EVEN Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the leftist Podemos party, this week recognised that one of the political qualities of Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s conservative prime minister, is patience.
Having endured seven years as opposition leader, Mr Rajoy won power in a landslide in 2011 only to have to pick up the pieces of his country’s housing bust. His fiscal curbs and financial and labour-market reforms speeded a vigorous economic recovery, but were unpopular. Together with corruption scandals in local government, that cost Mr Rajoy his majority in an election last December. His People’s Party (PP) remained the largest party, but in a newly fragmented parliament.
Since then, Spain and Mr Rajoy, reduced to an impotent caretaker, have waited for more than 300 days. No party has been able to assemble a parliamentary majority. A second election in June boosted the PP (from 123 seats in December to 137 seats out of 350) but failed to break the deadlock. Then after a wrenching internal struggle and faced with a third election at which they would probably lose more seats to the PP, the opposition Socialists at last agreed to abstain. That should allow Mr Rajoy’s new government to be approved in a parliamentary vote expected on October 29th.
How much the prime minister can achieve with his powers restored is unclear. Mr Rajoy has the support of Ciudadanos, a new liberal party with 32 seats. To approve a budget, and the further belt-tightening required to meet the targets agreed with the European Commission for the fiscal deficit (to 3.1% of GDP next year, from a target of 4.6% this year), the prime minister will have to try and scrape up votes from Basque nationalists or rely on further Socialist abstentions.
This is new territory for a Spanish government. The PP has the fewest seats of any ruling party since democracy was restored in the 1970s. Accustomed to steamrollering laws through, Mr Rajoy acknowledged that he will now have “to earn governability…day by day”. He has some cards: he can threaten to call a fresh election, and can only be overthrown if the opposition unites around an alternative.
Apart from the economy, the most pressing issue facing the new government is Catalonia. Its regional government plans to hold a referendum on independence next September. Mr Rajoy, backed by Ciudadanos, refuses even to talk about that. Catalans could still be dissuaded if offered more autonomy, as the Socialists propose. But confrontation looks likely.
A minority government will test the opposition, too. The Socialists fear ceding to Podemos the mantle of opposition to Mr Rajoy. Having flirted with a post-modern politics of the centre, Mr Iglesias has retreated towards the hard left.
Many Spaniards dislike Mr Rajoy, but they want a government and the signs are that they want their politicians to co-operate. Last year, the rise of Podemos and Ciudadanos prompted many commentators to write the obituary of the two traditional parties. In the new world of minority government, Mr Rajoy and the Socialists will still be the key players. And patience may continue to gain its reward.