Three-way coalition talks start as clock ticks for Spain

As a deadline to form a government approaches dangerously close, Spain's Socialists, far-left party Podemos and centrist upstart Ciudadanos will try to put aside their differences Thursday in their first three-way coalition talks.

Three-way coalition talks start as clock ticks for Spain
Podemos will join talks with Ciudadanos and the PSOE. Photo: AFP

Nearly 16 weeks after inconclusive elections left Spain without a proper government, and as acrimony between party leaders intensifies, negotiators from all three groupings will sit down at 4.30pm in Madrid to try and unblock the political paralysis gripping the country.

“We are going with the clear will to do our utmost to obtain a government… but also knowing that it's very difficult, that we are political parties that are far apart from each other,” Meritxell Batet, part of the Socialists' negotiating team, told Spanish radio.

And it will be all the more difficult following acrimonious exchanges in parliament between Podemos chief Pablo Iglesias and Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera on Wednesday.

Accusations of cronyism, intolerance, shady party financing… Both traded barbs a mere 24 hours before the three-way meeting, prompting concern over how two parties already far apart ideologically could sit down for civil talks.

Antonio Hernando, who heads up the negotiating team of the Socialists – the party tasked with forming a government – tried to play down these differences in an interview with the El Pais daily.

“Attitudes are different in public and in private, whether there are cameras and microphones or not. There won't be any in today's meeting,” he said.

And the clock is ticking. If no power-sharing agreement is found by May 2nd – or in just under a month – new elections will be called, most likely for June 26th.

This would extend the paralysis that has gripped Spain since December's general elections, at a time when the country is emerging limping out of a damaging financial crisis.

The polls put an end to the traditional two-party system as voters fed up with austerity, unemployment and corruption scandals flocked to new parties, leaving a hung parliament divided among four main groupings, none of them with enough seats to govern alone.

The Socialists were tasked with trying to form a government after acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy – whose conservative Popular Party came first in elections – gave up attempts to do so due to lack of support from other groupings.

The Socialists reached a pact with Ciudadanos, which came fourth.   

But that does not give them enough seats to push a government through, and they need the support of Podemos – which came third in the election, giving it considerable sway in coalition negotiations.

Podemos which has recently lost ground in opinion polls, had refused to sit down for negotiations with the Socialists if Ciudadanos was involved, but last week agreed to do so.

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Ideological battle over abortion as Spain vote looms

A controversial anti-abortion proposal by the far-right Vox party has sparked heated debate in a key election year for Spain, with its left-wing government raising the alarm about extremist agendas.

Ideological battle over abortion as Spain vote looms

Last week, a Vox official in the northern region of Castilla y León, which is co-run by the right and far right, said doctors would have to offer women seeking an abortion the option of hearing the heartbeat of the foetus.

The measure is similar to that adopted last year by the far-right government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, which requires pregnant women to listen to the foetus’ “vital functions’ before having an abortion.

The aim was “to promote childbirth and support families”, said the region’s deputy head Juan Garcia-Gallardo, a member of Vox which, like other parties of its ilk, has put a lot of focus on this ideologically charged issue.

READ ALSO: Spain’s Castilla y León to introduce measures to prevent abortions

Spain, a European leader when it comes to women’s rights, decriminalised abortion in 1985 and in 2010 it passed a law that allows women to opt freely for abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy in most cases.

A government bill which aims to guarantee access to the procedure at public hospitals is currently making its way through parliament.

‘Threat is very real’

Vox in 2022 entered a regional government for the first time since it was founded in 2013 when it became the junior partner in a coalition with the conservative Popular Party (PP) in Castilla y León.

The experiment in the region close to Madrid is being closely watched: polls suggest the PP would win a general election expected the end of the year but would need the support of Vox to govern.

Before that, Spain will vote in May in regional and local elections.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez used his address at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday to warn of the threat posed by the far-right, in what was seen as a reference to Castilla y León.

“We have to prevent these political forces from reaching the institutions… because the threat is very real, especially in those countries where far-right forces have the support of mainstream conservative parties,” he said.

He accused Moscow of using far-right parties to sow division in Europe, adding: “We will fight them with the same determination and conviction that the Ukrainians are fighting Russian forces.”

Sánchez’s executive has sent two notices to the regional government of Castilla y León reminding it that it does not have the authority to alter the abortion law.

READ ALSO: What are Spain’s abortion laws for foreign residents and visitors?

‘Drive a wedge’

Meanwhile, the main opposition PP has tried to distance itself from the controversy. It said the measure, which was first put forward by Garcia-Gallardo, will never come into force.

During a TV interview on Tuesday, PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo said: “No woman who wants to voluntarily interrupt her pregnancy according to the law will be coerced anywhere where the PP governs.”

Feijóo, who has pushed the PP to the centre since becoming leader of the party in April, did not hide his discomfort with Vox, which he said was “clearly mistaken”.

He said the far-right party had sparked a controversy that “clearly” benefitted Sánchez’s government, which had “a lot of problems”.

The abortion row has overshadowed other disputes troubling the government. They include a row sparked by a flagship law against sexual violence that toughened penalties for rape but eased sentences for other sexual crimes. This has set some convicts free after their jail terms were reduced.

Antonio Barroso, of political consultancy Teneo, said Vox was “trying to drive a wedge within the PP by pushing for initiatives that pull the party away from the centre”.

Controversies over issues like abortion could help Sánchez “to mobilise the left-wing electorate by capitalising on their potential fears of a PP-Vox government”, he added in a research note.