“Rajoy is the only creature that advances without moving,” noted a former socialist premier caustically, just ahead of the return on Saturday of the conservative leader as Prime Minister after an unprecedented 10-month political impasse in Spain. > Mariano Rajoy not only endured the uncertainties and frustrations of his inability to put together a coalition after his conservative People’s Party polled the largest number of seats in the two inconclusive elections since December 2015, but patiently watched his opponents’ prospects fade away. But despite his instinct for political survival, he heads a government that nobody really wants. As Prime Minister, Mr. Rajoy enjoyed an absolute majority during his first term (2011-15). The clear mandate enabled him to push through a round of painful economic reforms after the country’s housing and credit bubble went bust by the end of the last decade. He now leads a minority government in alliance with the centrist Ciudadanos, facing a difficult but definite prospect of continued gridlock over every legislative initiative. His biggest test will be to win parliamentary backing to meet the fiscal deficit targets that Madrid has agreed with Brussels. A threat to call fresh elections is the only real trump card in his pocket. Mr. Rajoy’s rivals are too weak to be able to fully capitalise on his woes. Recently the principal opposition party, the > Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), was forced to eat humble pie when it decided, not without internal differences, to abstain in a parliamentary vote on Mr. Rajoy’s candidacy, only to breathe life into the minority government of its ideological opponent.
Had the PSOE adopted such a course after the elections in June, it might have salvaged its image somewhat by being seen as acting in the national interest. The option the party pursued instead, that of a coalition with the extreme left Podemos party, only prolonged the gridlock. Podemos once rode the wave of popular anger against economic austerity. For now, it must rest content with the accomplishment of breaking Spain’s two-party dominance. The party’s hopes lie in a consolidation of its base as the platform of the genuine left, as distinct from the centrist PSOE. The scenario is reminiscent of another imbroglio, that of Belgium going without a government for more than 18 months a few years ago on the question of regional autonomy between Flanders and Wallonia. Political fragmentation is an inescapable fact in the evolution of democratic governance. Peaceful reconciliation of competing interests is the art and imperative of political practice, as Mr. Rajoy is now finding out.