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By royal appointment: Who will Spain’s king pick to form a government?

By royal appointment: Who will Spain’s king pick to form a government?

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It’s not always good to be the king.

Spain’s monarch, Felipe VI, usually lives a life of discreet luxury in the Zarzuela Palace on the outskirts of Madrid — occasionally deviating from his routine to inaugurate events, go skiing, or attend international sporting competitions.

But Spain’s fragmented political landscape is obliging the king to interrupt his schedule with growing regularity and to act as a neutral arbiter in an increasingly polarized country.

On Monday, the monarch will find himself at the center of national attention as he meets with the leaders of the political groups with representation in the Spanish parliament before deciding who he will nominate to be the next prime minister.

That mission may sound simple, but after last month’s inconclusive national election, none of the party leaders has secured the simple majority of votes needed to form a government, and that means the king will have to make a choice between the two leading candidates.

Conservative leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo argues that since his Popular Party won the most votes, he should get the king’s approval to form a government. But the PP failed to secure the number of seats in parliament needed to govern, and even with the backing of the far-right Vox party, Feijóo won’t be able to overcome the opposition of a majority of Spain’s MPs.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez appears to be better positioned to remain in office, but it also isn’t clear that he has the required votes to do so. His left-wing allies only control 171 of the 350 seats in the parliament, which means that in order to form a government he’ll need to persuade several MPs belonging to the Catalan separatist Junts party to vote for him.

But Junts, which is controlled by the self-exiled former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, is conditioning its support for Sánchez to the granting of an amnesty for everyone implicated in the failed 2017 Catalan independence referendum, as well as Madrid’s consent to hold a new vote on self-determination. The socialists say both demands are out of the question because they fall foul of Spain’s constitution, but the separatists are refusing to budge.

Agustín Ruíz Robledo, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Granada, said the situation puts Felipe VI in a difficult position.

“The king’s mission is to identify the candidate that is most likely to get the necessary votes to succeed in his or her bid to form a government,” Robledo said. “If Sánchez can prove that he’s secured the required support, he’d be the obvious choice, but what if he can’t show that he’s locked in those votes? In that case, it would be logical for the king to ask Feijóo to form a government — even if that bid is doomed to fail — because right now he’s the one with the greatest amount of confirmed support.”

Robledo said that asking Feijóo to form a government first could ultimately favor Sánchez. That’s because it would give Sánchez more time to negotiate with the Catalan separatists before making his own bid to be prime minister after Feijóo is rejected by parliament.

Regal balancing act

Ana Romero, a veteran Spanish journalist who has spent decades covering the royal court, said the king will be exposed to sharp criticism no matter what he decides.

“If he goes with Feijóo the left will accuse him of being a conservative sympathizer and wasting the parliament’s bid on a candidacy that was never going to happen,” she said. “Then again, if he nominates Sánchez directly, the right will accuse him of having no backbone and caving to the leftists and separatists that want to destroy the country … He’s damned no matter what he does.”

Feijóo addresses supporters after winning the Spanish election in July | Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images

Romero said that the king, who ascended to the throne in 2014 after his father, Juan Carlos I, abruptly abdicated in the midst of personal scandals and accusations of financial impropriety, had been cursed with a reign overshadowed by political instability.

“During the past decade Spain has transitioned from being a two-party system to a more mature — but also much more fragile — parliamentary monarchy,” Romero said. “That’s made evident when you observe that Juan Carlos I held just 10 of these consultations to form a government during his 38 years on the throne and Felipe VI had has to hold nine of them since 2014.”

Unlike his father, Felipe VI has also been exposed to outside pressure from conservative and far-right groups who have sought to link the Spanish monarchy to their ultranationalist ideals.

Both Santiago Abascal, the leader of the far-right Vox, and Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the populist Popular Party president of the Madrid region, often refer to the king in their speeches and juxtapose the integrity of the monarchy with the alleged decadence of Sánchez’s left-wing coalition government.

In columns in right-wing newspapers, conservative figures such as socialite Carmen Lomana have demanded the king “veto” Sánchez and refuse to offer him the possibility of forming a government that would depend on “the support of a fugitive like Puigdemont … ETA terrorists … and others whose only reason for existing is to destroy Spain and its constitution.”

King Felipe will find himself at the center of national attention | Pool photo by Borja Benito via Getty Images

Constitutional law professor Robledo said this pressure was no doubt irritating for a royal household determined to remain above the fold.

“Spain’s kings belong to the Bourbon dynasty and when they used to overstep their role and illegitimately interfere with democratic affairs we would say they were Borboneando,” Robledo said.

“But the last one to engage in that activity was the current monarch’s grandfather, Alfonso XIII, who backed a military dictatorship and as a result lost his throne when Spain became a republic in 1931.”

“Felipe VI will play it safe and stay neutral,” Robledo added. “Things tend to go badly for Spanish kings who play politics.”

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