Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the leader of the right-wing People’s Party (PP), saw his first bid to become Spain’s next prime minister rejected by the Spanish Congress on Wednesday, with the current opposition leader lacking the support to pass a key vote.
The parliament debated Feijóo’s bid to become prime minister for several hours on Tuesday and on Wednesday morning before the vote.
Barring any unexpected surprises in a second vote due to be held on Friday, the result on Wednesday – which saw 172 votes in favour to 178 against – sets in motion a two-month countdown to new elections, unless the current acting socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez can garner sufficient support to pass an identical vote to be inaugurated officially again as premier.
Sánchez, who has repeatedly demonstrated his capacity for political survival, is confident he will be returned to power with the support of the left-wing grouping of Sumar, along with Basque and Catalan regional parties.
Despite winning the most votes in July’s inconclusive election, Feijóo on Wednesday was only able to muster the support of 172 MPs from his own PP group (137 seats), the far-right Vox party (33 seats), and the support from two minor parties with one seat each (the Unión del Pueblo Navarra and the Coalición Canaria).
To be inaugurated as prime minister, he needed a majority of 176 in the 350-seat parliament.
He was unable to garner the necessary support due to his alliance with Vox, whose extreme positions have left the PP almost totally alienated.
The PP has alliances with Vox, which denies climate change and rails against feminism, in several regional governments. Vox’s views on recentralising power from regions to Madrid also makes it a ‘no go’ to many smaller parties representing Spain’s regions.
Feijóo had claimed on Tuesday that he was close to becoming prime minister, but that he was not willing to pay the political price of an amnesty that the Catalan separatists wanted in exchange for their support.
But on Wednesday, the spokesman for the Basque party EAJ-PNV, Aitor Esteban, reminded Feijóo that if he wanted their backing, Feijóo ‘would have to start with ditching the 33’ votes of Vox. Esteban added that his party would prefer supporting a possible amnesty for the Catalan separatists, if it came to that, than a likely right-wing coalition of the PP and Vox at the national level.
‘There is a whale in the swimming pool,’ Esteban told Feijóo. ‘The 33 votes of Vox are absolutely necessary for you and they would be for your entire mandate. That whale is so big it is impossible to hide.’
Feijóo will face a second vote on Friday that requires a simple majority of more votes in favour than against. But there too, he has little to no chance of winning sufficient support.
Next week, king Felipe VI is expected to task Sánchez with forming a government, although the date for a new investiture vote has yet to be set. If he also fails, and no government is formed before 27 November, parliament will be dissolved and Spain will be forced to hold elections, most likely on 14 January.
Acutely aware of his lack of support, Feijóo used his parliamentary address on Tuesday to launch a blistering attack on Sánchez over his planned deal with a hardline Catalan pro-independence party cast in the role of kingmaker.
In exchange for its support, the Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) group wants an amnesty for those facing legal action over the failed and illegal 2017 Catalan referendum, including for its leader Carles Puigdemont who led the independence drive and then fled Spain to avoid prosecution. ALSO READ: Puigdemont demands ‘amnesty’ for all independence activists as ‘precondition’ for Sánchez’s investiture.
In concluding the debate ahead of the vote, Feijóo lashed out at Sánchez for giving in to ‘blackmail by those who do not believe in Spain’.
‘Whether Sánchez will end up being prime minister or not depends entirely on what Puigdemont wants,’ Feijóo had said on Tuesday, referring to a man viewed by the Spanish right as public enemy number one.
‘What the pro-independence movement is proposing … is a direct attack on the essential democratic values of our country.’
And his party’s spokeswoman, Cuca Gamarra, also attacked Sánchez for being ‘ready to sell Spain down the river at any price purely to get something that’s exclusively in his own interest’.
On Sunday, around 60,000 flag-waving protesters hit the streets of Madrid to denounce JxCat’s amnesty demand, which Feijóo blasted as tantamount to ‘blackmail’. ALSO READ: Rally against Catalan amnesty, ahead of Feijóo facing ‘doomed’ investiture vote.
Approving an amnesty to stay in power would be dangerous for Sánchez as it is not only a red line for the right but also for elements within his own PSOE socialist party.
Although Sánchez’s government in 2021 pardoned around a dozen Catalan pro-independence leaders jailed over the failed secession bid [see background to political conflict below], he has yet to speak publicly about the amnesty issue, saying only he would be ‘faithful to the policy of normalisation in Catalonia’.
Background to Catalan political conflict
Nine Catalan politicians and activists were jailed for between 9-13 years by the Spanish Supreme Court in October 2019, convicted of sedition and misuse of public funds for their role in the 2017 illegal referendum, with the verdicts causing widespread protests across Catalonia. In June 2021, the nine walked free from prison, following pardons granted by the government led by socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, but they remained banned from holding public office.
Late last year, Spain passed a controversial criminal code reform that downgraded the two charges used against them, abolishing sedition and replacing it with that of aggravated public disorder, and also reducing the penalty for misuse of public funds.
Misuse of public funds can carry prison time of between six months and up to five years if convicted, but disobedience only carries a disqualification from public office.
❌ El #Pleno se reunirá el viernes a las 12:15h para la segunda votación de la #SesiónDeInvestidura. @NunezFeijoo no ha alcanzado la mayoría absoluta necesaria en primera votación: 172 a favor y 178 en contra. #InvestiduraFeijóo pic.twitter.com/lrFuRI3rPl— Congreso (@Congreso_Es) September 27, 2023