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With new election in sight, Spain’s Socialists seek to win over disgruntled centrist voters

Party leaders believe there are around a million people who voted for Ciudadanos in April who could switch allegiances at upcoming polls

Acting PM Pedro Sánchez in Congress. Show photo gallery
Acting PM Pedro Sánchez in Congress.

Following the failure of Spanish political leaders to reach a governing deal in time to avert a repeat election, parties are scrambling to design their new campaign strategies ahead of November 10, when Spaniards will almost certainly be asked to return to the polls.

The Socialist Party (PSOE), which has been leading a caretaker government since the parliamentary election of April 28, will now try to steal voters away from Ciudadanos (Citizens), a party that gained national prominence on a liberal-progressive agenda but that has lately shifted to the right, crafting alliances with the conservative Popular Party (PP) and the far-right Vox while shunning any deals with the PSOE.

No deal

Caretaker Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said on Tuesday that he has not managed to secure enough support to be confirmed in the post, five months after winning a parliamentary election with 123 seats out of 350 – not enough to form a single-party government as he wishes to do.

After Sánchez submitted to a congressional investiture vote in July and was voted down, political leaders had one last chance for a second session before September 23, when parliament will be dissolved and a new election called.

But in a two-day round of talks with King Felipe VI on Monday and Tuesday, most opposition leaders confirmed that they would either vote no or abstain at any new congressional vote, making it impossible for Sánchez to secure the seats he needs to form a government. The caretaker PM is refusing to submit to another vote unless he is guaranteed the support he needs, and the deadline for dissolving parliament is next Monday at midnight.

PSOE strategists feel that their party will no longer be able to attract many more voters from the leftist Unidas Podemos group, and they have now set their sights on the more progressive followers of Ciudadanos, who could number around a million people.

Some sources in the PSOE, however, are skeptical about this plan and believe that many disgruntled Ciudadanos voters will simply abstain instead of switching allegiances.

But party leaders believe that there are many opportunities to be found in Catalonia, Ciudadanos’ home region and the place where this party started to grow on an anti-separatist message. “There are a lot of borderline voters there who once voted for us, and we think we can bring them back by defending dialogue [with Catalan nationalist leaders] within the bounds of the Constitution,” said one source in the PSOE leadership.

The PSOE sees itself as an attractive alternative for non-separatist Catalans who oppose Unidas Podemos’s calls for a legal referendum, but who fall short of supporting Ciudadanos’ insistence on reintroducing direct rule by Madrid.

Opposition

Meanwhile, PP leader Pablo Casado is continuing to cultivate his moderate public persona as he strives to win back the conservative voters who switched to Ciudadanos and Vox on April 28, when the PP lost a massive 71 seats from the previous election.

Podemos is still undecided as to whether it should attack the PSOE or use moderate rhetoric, considering that its goal remains a coalition government, and that the Socialists are their only possible partners.

And Albert Rivera, who steered Ciudadanos toward the right in a move that has triggered internal criticism and the resignation of several party leaders – including Francesc de Carreras, considered the party’s “intellectual father” – will now have to decide which flank to focus on to contain the probable loss of votes.

Tough on secession

ERC spokesperson Gabriel Rufián in Congress on Tuesday.
ERC spokesperson Gabriel Rufián in Congress on Tuesday. EFE

During question time in Congress on Wednesday, Pedro Sánchez gave an indication of what his new strategy will look like in the coming weeks. Even fellow Socialists were startled at the tough tone that the caretaker PM used with Gabriel Rufián, a representative of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), a separatist party that helped him win a no-confidence vote against the previous PP administration last year.

Sánchez said that he would not hesitate to reintroduce direct rule in Catalonia through the application of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, if there were “any attempt” by the Catalan regional government to “violate” the nation’s highest law as it did during the failed secession attempt in 2017.

His attitude underscored how Sánchez is seeking to appeal to non-separatist Catalans who may be unhappy with their voting options. But Pablo Simón, a political scientist who teaches at Madrid’s Carlos III University, warns that this is a risky strategy. “In the worst scenario for the PSOE after November 10, they could need an affirmative vote from ERC to get [Sánchez] confirmed; an abstention might not be good enough.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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