Spain's leader Pedro Sanchez is congratulated by far-left Unidas Podemos coalition leader, Pablo Iglesias (right), after winning a parliamentary vote on January 7 2020. Picture: Picture: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP
Spain's leader Pedro Sanchez is congratulated by far-left Unidas Podemos coalition leader, Pablo Iglesias (right), after winning a parliamentary vote on January 7 2020. Picture: Picture: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP

Madrid — Socialist Pedro Sánchez was sworn in as prime minister on Wednesday, becoming head of Spain’s first coalition government since the return of democracy in the 1970s.

He took the oath before King Felipe VI a day after being narrowly confirmed as premier in parliament and will take office as head of a minority coalition government with the radical left-wing Podemos.

In a brief televised appearance at the Zarzuela palace, Sánchez swore to uphold the constitution in a secular pledge with no Bible nor crucifix in sight — as he did when first taking office in June 2018 which, back then, was a first.

The investiture draws a line under nearly a year of political deadlock in the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy following inconclusive elections in April and again in November, both of which were won by the Socialists but without an absolute majority. Sánchez will now focus on piecing together his government, with the line-up to be announced next week, party sources said.

Crucial abstentions

He won Tuesday’s confidence vote by an extremely tight margin in the bitterly divided 350-seat chamber, with 167 votes in favour and 165 against — and 18 crucial abstentions by Catalan and Basque separatist legislators.

November’s election left the Socialists weakened, and even after the deal with Podemos, the two only accounted for 155 seats, 21 seats short of a majority, pushing Sánchez to seek support from smaller regional groups.

He also had to secure the all-important abstention of Catalan and Basque separatist parties, sparking a furious response from his right-wing rivals in the Popular Party (PP), centre-right Ciudadanos and the far-right Vox.

“Sánchez never would have won the elections if he had acknowledged he would ally himself with these partners,” said PP leader Pablo Casado in a radio interview, accusing the premier of “massive deception”.

Sánchez first took over as premier in June 2018 after an ambitious play saw him topple PP premier Mariano Rajoy in a no-confidence vote.

But his new government will face an uphill battle to end the chronic instability that has plagued Spain since 2015 when the decades-long hegemony of the Socialists and the PP fell apart.

With only 155 seats, it will struggle to push through legislation, with its first order of business to pass the long-overdue state budget — a thorny issue which brought down Sánchez’s first government and triggered April’s election.

The new coalition has pledged to raise the minimum wage and hike taxes on high earners and large businesses, while also repealing elements of the controversial 2012 labour market reforms, prompting industry warnings it could hurt job creation.

It has also pledged to “respect the mechanisms of budget discipline” without setting a specific target for the reduction of the national debt, which stands at nearly 100% of Spain’s total annual economic output.

In 2019 the European Commission chided Spain for its slow pace of debt reduction.

“We have negotiated a very moderate programme, precisely because we thought of Europe. We are perfectly well aware there are limits,” Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias said late Tuesday, explaining the government’s policies would “focus on ordinary people with modest means”.

AFP