February 3, 2016 5:24 pm

Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez works on bid to become Spain’s PM

Tobias Buck in Madrid

Spain’s political machinery crunched back into action on Wednesday after six weeks of post-election deadlock, as the leader of the country’s Socialist party sought to build cross-party support for his bid to become prime minister.

Pedro Sánchez was formally entrusted with the task of forming a new government by the King of Spain on Tuesday — making him, at least for the moment, the frontrunner to lead the government of the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy.

But analysts and officials were quick to warn that the youthful secretary-general of Spain’s Socialist party (PSOE) faces an uphill struggle. The December general election produced a deeply fragmented parliament, and Mr Sánchez’s own party is weaker than it has ever been over the past four decades.

De Guindos warns against Podemos-backed government

Luis de Guindos, Spain's economy minister, speaks during a news conference to discuss the 2014 budget at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Spain, on Friday, Sept. 27, 2013. Spanish Budget Minister Cristobal Montoro ruled out further tax increases for next year, banking on a return to growth to trim the European Union’s widest deficit. Photographer: Angel Navarrete/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Luis de Guindos

Madrid can withstand political deadlock but a leftwing government could undermine reforms, says economy minister

Mr Sánchez kicked off the formal coalition talks on Wednesday in meetings with the leaders of smaller regional parties and the United Left movement. He also unveiled his negotiating team, which will be headed by Antonio Hernando, the leader of the PSOE’s parliamentary group.

The monarch’s decision to call on Mr Sánchez followed protracted consultations with other party leaders, and came only after Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, controversially turned down an earlier royal offer to start coalition talks. Mr Rajoy, whose centre-right Popular party forms the biggest bloc in parliament, said he saw no chance of winning sufficient support from other parties to be re-elected at this stage.

Mr Sánchez is widely seen as having more coalition options, but he also starts from a position of weakness: his Socialists command just 90 out of 350 seats in the Spanish parliament, meaning he will most likely have to convince at least two other parties to back his claim to the leadership.

The anti-austerity Podemos movement has signalled it is ready to enter into a coalition deal with the PSOE, but has put forward conditions that not only alarm senior Socialist officials but also make it harder for Mr Sánchez to win over potential allies in the centre.

“The arithmetic is very complicated, but we knew that from the moment we saw the election results on December 20,” said Pablo Simón, a professor of political science at Madrid’s Carlos III University.

He said Mr Sánchez could either try to build a majority with other leftwing parties, including Podemos, that would then have to rely on the backing of secessionist lawmakers from Catalonia. Or he could try to strike a three-way deal with Podemos and the centristCiudadanos party — a tie-up that both potential partners have so far ruled out.

“If Ciudadanos enters into a government with the Socialists, Podemos will say no. And if Podemos enters into a government with the Socialists, Ciudadanos will say no. That is the paradox,” said Prof Simón.

The mood in Madrid was summed up by a cartoon in Spain’s El Mundo daily that showed Mr Sánchez preparing to jump from a ship’s plank. Waiting for him in the sea below were four giant sharks, representing the country’s four main political parties, their jaws spread wide. One of the sharks bore the logo of Mr Sánchez own Socialist party — implying that the candidate risks being torn to shreds not just by his rivals in other parties but by his fellow leaders in the PSOE.

Mr Sánchez’s internal critics are worried in particular about a possible tie-up with Podemos, arguing that its leaders are out to destroy the Socialist party and take its place as the principal party of the Spanish left.

If he does manage to put together a government, Mr Sánchez has promised to focus on the fight against poverty and inequality, an overhaul of the education system and a campaign to root out corruption and cleanse the judicial system and bureaucracy from party political influence.

The PSOE leader has also called for a constitutional reform that would redefine the role of Catalonia and other regions within the state. At the same time, he remains firmly opposed to Catalan independence, and has repeatedly ruled out granting an In-Out referendum to the restive region.

On the campaign trail, Mr Sánchez launched a series of attacks on the austerity policies of the Rajoy government, a stance that could potentially raise concern in Brussels about Spain’s wayward deficit. Those worries would likely be compounded if the PSOE decided to form a coalition government with Podemos.

Mr Sánchez is due to meet the leaders of Ciudadanos and Podemos on Thursday and Friday.