the euro zone

Rule by announcement

How is Spain’s minority coalition government able to get anything done? It possesses only 155 of the 350 seats in congress, 21 fewer than the number required for a majority. Pablo Iglesias, the leader of its junior partner Podemos and formerly one of four deputy prime ministers, stepped down a couple of weeks ago, which raises questions about the weight his party now has in the partnership. Are the Socialists effectively running the show now? Surely not, because they sit on just 120 seats in congress, 56 short of a majority.

Compromises and deals have been a necessity in Spanish politics ever since December 2015, when an unprecedented general election split the national vote four ways, instead of just two. Since then, gamesmanship, corruption and an unwillingness to negotiate has often stalled economic and political progress. As the Bank of Spain’s governor Pablo Hernández de Cos said this week, “We are experiencing a ... fragmentation process that we are not familiar with, and it is important that ... it does not stop us from reaching agreements.” Clearly, it’s going to take longer than six years to undo the habits of four decades.

Lately, though, there haven’t been many indications that Spain’s coalition government is struggling with its technical lack of clout, or being held back by the country’s new political complexity. Is it instead using its minority status, together with the carte blanche apparently given to governments everywhere by the pandemic, to do politics in a new, completely unaccountable fashion?

Certainly, the minority leadership of Pedro Sánchez doesn’t seem to be restrained in ways that one would expect or want. This week, for example, it announced a baffling addition to a pre-existing decree, which will make face masks mandatory in all public places, even when social distancing can be maintained. That’s right - read the last part of that sentence again: the new rule enforces wearing those dreadful masks just for the hell of it, when there is absolutely no need to.

The content of this “law” is ridiculous in itself, but the manner in which it was passed is much more objectionable (I use quotes because it hasn’t yet gone through normal parliamentary procedures, so isn’t really deserving of the label). There was no consultation with the regions prior to its announcement - something which has rightly angered Andalucía’s deputy premier, Juan Marín - nor was there any debate about its necessity in national congress. Instead, it was just published in the Official State Gazette on Tuesday as a done deal.

One would expect and wish it to be much more difficult for Sánchez’s minority force to pass even the most humdrum pieces of legislation, let alone those which mandate irrational behaviour on a daily basis. When a government gets used to ruling by announcement, everyone should be worried.