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The Big Questions (And Coalition Headaches) Ahead For Spain

The country finds itself without a clear majority following yesterday's parliamentary elections. Amid such inconclusive results, what are the country's best options to avoid prolonged political limbo?

Photo of Alberto Nuñez Feijoo, leader of the PP, delivering a speech in Madrid after yesterday's election

Alberto Nuñez Feijoo, leader of the PP, delivering a speech in Madrid after yesterday's election

Cécile Thibaud

MADRID — The prospect of a right-wing government in Spain, formed by an alliance between the moderates of the Popular Party (PP) and the extreme right-wingers of Vox, seems to be receding. The country is left without a clear path forward, with the possibility of new elections being called between now and Christmas.

Still, none of this should hinder Spain's six-month presidency of the European Union, since the current government will remain in office until a new one is formed.

The immediate results of last night's parliamentary elections show a deeply divided country faced with a series of unsolvable questions: although the opposition conservative People’s party (PP) came out on top, with 136 members of parliament in the 350-seat institution, their victory is much smaller than had been hoped. To take power, they would need the support of far-right party Vox.

Except that the far-right was left undermined by the call for a "useful vote" in favor of the PP, winning only 33 seats — i.e. 19 fewer than in the 2019 legislative elections, nowhere near the landslide success it had hoped.

Away from a pact with Vox

This is where the headaches begin for Alberto Nuñez Feijoo, the PP's leader. While the idea of a coalition with the far right doesn't seem to bother his voters too much, it is absolutely unthinkable for the small regionalist, nationalist and pro-independence parties that usually serve as a support force.

Socialist supporters were celebrating the results as a victory.

Even the highly pragmatic Basque Nationalist Party (PNV, moderate right) has warned that it would steer clear of a pact with Vox and would not lend the votes of its five deputies to a right-wing alliance. Only the small Canaries and Navarre parties would be willing to contribute one deputy each. Yet, this would not be enough to pass the majority threshold.

Faced with this impasse, the Socialist Pedro Sánchez appears to be in a better position to negotiate a majority, even though he lost the duel between the two major parties with 122 deputies, 14 fewer than his opponent. On Sunday evening, outside the headquarters of the Socialist Party (PSOE), supporters were celebrating the results as a victory. Firstly, because their party had managed to beat the right-wing tidal wave predicted by the polls, and secondly, because they saw the possibility of a left-wing alliance emerging.

A progressive duo

The Socialist Party succeeded in obtaining results in line with the high end of the polls, without siphoning off the vote from Sumar (the coalition of small left-wing parties led by outgoing Labor Minister Yolanda Diaz) which secured 31 deputies and has announced its willingness to form a progressive coalition.

In this case, too, the union of the two parties would not be enough to secure a majority, so it would be necessary to appeal to the smaller parties, which have a total of 28 seats. Almost all of them should be open to discussion.

But at what cost? Pedro Sánchez knows that part of the Socialist electorate did not appreciate the rapprochement with the Basque separatists of Bildu and the concessions made to the Catalan separatists. So should he try that again?

In practice, for decades the smaller factions have shown that they are capable of getting along with both the PP and the PSOE, according to the circumstances, as long as they obtain advantageous terms for their region.

Pedro Sanchez, Spanish prime minister and secretary of the PSOE party, celebrates the results of the election on the night of 23 July 2023\u200b.

Pedro Sanchez, Spanish prime minister and secretary of the PSOE party, celebrates the results of the election on the night of 23 July 2023.

Alberto Gardin/ZUMA

A pragmatic approach

This pragmatic approach was the hallmark of the Basque and Catalan nationalists during Felipe Gonzalez and José María Aznar's governments. But the impact of the Catalan secession attempt in 2017 has thrown a wrench in the works, and created strong public reservations about this perpetual haggling.

Alberto Nuñez Feijoo was probably wrong to underestimate the impact of his agreements with Vox at municipal and regional level in recent weeks. The image of the triumphant far-right, promising to restore order and take back control of issues such as women's and minority rights, has frightened off a number of voters.

Spaniards are getting ready to go on vacation in peace.

It now remains to be seen whether Pedro Sánchez will make the same error by approaching the smaller parties. Negotiations are likely to be complicated, if not impossible. Junts, the right-wing Catalan pro-independence party led by former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, has already set the bar very high, announcing on Monday morning that it would immediately demand amnesty for those convicted in 2017, and a referendum on self-determination for Catalonia. In view of these demands, everything points to Spain heading for new elections by the end of the year.

Searching for the next prime minister

Now that they've voted in the middle of a heatwave, Spaniards are getting ready to go on vacation in peace. There will be no further action between now and Aug. 17, when the next parliament is inaugurated. Then, from Aug. 21, King Felipe VI will open a series of consultations with parliamentary spokespersons to gauge potential candidates' ability to form a majority.

The debates and vote of confidence could take place from September onwards, with the government being formed in the process. However, if no majority emerges within the next two months, the parliament will be dissolved and new elections called by the end of the year.

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Photo of people holding pictures of hostages held by Hamas during a march in London

Members of the Jewish community in London hold up pictures of those taken hostage by Hamas.

Jakob Mieszkowski-Lapping and Emma Albright

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s military wing, the al-Quds Brigades, has said it is prepared to release two hostages held in Gaza if conditions on the ground permit.

A spokesperson for the al-Quds Brigades said it is ready to release two Israeli hostages, a woman and a boy, for humanitarian and medical reasons. He added that the initiative would take place once measures are met.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted Thursday that there would be "no ceasefire" without the release of all hostages held by Hamas.

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Still, Israel will begin implementing four-hour pauses in fighting each day in northern Gaza, according to the White House.

Negotiations are still underway to reach a three-day humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza in exchange for the release of about a dozen hostages held by Hamas, according to two officials from Egypt, one from the United Nations and a Western diplomat.

A trilateral meeting with Qatari officials and the intelligence chiefs of Israel and the U.S. was held in Doha on Thursday to discuss hostage releases in exchange for a humanitarian pause and aid entry to Gaza.

The meeting, which included CIA Director William Burns, Mossad head David Barnea and Qatari officials, discussed a proposed plan to release between 10 to 20 civilian hostages in return for a three-day pause in fighting and the entry of further aid, plus enabling Hamas to hand over a list of hostages being held in Gaza.

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