Uncertain road ahead for Spain’s new government

After 10 long months of political limbo, Spain finally has a govt, but will Mariano Rajoy be able to govern?

By Alyssa McMurtry

MADRID

Mariano Rajoy is being officially sworn as prime minister on Monday, but although Spain finally has a government after nearly a year of political limbo, the uncertainty clearly remains.

Rajoy now has the honor of officially presiding over the most fragmented parliament in Spanish history. With a minority government, he now faces the challenges of running a country facing serious pressures from Spanish voters, the European Union, and the rebellious government of Catalonia.

On Saturday, after two elections and 315 days of patiently watching his traditional rivals come undone, he finally won the investiture vote. This, however, does not mean he has any secure backing when it comes to passing legislation.

Although most of the Socialists lawmakers abstained on Saturday (15 broke party discipline and voted against Rajoy), this does not mean a pact on governance has been reached. For the Socialists, it was a one-time deal.

“We’ve survived 300 days with a caretaker government, but we can’t survive a government that can’t govern…The price would be ruinous,” said Rajoy in Parliament before Saturday’s vote, imploring the other parties to work with him and to be a “responsible opposition.”

“I’m open to correcting what needs correction, improving that which needs improvement, and giving up that which is reasonable… but don’t impose on me that which I cannot accept,” he said.

Not optimistic

Spaniards, however, are not optimistic that politicians will be able to work together. A recent poll, conducted for La Sexta TV, suggests 61 percent of Spaniards don’t think the government will last long, compared to just 26 percent who are optimistic that this legislature will endure.

Rajoy’s first major challenge is to pass a budget that conforms to the demands of Brussels: budget cuts of around 5.5 billion euros ($6 billion), or 0.5 percent of the GDP, to reduce the deficit “as soon as possible.”

Economists say that to achieve this, Rajoy has two unfortunate choices: raise taxes or cut spending.

“The vast majority of Spanish society doesn’t want more taxes or cuts, and it’s unthinkable that politicians, including Rajoy, want to break their electoral promises right away, especially since there could be another election soon. I can’t imagine that they will pass the budget this year,” José Carlos Díez, an economics professor at the University of Alcalá, told Anadolu Agency.

“It’s going to be a hard year. Everyone will be knocking down the laws that Rajoy tries to pass, but no one said it was going to be easy,” he said, pointing to Spain’s waning influence in Europe in recent years.

On the bright side, with the drop in petroleum prices and record tourism numbers, Spain’s economy has been steadily recovering over the past year despite the lack of government. Unemployment is still high – 19 percent – but this trimester is the first time in six years that it’s been below 20 percent, and Spain’s economy is one of the fastest growing in Europe at around 3 percent.

Rajoy, who has been the prime minister, both “acting” and “official”, since 2011, takes credit for the improvement, saying his previous labor reforms kept the economy expanding throughout 2016.

Separatist challenge

Perhaps a more formidable challenge for Rajoy is dealing with the political situation in Catalonia. At the moment there is virtually no dialogue between the Spanish government and the wealthy northeastern region, determined to become its own country.

The separatist Catalan government has vowed it will hold a binding referendum in September 2017, whether or not Rajoy agrees. If that referendum passes, they say, they will declare independence. At the moment, several high-profile figures are facing legal charges related to a symbolic referendum held in 2014.

“Another Rajoy government is business as usual… this reassures us that our roadmap for independence is the right thing,” Joan Maria Piqué, director of foreign communications with the Catalan government, told Anadolu Agency.

“We will continue with it, it’s our democratic obligation.”

Piqué, who said he was willing to face legal consequences to carry out the will of the Catalan voters, said Rajoy’s strategy of “doing nothing” may have worked nationally, but does not think it will work in Catalonia.

Rajoy has repeatedly promised not to allow Catalonia to hold a referendum or leave – arguing, like most other mainstream Spanish politicians, that one region cannot make a decision that will affect the whole country.

“Rajoy has two ways to stop us: to convince us or to destroy us,” said Piqué. “Well, he definitely isn’t trying to convince us and although he may try to destroy us, it wouldn’t be enough.”

Over the next year Rajoy and his conservative Popular Party will also have to deal with corruption scandals that have been rocking his party over the last few years. Several trials are currently ongoing that are investigating a systematic kickback culture between politicians and the business community.

Even so, Rajoy and his party seem to be enjoying a boost in the polls, especially compared to their socialist rivals who have been weakened be excessive in-fighting. This means, if the government cannot govern, Rajoy could also ponder triggering fresh elections to gain a more manageable parliament.