Why Spain’s conservative leader is a long shot to become prime minister despite winning election

BARCELONA, Spain — The leader of Spain’s conservatives, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, will have his opportunity to form a new government this week in what has been preordained as a lost cause given his lack of support in Parliament.

Feijóo’s Popular Party won the most votes in inconclusive July 23 national elections that left all parties well shy of an absolute majority and with a difficult path to reaching power.

If Feijóo flops in his attempt as expected, then acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez would get his shot to stay in the Moncloa Palace if he can round up the support of a motley crew of leftist, regionalist and even separatist parties.

Here is what you need to know about Feijóo’s investiture bid that begins with his parliamentary speech on Tuesday.

The president of the Popular Party, Spain’s traditional center-right force, will have two chances to become the next prime minister of the European Union’s fourth-largest economy. But barring a surprise, he will fall short in the vote by fellow lawmakers on both days.

On Wednesday, following 24 hours of parliamentary debate, Feijóo would need to win an outright majority of 176 votes of the 350-seat lower chamber based in Madrid.

If he misses that mark, on Friday the bar would be lowered and the candidate would only need more “Yes” than “No” votes. That scenario would open the possibility of votes to abstain tilting the balance in his favor.

The Popular Party’s 137 seats are the most held by any party. But even with the 33 votes of the far-right Vox party, and two more from small, conservative parties from Navarra and the Canary Islands, it is still four votes short.

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Feijóo’s chances appear to hinge on abstentions to the vote, which would come as a surprise.

The two Catalan separatist parties that could play a factor have both ruled out abstaining, given what they consider the Popular Party’s belligerent attitude to their separatist movement.

That leaves the conservative Basque PNV party, which has said that any deal that could associate them with Vox, which wants a centralized state and won’t condemn 20th-century dictator Francisco Franco, is a non-starter.

“There is an elephant, which is not even in the room; it is in the hall and it is blocking the way for the PNV to enter into any relationship (with Feijóo), and that elephant is Vox,” PNV president Andoni Ortuzar told Spanish National Radio.

The difficulties Feijóo faces were made evident in August when the Socialists, despite being the second-largest force in the chamber, were able to win more votes than his Popular Party to elect a Socialist to the speaker’s seat.

A loss for Feijóo would automatically start a two-month period during which other candidates can step forward to seek Parliament’s endorsement to form a new government. If no candidate can pass the test, then the Parliament would be dissolved on Nov. 27 and elections called on Jan. 14.

Sánchez and his allies have already taken it for granted that Feijóo will lose and are working on gathering the support required to repeat their left-wing coalition of Socialists and the left-wing Sumar party.

The price, however, will be costly. Sánchez would also depend on the backing of the Catalan separatist party Junts, whose leader, Carles Puigdemont, is a fugitive from Spanish law residing in Brussels, where he holds a European Parliament seat.

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Puigdemont fled Spain in 2017 after leading a failed independence push for Catalonia. Even though support for separatist parties waned in the July elections while it grew for unionist parties led by the Socialists in Catalonia, Puigdemont now has the power to be kingmaker thanks to Junt’s seven seats in the national parliament.

His demand is nothing less than an amnesty for an unspecified number, which could reach a few thousand people, of Catalans who face legal trouble for their roles in the separatist bid six years ago.

An amnesty would be unpopular for many Spaniards, especially since Puigdemont and many of his followers are unrepentant for almost breaking up the country.

While no Socialist has spoken publicly about an amnesty, Sánchez has pardoned high-profile leaders of the movement in the past and appears willing to consider an even bigger act of grace to — as he says — “normalize” politics in northeast Catalonia.

With talk of a possible amnesty overshadowing his own investiture debate, Feijóo is trying to use the controversy the possible amnesty is generating to boost his scant chances.

The Popular Party has called for a protest in Madrid on Sunday against a possible amnesty, and its representatives have made calls for disaffected Socialists to support Feijóo’s investiture to impede Sánchez from striking a deal with the separatists.

Feijóo could face critics from inside his own party if he fails to become prime minister.

The 62-year-old Feijóo had spent his entire political career as a quiet regional leader in Spain’s rural northwest corner of Galicia.

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Considered a moderate, he is already facing pressure from the backers of the more hard-line Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the popular leader of the Madrid region who clashed with Sánchez repeatedly during the COVID-19 pandemic over health restrictions imposed by the central government.

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