Europe

Will Spain match Belgium's world record in politics?

Tourists in Barcelona in September 2016 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Spain's tourist industry has had a good year, regardless of the political deadlock

Tourists are arriving in record numbers and Spain's economy is, for a change, bobbing along. Even Spain's biggest blight, unemployment, has begun creeping down.

And yet, Spain has been without a proper government for more than 300 days and is well on the way towards Belgium's mind-numbing record of 541 days without a fully-fledged administration from June 2010 to December 2011.

That's because politicians have repeatedly failed to agree on a new government since the first of two inconclusive general elections was held on 20 December 2015.

In the words of Spanish analyst Francisco de Borja Lasheras: "We are learning to be Belgium but the question remains whether the Spanish state can afford to be Belgium."

"We Spaniards are used to our politicians doing a botch job so such a situation is not completely unexpected," says Mario Perales, a 45-year-old civil servant from Madrid.

And his view is largely shared by Spaniards: one recent poll suggested only 11.6% saw a lack of government as their biggest problem.

So will the limbo last? Spain's Socialist party (PSOE) national committee meets on Sunday to decide whether to stand aside and allow caretaker Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to govern without a majority in parliament.

If they don't, Spain's power vacuum rolls on towards a third national election, probably on 18 December.


Spain v Belgium, two countries stuck in a groove

A caretaker government is a lame-duck government. Foreign and economic policy comes to a halt and lawmaking stops.

Belgium's 541-day stalemate lasted from 13 June 2010 to 6 December 2011. Its borrowing costs soared and its credit score was cut.

Spain has so far seen 10 months of limbo and two inconclusive votes, in December 2015 and June 2016.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Spain's footballers defeated Belgium in a friendly last month, but Belgium holds the record for going without a government

Both countries face a separatist challenge, from some Flemish parties in Belgium and Catalan groups in north-eastern Spain. Both are constitutional monarchies.

Spain has seen six prime ministers since it returned to democratic rule in 1977, while Belgium has changed leader 12 times in the same period.

Will Spain's lost months come to an end?

Spain's Socialist leader resigns

Belgium country profile


For Spain's deadlock to end, the Socialists would have to agree to hold their noses, abstain in a confidence vote and let Mariano Rajoy return to power at the head of a centre-right government.

His Popular Party (PP) government has been marked by corruption scandals and austerity measures. Allowing his return was too much to bear for Pedro Sanchez, who resigned as Socialist leader rather than let that happen.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Belgians held protests to demand an end to the stalemate in government

Tensions have run high between politicians, but the Spanish population has barely stirred.

In Belgium, during the 18-month deadlock, protests included a shaving stoppage and even the suggestion of a sex strike by male politicians' wives. Not so in Spain.

"Spaniards are very tolerant on the whole, and our political bickering has not trickled down yet to the population," says Francisco de Borja Lasheras, from the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR).

"There are levels of government that are working perfectly well," he says, but warns that in the long term, Catalonia's drive towards independence and foreign challenges such as Brexit will need a proper government.

The reality is that Spain is functioning, and largely thanks to its regions.

Unlike Madrid's national parliament, almost all 17 regional governments which run health, education and other public services are formed by a variety of coalitions from across the political spectrum.

But the national budget is the job of central government and no new policies can be drawn up for 2017. Although Spain's economy has maintained a steady pace of growth of just over 3% annually since early 2015, the budget deficit is still well above target.

So this year's spending plan will be automatically rolled over. "This means we cannot take on any new expense, reform or investment that is not already detailed in the rolled-over budget," a government spokesperson explains.

The caretaker government had to secure the support of parliament to avoid EU sanctions on its 2016 deficit target. But there is no deal yet to reduce the deficit in 2017, as Brussels demands.


Spain's regions race ahead

The parties may be bickering nationally, but regionally it's a different story.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Andalucia's Socialist leader Susana Diaz has cut a coalition deal and is favourite to lead the party nationally

Madrid's PP regional president, Cristina Cifuentes, signed an anti-corruption agreement to secure the support of the centrist Ciudadanos party in 2015, including an end to parliamentarians' immunity from prosecution.

Andalucia's Socialist president, Susana Diaz, also made a deal with Ciudadanos.

In Valencia, the government led by Socialist Ximo Puig, backed by anti-austerity parties Compromis and Podemos, budgeted a record €13.3 (£11.9bn; $14.5bn) billion for spending on health, education, housing and social inclusiveness in 2016.

In Catalonia, a parliamentary majority of pro-independence parties has voted in favour of a new Catalan state and is about to pass a law creating the region's own tax office. All previous laws referring to an independent Catalonia have been suspended by Spain's constitutional court.

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