Spain now has a Prime Minister: Pedro Sanchez clinches vote by razor-thin margin

Spain's parliament on Tuesday confirmed Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez's reappointment as prime minister by a razor-thin margin, ending almost a year of political limbo for the eurozone's fourth-largest economy.

Spain now has a Prime Minister: Pedro Sanchez clinches vote by razor-thin margin
Photo: AFP

The narrow victory paves the way for the country's first-ever coalition government since its
return to democracy in the 1970s.   

Sanchez, who has stayed on as a caretaker premier since inconclusive elections last year, won 167 votes in the 350-seat assembly compared to 165 against, with a decisive 18 abstentions by Catalan and Basque separatist

He plans to form a minority coalition government with hard-left party Podemos this time around, in what would be the first coalition government in Spain since the country returned to democracy following the death of longtime
dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

Podemos' pony-tailed leader Pablo Iglesias broke into tears after the results of the vote were announced and his lawmakers chanted the party's slogan “Yes we can!”.

“A period of moderation, progress and hope opens up today,” Sanchez tweeted shortly after the vote.

Sanchez, who plans to form an unprecedented minority coalition government with far-left party Podemos, got 167 votes in the 350-seat parliament, with 165 votes against and 18 abstentions.

This is how he secured his majority in the second round vote. 

He lost a first confidence vote Sunday having failed to win backing from an absolute majority in the 350-seat parliament.   

For Tuesday's second vote he needed just a simple majority to remain prime minister.

The Socialists struck a deal last week with the 13 lawmakers from Catalan separatist party ERC to abstain, but the numbers still looked tight.

Sanchez, 47, won by just two votes after the sole lawmaker from the regional Coalicion Canaria formation broke ranks at the weekend to say she would vote against him instead of abstaining.

Spain, the eurozone's fourth-largest economy, has been in political gridlock for most of the past year after two inconclusive elections in April and November.

Sanchez's Socialists won a repeat November 10th poll but were weakened, taking 120 seats — three fewer than in April — in an election which saw upstart far-right party Vox surge to third place.

Sanchez quickly struck a deal with Podemos to form what would be the first post-dictatorship coalition government in Spain, despite having previously said that a coalition with the far-left would keep him up at night.

'Progressive coalition'

The two parties are pledging to lift the minimum wage, raise taxes on high earners and big business, and repeal elements of controversial 2012 labour market reforms that made it easier to fire workers — measures which have alarmed business leaders who warn they will hurt job creation.

With the two formations' combined total of 155 seats still falling short of a majority, Sanchez had also secured the support or abstention of several smaller regional parties including the ERC which saw him squeak by in the second confidence vote.   

As part of the ERC deal, Sanchez has agreed that the national government should hold talks with Catalonia's separatist regional administration to resolve the “political conflict”.

Catalonia remains in flux following a 2017 independence referendum which Madrid declared unconstitutional.

“There is no other possible option” to a Socialist-Podemos government, Sanchez told parliament Tuesday ahead of the vote.

“Between this progressive coalition and the continuation of political deadlock, I hope the majority of the chamber picks the progressive coalition.”

'Most radical' 

Spain's centre-right parties and Vox accused Sanchez of putting national unity at risk with his pact with the Catalan separatists.   

“This government against Spain is the most radical of our history,” said the leader of the main opposition Popular Party (PP), Pablo Casado.    

He also accused Sanchez of forming a “Frankenstein government” made up of “communists” and “separatists” who “want to put an end to Spain”, and warned that his coalition  would be unable to govern and not last the full four years.   

Applause for Aina Vedal

Sanchez's tight margin for victory led Podemos lawmaker Aina Vidal, who is in severe pain with cancer and had to miss the weekend vote, to turn up for Tuesday's crucial vote despite her illness.

Her fellow lawmakers gave her a standing ovation when the session began.

Sanchez came to power in June 2018 after ousting his PP predecessor Mariano Rajoy in a no-confidence vote, but he was forced to call elections in April after Catalan separatists refused to back his budget.

“The political landscape remains tricky,” ING analyst Steven Trypsteen said.   

“The new government would be a minority government, the Catalan tensions could flare up again… and the fiscal situation makes it difficult to increase spending a lot,” he added.

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German Greens’ chancellor candidate Baerbock targeted by fake news

With Germany's Green party leading the polls ahead of September's general elections, the ecologists' would-be successor to Angela Merkel has become increasingly targeted by internet trolls and fake news in recent weeks.

German Greens' chancellor candidate Baerbock targeted by fake news
The Greens chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock on April 26th. Photo: DPA

From wild claims about CO2-emitting cats and dogs to George Soros photo collages, 40-year-old Annalena Baerbock has been the subject of a dizzying array of fake news, conspiracy theories and online attacks since she was announced as the Greens’ chancellor candidate in mid-April.

The latest polls have the Greens either ahead of or level with Merkel’s ruling conservatives, as the once fringe party further establishes itself as a leading electoral force in Europe’s biggest economy.

Baerbock herself also consistently polls higher than her conservative and centre-left rivals in the race to succeed Merkel, who will leave office after 16 years this autumn.

Yet her popularity has also brought about unwanted attention and a glut of fake news stories aimed at discrediting Baerbock as she bids to become Germany’s first Green chancellor.


False claims

Among the false stories circulating about Baerbock is the bizarre claim that she wants to ban household pets in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Another fake story firmly denied by the party claimed that she defied rules on mask-wearing and social-distancing by embracing colleagues upon her nomination earlier this month.

Baerbock has also been presented as a “model student” of Hungarian billionaire George Soros – a hate figure for the European far-right and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists – in a mocked-up social media graphic shared among others by a far-right MP.

More serious online attacks include a purported photo of Baerbock which in fact shows a similar-looking naked model.

The Greens’ campaign manager Michael Kellner said that the attempts to discredit Baerbock had “taken on a new dimension”, that “women are targeted more heavily by online attacks than men, and that is also true of our candidate”.

Greens co-leader Annalena Baerbock earlier this month. Photo: DPA

Other false claims about the party include reports of a proposed ban on barbecues, as well as plans to disarm the police and enforce the teaching of the Quran in schools.

While such reports are patently absurd, they are potentially damaging to Baerbock and her party as they bid to spring a surprise victory in September.

“She has a very real chance, but the coming weeks are going to be very important because Baerbock’s public image is still taking shape,” Thorsten Faas, a political scientist at Berlin’s Free University told AFP.

In a bid to fight back against the flood of false information, the party has launched a new “online fire service” to report fake news stories.

READ ALSO: Greens become ‘most popular political party’ in Germany

Russian disinformation

Yet stemming the tide is no easy job, with many of those who peddle disinformation now using private messaging services such as WhatsApp and Telegram rather than public platforms such as Facebook.

The pandemic and ongoing restrictions on public life will also make it harder for the campaign to push through their own narratives at public events.

Miro Dittrich of Germany’s Amadeu-Antonio anti-racism foundation claims that lockdown has “played a role” in the spread of fake news.

“People are isolated from their social environment and are spending a lot more time online,” he said.

Another factor is Russia, which has made Germany a primary target of its efforts to spread disinformation in Europe.

According to the European anti-disinformation platform EUvsDisinfo, Germany has been the target of 700 Russian disinformation cases since 2015, compared to 300 aimed at France and 170 at Italy.

As an outspoken critic of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Germany and Russia, Baerbock may well become a target of such attacks during the election campaign.

By Mathieu FOULKES