Rash promises

In a TV interview on Wednesday, acting prime minister Pedro Sánchez promised to have a new budget approved by next March. It's a sensitive issue for the Socialist leader, as Spain's last general election was triggered by his inability to secure approval for the 2019 spending plan. Sánchez, desperate to strengthen his grip on power, knows that passing a budget is a basic test of a leadership's competence, and one that his party failed the last time around. He also hopes that the next national vote, due on November 10th, will result in a "government with full powers" as early as December.

Sánchez's budget promise seems rash - the kind of pledge that sounds impressive on TV, but that proves impossible to adhere to later on. Even if, as the polls predict, he increases the Socialists' share of seats in congress on November 10th, he'll still be short of a majority. Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera has said that his party will abstain or vote for Sánchez at the next investiture vote, but he remains unwilling to consider a full coalition with the Socialists. And given that his talks with Unidos Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias are never straightforward, Sánchez will face the same problems in passing a budget as he did before April's election - namely, garnering the votes of other parties. Indeed, it's mainly the ideological inflexibility of their leaders that has denied Spain a stable majority government for the last few years.

Rivera's promise to support Sánchez in the next investiture votes, then, is nothing less than a "volte-face". His previous stubbornness - stemming from an aversion to Sánchez's dialogue-based approach to Catalan separatists - has caused several Ciudadanos members to resign over the last few months. But it looks as if Rivera's new-found flexibility only goes so far: even though he's stated that he won't stand in the way of the PSOE leader becoming prime minister again, he remains bafflingly reluctant to enter into a coalition with the Socialists. By itself, abstention won't be enough to guarantee the stable government that Spain has lacked for the last few years, and that Sánchez has promised to form by December. That requires positive action as well as lack of opposition.

As the leader of the party with the largest share of the national vote - a position that is unlikely to change on November 10th - Sánchez is well-placed to honour his budgetary promise. Standing in his way are the other main parties, which must collaborate with (or at least not oppose) the Socialists if Spain is to have a stable government by the end of the year. Ciudadanos, once again, will be crucial to the achievement of that goal, but only if Rivera sticks to his own promises.