Is it enough?

The political agreement between Spain’s Partido Popular and Ciudadanos has one glaring omission: it does not provide any solutions to the Catalan problem

After some uncertain days, yesterday PP leader Mariano Rajoy announced that his party has accepted the list of conditions laid out by Albert Rivera for Ciudadanos MPs to help re-elect Rajoy as Spain’s next president (Ciudadanos had already agreed to abstain in parliament). Therefore, it seems only appropriate to go through the conditions which the PP has agreed to:

1. To set a date for the presidential election vote in parliament. This is stating the obvious when you consider that the goal is to have a government. The PP have already disclosed the date they have picked for the debate: August 30.

2. To sack any elected officials who face corruption charges. This makes perfect sense: it will create tension within the PP and probably in other parties, too. Whenever time-honoured loyalties are broken, conflict arises.

3. To scrap the judicial immunity which many elected officials enjoy nowadays. This will require a constitutional amendment and the PSOE must be on board for it to succeed, as a two-thirds majority in parliament is needed. In practical terms, this is mostly for show, even though a step like this would make perfect sense.

4. To change Spain’s electoral legislation. Again, this requires changing the Constitution, so the PSOE’s concurrence would be a must. Greater proportional representation and open lists have both been suggested. However, the former would lead to hung parliaments with frequent minority governments. While this would benefit Ciudadanos, it is not necessarily in the Spain’s best interest. Open lists are useful in that they will diminish the power of political parties and representatives will be more accountable to their voters.

5. To set a term limit for presidents. In the short term this will be inconsequential, though positive in the long run, even if it is not a key issue.

6. To set up a parliamentary probe into the Bárcenas case (1). This makes sense and can only cause trouble for the Partido Popular. If the PSOE and the other opposition parties handle it well and manage to stay away from partisan politics, it might be an important step to improve political transparency. But if partisanship prevails, the attempt might fail and actually add to the public’s general disappointment

To sum up: one condition is obvious, two require amending the Constitution (and, as such, are mostly for show), while three of them are useful for Spanish politics in general.

It is not much, unless this is only the first taste of a more ambitious agreement for the term, one that might allow a minority government to carry out its policies with the predictable backing of a stable majority in Madrid’s parliament. These six points paint a meaningful picture because, apparently, the PP has agreed to them without changing an iota. The value of this would have been lost if the two parties had haggled over the points and the conditions initially set had been degraded. People might have thought that any political bargaining was further proof that —contrary to what they keep saying— political parties in Spain have no desire to regenerate themselves. Will it remain that way?

Although it might be a tactical move ahead of any upcoming talks, it is surprising that Ciudadanos’ conditions do not include any political or social reforms. The likely explanation is that the PP and Ciudadanos are both conservative forces and their policies have much in common.

Since this agreement for Mr Rajoy’s re-election necessitates the PSOE’s support —and given that the Basque and particularly the Catalan nationalist groups are evidently “everyone’s declared enemy”—, it is high time that the Spanish socialists offered to abstain in exchange for reforms that are consistent with their election manifesto. For instance, changing the employment and gag laws, as well as the way finances are split between Madrid and the regional governments (the latter foot most of the welfare bill); providing aid and funding for R & D, bringing in a rational and priority-based approach to infrastructure spending (fast and local train networks spring to mind) and so forth. Spain needs these reforms and, even more pressingly, it needs details of how and when they will be carried out. This information ought to be explicit and made public. Should the PP government fail to comply, the PSOE and the other parties would have every right to withdraw their parliamentary support. Their votes would suffice to bring down the government.

By changing Spain’s regional finance system and increasing the overall regional funding without altering each region’s individual share —which, undoubtedly, would spell trouble— it would be possible to obtain a modicum of support from the nationalist parties, albeit probably more implicit than overt. This is the weakest link of the political pact for Spain’s governance, its one glaring omission: it does not provide any solutions to the Catalan problem.

Following the agreement, a minor constitutional change will be required to achieve strictly what has been agreed upon without attempting a more profound reform that might prompt a long-winded political discussion, which —given the balance of power in Madrid’s parliament— would presently be untimely and out of proportion with the high price paid and the modest return expected.

This is a time for pragmatism rather than ideology, despite Mr Rivera’s rhetoric in defence of Spain’s unity. The Ciudadanos leader strives to make the most of his politicking … and it is immediately apparent.

N.T. (1) Mr Bárcenas is the former treasurer of the Partido Popular and he has admitted to no end of financial wrongdoings, including the management of a slush fund for the party’s leadership.