ancient, Quixotic values that permeate Madrid politics can be found in the wounded-pride style of chest-beating coming from the PSOE and Podemos, with mutual accusations of being incapable of facilitating an agreement that paves the way for a left-wing government in Spain. Neither incumbent PM Pedro Sánchez nor Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias have managed to tone down their hubris and curb their vanity to allow for serious talks to be held in order to avert a snap election. However, it is not just about hubris: deep down Sánchez does not want an understanding with Iglesias, whilst the latter is unable to gauge his own strength realistically. Therefore, Spain’s traditional inability for political compromise has prevailed and the country is headed for fresh elections on November 10 unless there is a miracle this week.

The assent

Sánchez does not want an agreement with Podemos for many reasons. His political track record shows he is more at home at a poker table than at a game of chess. Pedro Sánchez has got used to upping the ante and is able to manage pressure well in a strained environment. He knows he is faced with a complex government agenda and is hoping to be able to tackle it with a broader majority in parliament than he has at present, plus a range of assenting partners to choose from, depending on the issue at hand. Despite what his party’s rank-and-file might opine, Sánchez knows that he and Podemos do not see eye to eye on Europe, the economy and how to best handle the Catalan issue, three matters that the next administration should address.

The leader of Ciudadanos, Albert Rivera, let down Sánchez and Spain’s economic establishment when he abandoned the idea of leading a liberal hinge party to become a permanently annoyed right-wing chieftain, someone unable to support the no-confidence vote against PM Rajoy, unpredictable and gripped by his own personal hang-ups. Rivera’s party ceased to be the centre-left’s hinge and instead chose to side with the right, together with the far-right, in a bid to swallow up the PP. That was the eye-opener for many (non-Catalan) observers.

In order to thwart Rivera’s efforts, Sánchez and the centre-right led by Núñez Feijoo —and even Casado— are coming together to prop up Spain’s traditional two-party system, which is mad but familiar.

Sánchez’s play is not without risks. On election night, part of his supporters [who favoured a pact with Podemos] kept shouting “Not with Rivera!” and this time they will go to the polls feeling disappointed, persuaded that the Spanish left is unable to jointly manage an election win. Pedro Sánchez is hoping that he will be the lesser evil for many voters, but there is no guarantee that they won’t stay home on the day. An election result is an unknown quantity until all the ballots have been cast.

Podemos voters cannot feel contented, either. Their refusal to accept a deal which included a vice presidency and three ministries was extremely embarrassing, as was their appeal to the king and their U-turn on Catalonia. The day when Pablo Iglesias became a royalist, asking the king to mediate —that is, to go beyond the role assigned to the monarch in the constitution— and put pressure on Pedro Sánchez, he lost sight of reality. The king should not get involved in politics under any circumstances. His role is to give the royal assent to the political mandate of the elected representatives. He lacks any constitutional legitimacy to play a political role, as a long-standing monarch such as Queen Elizabeth can attest to: she has just prorogued Parliament following orders from her prime minister, and every year she inaugurates Parliament in full regalia, but reads out a speech penned by Downing St verbatim.

Spain is headed for a snap election which Sánchez is hoping to win with a broader majority so he does not need the abstention of Catalonia’s secessionist MPs to be re-elected. As Catalan socialist leader Miquel Iceta subtly tried to remind him during his Madrid trip, Pedro Sánchez will have to broach the subject of Spain’s regional organisation at some point. That is when we will find out the socialists’ policies on Catalonia and we cannot rule out the possibility that even Iceta himself might embrace the prospect of independence.