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Spain’s acting prime minister Pedro Sánchez achieved his first tactical win in the country’s post-election wrangling as lawmakers elected his party’s candidate as speaker of congress on Thursday.
The country has been in stasis — and on summer holidays — since an inconclusive general election on July 23 that left neither Sánchez’s Socialists nor Alberto Núñez Feijóo’s People’s party with a clear path to taking office.
The premier succeeded in corralling votes from six other parties in addition to his own to reach a 176-seat absolute majority backing Francina Armengol, his choice for speaker of Congress.
Congratulating Armengol, Sánchez said “we are already working for a new legislature that is about progress and peaceful coexistence”.
But the result does not mean he is certain to secure another term in office. He would need to reassemble the same support in an investiture vote for a new leader, likely in September, but some smaller regional parties that helped him on Thursday said their backing for him as prime minister was not guaranteed.
In the most crucial development of the day, Armengol was supported by Together for Catalonia (Junts per Catalunya), a radical separatist group that is likely to be kingmaker and has not previously voted for the Socialist to be prime minister.
Together led a 2017 bid to break away from Spain that culminated in an unconstitutional referendum and a failed declaration of independence.
It was founded by former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who has been living in exile in Belgium for the past six years and has faced an arrest warrant over the referendum.
Puigdemont wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that the speaker vote was “in no way” linked to the choice of a new prime minister. He said his party had little trust in Sánchez’s Socialists and would “not be moved by promises . . . without guarantees of compliance”.
Sánchez’s choice of Armengol, a former leader of the Catalan-speaking Balearic Islands, was seen as a nod to Catalan separatists. To secure Together’s support the Socialists agreed a pact to promote the use of Catalan and other regional languages in congress and to investigate alleged spying on Catalan leaders by Madrid.
But the Catalan party is driving a harder bargain over the investiture, seeking a proper referendum on self-determination for Catalonia and an amnesty for people facing criminal proceedings over the 2017 vote.
If neither the Socialists nor the PP can reach the majority needed to take office, Spain will be forced to hold repeat elections in December or early next year, as it did in 2015 and 2019.
The PP secured the most seats in July, but did not do as well as party leaders expected and could not reach a 176-seat majority even with its would-be allies Vox, a hard-right party.
“The PP has dynamited the bridges that lead to pacts with any political party other than Vox,” Sánchez said on Wednesday. “That leaves them more isolated than ever.”
Sánchez already relied on what critics called a “Frankenstein” amalgam of votes to take office in 2018 and to pass landmark legislation ranging from labour market reforms to improved access to abortions.
In addition to Together, other votes for the speaker came from Yolanda Díaz’s Sumar, itself an alliance of 15 leftwing and regional political groups.
Other regional parties have bristled at the idea that Sánchez is taking their votes for granted while all the attention is on Together. “We are all needed here and we are all decisive,” said Mertxe Aizpurua, a lawmaker for EH Bildu, a Basque separatist party descended from the political wing of the disbanded Eta terrorist group.
Although the PP is fiercely opposed to separatism, Elías Bendodo, a senior PP official, did not rule out the possibility of his party talking to Together last week. If the Catalan group simply abstained from an investiture vote it could be enough for Feijóo to become prime minister.
Spain’s King Felipe VI has a role in the political drama as he must decide in coming weeks which party leader to invite to have the first stab at forming a government. Sánchez on Wednesday suggested the PP was trying to pressure the monarch into choosing Feijóo, a charge the PP rejected.
“The pressure is not on the king, it’s on Sánchez,” said one PP official. The conservatives already had the guaranteed support of 171 lawmakers including those of Vox, the official argued, while Sánchez’s potential alliance — which with Together would reach 178 seats — was far from sealed.
Alluding to Sánchez’s efforts, Feijóo said on Wednesday: “There is a risk of a government that is even weaker and more divided than in the previous legislature.”