Sánchez clears last hurdle to rule Spain with far left

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Acting Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is on the cusp of securing a governing coalition | Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images

The Catalan Republican Left agreed to abstain in Sánchez’s investiture vote, allowing him to form a minority government.

BARCELONA — Spain’s acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is expected to form a coalition government with the far left in the coming days after the separatist Catalan Republican Left (ERC) agreed to abstain in an investiture vote.

The ERC’s National Council, the leading decision-making body of the pro-independence party, voted in favor Thursday of allowing the ERC’s 13 MPs to abstain in a parliamentary vote on January 7. Their abstention will enable Sánchez to secure enough support in parliament to form a coalition government with the leftist Podemos.

Sánchez has been struggling to form a government since November’s general election left Spain’s political landscape deeply fragmented. His Socialist Party (PSOE) presented a coalition pact with Podemos on Monday, but since the Socialists and Podemos do not have enough seats to form a majority, Sánchez had been hoping to persuade the ERC to abstain.

Under the deal struck by the Socialist Party and the ERC, the Spanish and Catalan governments will start negotiations on a solution to the political turmoil in Catalonia within 15 days after Sánchez’s Cabinet officially takes office.

Any resulting agreement would be subject to “a democratic validation, through a consultation with the Catalan people, in accordance with the mechanisms which are or could be foreseen within the legal-political framework,” according to the text of the deal between the two parties.

“The Popular Party will remain very vigilant” — Teodoro García Egea, PP secretary-general

“It was essential for the Republican Left that if we entered a negotiation it was not empty,” said Catalan Vice President and the ERC’s National Coordinator Pere Aragonès at a press conference in Barcelona, adding that the Catalan government will press for an independence referendum in the negotiations. “We are talking about a political conflict about who should decide the future of the country. Whether it should be the citizens of Catalonia or not.”

In a written statement, PSOE said the deal with the ERC offers an opportunity to “unblock the political conflict in Catalonia” and “set the basis for its resolution.” But Sánchez is already facing harsh criticism among his centrist and right-wing political opponents for conceding to hold consultations on any measures resulting from the negotiations with the pro-separatist Catalan government.

The conservative Popular Party, the strongest opposition party by number of MPs, accused Sánchez of lying to his voters, after denying during the electoral campaign that he would allow a referendum in Catalonia. “The Popular Party will remain very vigilant,” said the PP’s Secretary-General Teodoro García Egea.

Inés Arrimadas, spokeswoman for the center-right Ciudadanos, announced at a press conference in Madrid that she would ask the regional leaders of the Socialist Party to try to persuade Sánchez against going ahead with his agreement with the ERC. Regional presidents retain a lot of influence within the Socialist Party, and some oppose devolving any further powers to Catalonia, let alone calling a referendum on its future.

Ciudadanos’ Inés Arrimadas delivers a campaign speech in Barcelona on November 8, 2019 | Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images

A first vote on Sánchez’s investiture is expected to take place Sunday, but the acting prime minister is likely to lose, since the Socialist Party and Podemos together fall short of a majority with 155 seats in the 350-member parliament. A second vote is expected on January 7, when the ERC’s abstention will come into play because Sánchez will only need a simple majority rather than an absolute one like in the first vote.

The separatists, split

Meanwhile, the deal has deepened divisions between the ERC and the other major pro-independence party of Catalonia, Together for Catalonia (JxCat). Both parties rule the region in a coalition, but while the former is leaning toward establishing a dialogue with Madrid, the latter favors keeping a hardline stance.

According to Catalan officials, regional President Quim Torra, who belongs to JxCat, refused to back the Socialist-ERC deal at a meeting with Aragonès on Thursday morning. Torra told him “nothing can be negotiated” with the Spanish government without his approval, and insisted there must be a “clear” referendum on the independence of Catalonia, according to the officials.

If the ERC and JxCat fail to overcome their differences, Catalonia may head to an early regional election, warned Laura Borràs, a JxCat MP in the Spanish Congress, in a radio interview on RAC1.

Marta Vilalta, the ERC’s spokeswoman, defended the deal with the Socialists earlier this week. “We are skeptics because it is very hard for us to believe in this PSOE and also in the government of the Spanish state … A new deception by the Spanish government, this time formed by PSOE and Podemos, could be definitive in persuading the majority of the Catalan people who still don’t see the independence and the Catalan Republic as the best way to find a solution to the needs and yearnings of many of the citizens of our country.”

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