More Show than Real Power Option - The Failed Election for Spanish Prime Minister of Alberto Núñez Feijóo (PP)


Der konservative Wahlsieger Feijóo ist beim ersten Versuch gescheitert, eine Regierung zu bilden.

© picture alliance / EPA | Juan Carlos Hidalgo

Last week, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, president of the conservative Partido Popular ("PP"), failed in the election to become Spain's new prime minister and therefore will not be able to replace the current caretaker incumbent Pedro Sánchez of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party ("PSOE"). Feijóo had been nominated as a candidate for inauguration by King Felipe VI in late August, as the PP had won the most seats in Spain's July 23, 2023 general election (but fell short of an absolute majority even together with votes from the right-wing populist VOX party).

How did the congressional vote go?

In the first of the two votes on September 27, Feijóo would have needed an absolute majority of 176 out of 350 votes; on the second voting day (September 29), a simple majority would have sufficed. Feijóo himself believed that a successful election was unlikely and, as widely expected, failed in both attempts. On the first day he received only 172 votes and 178 against, while on Friday 172 voted for him again, but this time with 177 against and one invalid vote. In both cases, the PP, VOX and the two micro parties Coalición Canaria and UPN voted for Feijóo, while the PSOE, Sánchez's left-wing populist coalition partner "Sumar" and the regional nationalist parties BNG, PNV, Bildu, ERC and "Junts per Catalunya" voted against Feijóo.

The debate in Congress was not a stellar one for Parliament: it was harsh, irreconcilable and, in part, surprising. Since Feijóo knew in principle that he would not achieve a majority, his speeches were more like a reckoning with the caretaker left-wing government. His substantive proposals were surprisingly social democratic, such as an increase in the minimum wage. Since Sánchez did not answer directly, but surprisingly called on the former mayor of the city of Valladolid, Oscar Puente, to speak, PP deputies shouted "coward, coward" at Sánchez's address and had to be called to order by the parliamentary president.

Why is forming a government after the July elections so complicated?

Spain's society and party system are deeply divided. To the right of center, the PP and VOX contested the elections; on the other side are virtually all the other parties, left-wing and nationalist formations, the latter especially from the traditionally restive regions of Catalonia and the Basque Country. This ensures that the PP finds itself in a strategically extremely complicated position. If it does not come very close to an absolute majority of 176 seats and could then be supported by the moderate, conservative Basque nationalists of the PNV, for example, it will have to rely on the votes of the right-wing populist party VOX. On the one hand, however, this precludes the support of almost all other parties, and on the other hand, it ensures that many centrist voters will then prefer to vote for the socialists even during the election campaign. Particularly when it comes to women's rights and LGBTI rights, Spaniards have no use for VOX's national conservative, ultra-Catholic and backward-looking image of the family and do not want to have their impressive sociopolitical achievements since the Franco era disputed.

Moreover, a grand coalition is considered impossible in Spain, as conservatives and socialists are too irreconcilably opposed to each other.

Where do we go from here?

Sánchez is now expected to be the next to be asked by King to try to win a majority in Congress by Nov. 27. The PSOE party leader has a better chance than Feijóo, but he also faces challenges. To achieve a majority, he would need, among other things, the votes of the Junts per Catalunya party, whose president is MEP and fugitive from Spanish justice Carles Puigdemont. Junts is an extreme party of Catalan separatists that (like ERC) demands, among other things, an amnesty for hundreds of separatists involved in the attempted secession in 2017 in exchange for their votes. At the time, the Catalan independence process culminated in an unconstitutional referendum after which the autonomous region of Catalonia had to be briefly placed under the control of the central government in Madrid. As the former prime minister of Catalonia, Puigdemont was the leader of this process and is regarded as a hate figure by Spaniards who are loyal to the constitution. Sánchez himself said during the election campaign that such an amnesty would not happen with him, and there is also rumbling in his own party about the necessary concessions.

Considering current events, it is all the clearer that Spain urgently needs a strong liberal party of the center that can govern with both major parties. The liberal Ciudadanos party did not contest the July elections to gather forces for the European elections in June of next year.

If Sánchez fails in getting himself elected prime minister by the end of November, there will be new elections in January 2024.