Spain's opposition parties demand snap election after budget rejection

Catalan secessionists likely to join right against Pedro Sánchez’s government

Spain could be headed for its third general election in less than four years after Catalan secessionists joined rightwing parties in rejecting the socialist government’s national budget.

The prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, had faced an uphill battle to secure approval for the 2019 budget in the face of opposition from critics of his minority government. He is due to make an announcement on his next steps on Friday after the weekly cabinet meeting, amid speculation a snap election could be called for April or May.

Sánchez’s PSOE, which holds 84 of the 350 seats in congress, relied on the support of Basque and Catalan nationalist parties to seize power from the conservative People’s party (PP) in a confidence vote last year.

But the two main Catalan pro-independence parties – the Catalan Republican Left and Catalan European Democratic party – voted on Wednesday with the PP and centre-right Citizens party. The budget was defeated by 191 to 158, with one abstention.

The next general election is currently due to be held next year.

The PP leader, Pablo Casado, described the budget defeat as “a de facto confidence vote” against the prime minister. “Today in congress, we’ve spearheaded a decision, which, I think, marks a turning point in the legislature,” he said. “Or, to put it another way, it marks the end of Pedro Sánchez’s time as prime minister.”

Albert Rivera, who leads the centre-right Citizens party, said Sánchez had lost and Spain had won, adding that an election needed to be held as soon as possible.

Rivera hit out at both the PSOE’s protracted efforts to have Franco’s body removed from its tomb and the PP’s recent focus on revisiting Spain’s abortion laws.

“To stop [Catalan] separatism and unite Spaniards and to speak of the future instead of Franco or abortion, we have to look ahead,” he said. “We want elections now.”

Government and PSOE party sources said the election date had not been set, although 14 April was most likely, followed by 28 April because Sánchez wants a ballot as soon as possible to mobilise left-leaning voters against the threat of the right coming to power.

The socialists are ahead in opinion polls – which show them on about 30% of voting intentions – but the two main right-of-centre parties together poll at more than 30%. In Spain’s most populous region of Andalucía, they unseated the socialists last year with the help of the far-right party Vox.

“The idea is to announce we’re calling elections as soon as possible once [the budget vote] is lost,” a government source told Reuters, adding that announcing the election swiftly should overshadow the budget vote defeat and create a more positive news flow, helping the socialists.

The prime minister had been banking on the fact that the prospect of an early election – and a possible win for rightwing parties that fiercely oppose Catalan secession – would make the Catalan parties swing behind the budget.

But, speaking to the Guardian and other European media earlier this week, the Catalan leader, Quim Torra, said the secessionist groupings would not be forced into supporting Sánchez’s budget plans.

“Are we meant to approve the budget because we’re afraid of the Spanish right?” said Torra. “Mr Sánchez can obviously decide to call elections whenever he wants – he’s the prime minister. But why would he make dialogue conditional on approving the budget?

“Look, between the far right and a PSOE that won’t accept our right to self-determination, I choose Catalan independence.”

Efforts to find a political solution to the independence crisis have been hampered by pressure from rightwing parties – and by the start of the trial in Madrid on Tuesday of 12 Catalan separatist leaders.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of people joined a rally in central Madrid to vent their fury at what they see as the overly conciliatory stance adopted by Sánchez, and to demand a general election.

The demonstration was called by the PP and Citizens, and backed by Vox. It also attracted supporters of fascist and extreme-right groups.

On Wednesday, a prosecutor at the supreme court hit back at suggestions that the Catalan trial was politically motivated. “This is a trial in defence of Spanish democracy and constitutional order,” Javier Zaragoza told the court. “This court will administer justice impartially and guarantee both the rights of the accused and a fair trial.”

The previous day, the lawyer for two former Catalan government ministers had dismissed the complex trial as “procedural vaudeville” and said its aim was to put Catalan independence itself in the dock.


Sam Jones in Madrid

The GuardianTramp

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