After two inconclusive elections over the past year, Spain’s socialists, or PSOE, find themselves in a lose-lose situation. With Rajoy and his PP winning an even larger plurality in the last elections, PSOE can either support Rajoy for another term as prime minister and most likely lose support, or at the very least enthusiasm, or it can deny support for Rajoy and force Spaniards back to the polls for the third time. To add insult to injury for the voters, this third election would take place on Christmas day.
The first option for PSOE is supporting Rajoy by either voting for his government or abstaining and letting the PP rule with a minority in parliament. The positives from this choice would be that Spain avoids a third election and the voters don’t blame PSOE for having to go back to the polls. Forming either a grand coalition or propping up a minority government doesn’t have much appeal though. Looking at Germany, the SPD has been in a grand coalition with the CDU for several years and it can hardly be said that it has benefited. It’s polling numbers remain at historic lows in the lower to mid 20s and while it plays an important part in government, the CDU and Merkel usually get all the recognition for any kind of success.
Given the fact that PSOE’s support actually fell in the six months between the December 2015 and June 2016 elections, it’s not very likely that they would see a jump in support if seen backing the PP. The party is having enough trouble trying to lure voters. It is no time to disappoint or disillusion the base.
The second option for PSOE is to vote against Rajoy and force Spain into a third election on Christmas. There are a several negative effects from this decision. The first is that if anyone is to gain from a third election, it is Rajoy and the PP. The party has already increased its vote share over the past two elections and a low turnout will favor the PP who has more support among those that are most likely to vote (older, rural voters).
This is on top of the fact that PSOE lost support over the past two elections and there are no indicators that point to any kind of gain in support in a hypothetical third election. The PP will continue to rely on its base and Podemos will continue to poach votes on the left, leaving PSOE diminished and increasingly irrelevant. Things don’t look good in the immediate future either. The September 25 regional elections in Galicia and the Basque country are expected to both show poor results for PSOE. If the results from these elections are as expected, they will only add even more pressure on PSOE to agree to a PP-led government.
Another problem is that the socialists cannot form a government on their own anyway. Talks between PSOE and Podemos broke down after the first of the two recent elections and it looks unlikely that the parties will try and work together in the near future. The issue of Catalonia (Podemos supports a referendum in the separatist territory, PSOE does not) continues to be a red line for the socialists and Podemos shows no signs of giving in on this issue. Apart from Podemos, no other options for a government exist except for a grand coalition with PP, which has already been ruled out, or a minority government which would be very likely to fall sooner rather than later given the relationship between PSOE and PP.
Pressure is already growing on PSOE and its leader Sanchez to avoid a third election. The party is clearly in a weaker position as, outlined above, it cannot form its own government and has not seen a growth in support either between the December and June elections or since the last election in June. The socialists are increasingly being seen as the ones preventing Spain from forming a government and escaping this political crisis. Rumors are also swirling about internal divides within the party and internal criticism of Sanchez and his strategy, or lack thereof. It’s difficult to see a situation where the socialists would gain any support by a third election on Christmas day, particularly when the public is increasingly seeing them as the cause of such a third election.
Confronted with this lose-lose situation, what should PSOE do now? With little hope of being in a better position following a third election in December, the option causing the least amount of damage could be to abstain and allow Rajoy and the PP to govern with a minority government. This could lead many to blame the socialists for allowing Rajoy to become PM again, however the damage from the other options could be greater.
If PSOE agreed to a grand coalition, it would be difficult for the party to separate itself from the shadow of the PP. It would no longer be able to project itself as the “opposition” to the PP and would be tied down to any support or decline in support for the government. The grand coalition in Germany shows that the junior partner does not get many benefits in the long-term. The German SPD is now risking being relegated to a more minor party status as it has not been able to get any significant increase in support for several years.
Voting against Rajoy and forcing a third election would open PSOE to ever more criticism and would be unlikely to give the party any increase in votes. The socialists would be blamed for destabilizing Spain and deepening a political crisis. Furthermore, a decreased turnout would benefit the PP and strengthen Rajoy’s hand. This option seems to have no upside either in the short-term or the long-term.
This lose-lose situation for the socialists requires a painful choice to be made. The longer the party avoids it, the worse off it will be. Above all, the party cannot be seen as creating or prolonging a political crisis and needs to come to terms with another PP term with Rajoy as PM. The sooner the party can accept this, the sooner it can start to look forward to the next elections and focus on winning back some of the disappointed electorate.