Problems pile up for new Spanish PM

A million people demand independence in Barcelona and another minister steps down... Problems are piling up for Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

Problems pile up for new Spanish PM
Photo: AFP

Sanchez, who took over on June 2 after toppling his conservative predecessor amid a graft scandal, has said he intends to steer the country through to mid-2020.

But his Socialist party has only 84 seats in Spain's 350-seat parliament, the smallest amount for a government since the country returned to democracy following dictator Francisco Franco's death in 1975.

That makes it hard for the Socialists, who rely on support from far-left party Podemos and smaller Catalan and Basque nationalist formations, to face up to mounting challenges:

Two resignations

Two of Sanchez's cabinet ministers have quit already. The first to go was Maxim Huerta, the culture and sports minister who resigned just a week after taking office after it emerged he had been fined for tax fraud.

On Tuesday, former health minister Carmen Monton stepped down following reports of irregularities in how she obtained an academic degree. Spanish media said Monton had been awarded grades without attending classes and that her final project contained plagiarised passages — charges she denied.

READ MORE: Spanish health minister resigns over 'mastergate' scandal


Sanchez earlier this month offered Catalonia a vote on greater autonomy, which was swiftly rejected by the wealthy region's separatist president Quim Torra, who wants a legally binding independence referendum.

Around one million people marched Tuesday in Barcelona in favour of Catalan independence, a sign that the separatist camp remains highly motivated.   

More protests are planned for the anniversary of last year's banned referendum on October 1st, which was marred by police violence, and that of a failed declaration of independence on October 27th.

2019 budget

Sanchez faces an uphill battle to get the 2019 budget approved meanwhile, with his main ally Podemos pressing for more public spending.   

“It's a very complex political equation,” said Antonio Barroso, analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London, adding that the government does not have enough support from its disparate partners to approve a new spending plan.   

Sanchez must maintain Madrid's promise to cut the Spanish deficit to 1.8 percent of economic output in 2019 from 3.1 percent last year, which limits room to bargain with other parties.

He has thus had to drop a promised bank tax, proposing instead fresh levies on financial transactions.

A bank tax, “since it would have been new, would have had to be approved in parliament, and that would have been complex,” Barroso said.   

The government will likely propose a 2019 budget which will “demonstrate what type of policies it would implement if they remain in power” after local, regional and European elections in May 2019.


The government has had to make U-turns on several positions meanwhile, from blocking an arms sale to Saudi Arabia to a sex workers union.   

READ MORE: Spain works to avoid row with Saudi Arabia over bomb deal

“This is not the government of Spain, it is the government of about-turns,” said Andrea Levy, a lawmaker with the main opposition conservative Popular Party (PP).

In the most recent example, Defence Minister Margarita Robles revived the chances of selling 400 laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia — engaged in a bloody conflict in Yemen — a week after Spain said the deal had been cancelled.

The government also reversed course on the creation of a sex workers union.    

Labour Minister Magdalena Valerio said the government would try to ban the Organisation of Sex Workers (Otras) union, less than a month after her ministry granted it legal status without her knowledge.


At last! Spain passes budget in boost for minority government

Spain's Senate is poised to approve Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's budget for 2021 later Tuesday, boosting his minority Socialist-led government after years of political instability.

At last! Spain passes budget in boost for minority government
File image of a debate in Spain's parliament. Photo: AFP

Spain's Senate approved Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's budget for 2021 on Tuesday, boosting his minority Socialist-led government after years of political instability.

The spending plan, which channels billions of euros in European Union pandemic recovery funds into the economy, was approved by the lower house on December 3 before receiving the Senate's backing.

Its passage increases the chances that Sanchez will hold on to power until the next general election set for 2023.
   It became the first budget to be approved since 2018.   

The rise of new parties such as far-left Podemos and market-friendly Ciudadanos has fractured parliament, making it difficult to pass legislation.    

This has led to a cycle of political instability that has taken Spain, the euro zone's fourth largest economy, to four elections between 2015 and 2019.    

“This is a very, very important stage because it allows Pedro Sanchez to gain time and stability,” said Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

'Sanchez never admits defeat'

Sanchez came to power in June 2018 but was forced to call fresh elections early last year after Catalan separatist parties voted down his draft budget.   

The budget vote came on the heels of the start of a high-profile trial of Catalan separatist leaders over Catalonia's failed 2017 bid to break away from Spain.

“Sanchez has shown throughout his career that he never admits defeat,” said Paloma Roman, politics professor at Madrid's Complutense University.    

After two inconclusive general elections in 2019, Sanchez in January 2020 formed a minority coalition government with Podemos.   

He initially tried to win support for his 2021 budget from Ciudadanos.    

But after that failed, he controversially turned to several smaller regional nationalist parties, including Bildu, the heirs of the former political wing of armed Basque separatist group ETA.

Sanchez took office in 2018 with the backing of these parties, but the pact with Bildu sparked an outcry from the right and even criticism from within his Socialist party.

Given the make-up of parliament, “there was no other possible majority” to help pass the budget, said Bartomeus.

'Not be easy'

In exchange for the support of these parties for his budget, Sanchez agreed a series of measures, including a moratorium on evictions for poor families which cabinet is set to approve on Tuesday.

While approval of the budget ensures Sanchez's government will last, he still faces “years of permanent negotiations within his government and in parliament” to approve laws, said Cristina Monge, a political scientist at the University of Zaragoza.

The Socialists and Podemos, their junior coalition partners, are divided over many issues such as migration, the future of the monarchy and the need to raise the minimum wage.

Sanchez's ties with Catalan ally ERC also risk becoming more tense as Catalonia's regional elections on February 14 nears.   

“It will not be easy for the government to resist these tensions, but neither of the two (coalition partners) has any real interest in separating” and bringing down the government, said Bartomeus.

Monge said Podemos is falling in the polls and the Socialists do not have enough support to govern alone so the “price they would pay” if they split would be “too high”.

By AFP's Mathieu Gorse