February 3, 2016 7:09 pm

A political stalemate that Spain can ill-afford

As a crisis looms in Catalonia, the main parties must reach an accord

Spain is in the throes of a prolonged political crisis with few, if any parallels, since the death of Franco. December’s general election produced an inconclusive result with no majority for either of the two main movements, the centre-right Popular party or the centre-left Socialists.

This week, King Felipe sought to break the deadlock by calling on the Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez to try and form a government. Whether his efforts will lead to a viable administration is, at present, anyone’s guess.

That Spain is facing such deadlock should not set off alarm bells, at least for now. Post-election stalemates in Europe are not uncommon (Belgium went without a government for nearly 600 days between 2010 and 2011).

Spain’s banking system and economy have also left their darkest moments behind. The Spanish economy today has one of the strongest growth rates in Europe, partly thanks to structural reforms introduced under the premiership of Mariano Rajoy, the centre-right leader.

Even so, this impasse, if it is allowed to persist for much longer, carries dangers. The biggest regards Catalonia, which is on a timetable to break away from Spain and form a separate state over the next 18 months. Its bid for independence can best be answered by means of a revised constitutional settlement that devolves power to the country’s regions in a fresh, fair and sustainable manner. For that to be achieved, Spain needs to have a functioning government very soon.

As Mr Sánchez sets about trying to form an administration, he must overcome numerous political hurdles. The Socialist leader controls just 90 seats in the 350-seat Cortes and needs the support of the anti-austerity Podemos party and several others to become prime minister. Such a tie-up is opposed by many Socialists who would find it difficult, for example, to accept Podemos’s commitment to allow the Catalans to decide their own future in a Scottish-style referendum.

If Mr Sánchez fails with Podemos, some Spanish politicians believe the Socialists and the Popular party should forge a “grand coalition”. This week, Luis de Guindos, the economy minister, told the Financial Times that such an arrangement would be “ideal”, enjoying confidence and credibility.

But while the Popular party may not be averse to this outcome, it presents dangers for the centre-left. Such a pact would allow Podemos to press home its argument that Spanish politics is dominated by establishment parties that are mired in corruption. The Socialists fear being outflanked in the way Greece’s Pasok has been eclipsed by Syriza.

It may be that Spain has no way out of this impasse other than to hold fresh elections. But at this moment of political crisis, Spain’s two main parties would do better to reach an understanding on how to take the country forward. A grand coalition between the two may be neither achievable nor desirable. But even if Mr Sánchez manages to form a government with Podemos, he will need the backing of the Spanish centre-right in parliament to implement the new constitutional settlement the country needs.

This is a moment for Spain’s political leaders to remind themselves of the immense co-operation that the parties of left and right demonstrated after Franco’s death in 1975. All sides made painful compromises in order to build the robust platform of Spanish democracy that is one of postwar Europe’s proudest achievements. At a time of uncertainty for Spain and its constitution, a similar show of responsibility — and flexibility — is required across the political spectrum.