Spain’s govt salvages key labour reform thanks to voting error

The Spanish government on Thursday managed to pass a long-awaited labour reform aimed at ending rampant job insecurity with a majority of just one, but it has emerged that a PP deputy accidentally voted for the legislation and in doing so tipped the balance in favour of the government.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in the Spanish Parliament
Sánchez managed to push through the reform with support from the centrist-liberal Ciudadanos party and some other centre-right lawmakers. Photo: DANI DUCH / POOL / AFP)

Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE government managed to secure congressional support for long-awaited labour reform on Thursday that not only aims to undo the policy of the previous PP government but was demanded by Brussels in order to release European recovery funds.

Sanchez managed to push through the reform with support from the centrist-liberal Ciudadanos party and some other centre-right lawmakers, but the congressional arithmetic was incredibly tight and in the end the reforms were backed with a majority of just one vote — 175 in favour and 174 against in the 350-seat chamber.

Led by Podemos Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz, the reforms are an attempt to resolve the rampant insecurity in Spain’s labour market, which has the highest number of temporary contracts in Europe, and improves working conditions and creates training and apprenticeship schemes for young workers up to the age of 30. 

Although Díaz had successfully steered the bill through hard-fought negotiations between the government, business leaders and trade unions, it still needed parliamentary approval.

But getting the numbers in Congress proved difficult for the minority-coalition government – Sanchez’s Socialists and hard-left coalition partner Podemos – not getting support from key allies they have relied on in the past to force through legislation, notably Basque and Catalan independence parties, which voted against.

The right-wing opposition Popular Party and far-right Vox both voted against the reforms, however it has since emerged that the vote was, incredibly, tipped accidentally in the government’s favour by an unknowing PP deputy. 

The one vote majority was gifted to the government due to a “computer error” by the PP deputy and he  had in fact meant to vote against the reform. It was an “anomaly” and should be “rectified”, party spokesperson Cuca Gamarra insisted.

Although reforming the Rajoy government’s much-maligned 2012 labour bill was a campaign promise of Pedro Sanchez’s PSOE, it is impossible to ignore that the 140bn COVID-19 financial stimulus package promised by Brussels was conditional on tangible reform of the Spanish labour market.

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How the crisis in Spain’s centre-right party is opening the door to the far right

The big winner of the conflict gripping Spain's Popular Party is Vox, analysts say, urging the right-wing opposition to close ranks or risk the far-right faction becoming the nation's second-largest party.

How the crisis in Spain's centre-right party is opening the door to the far right

With a general election on the horizon, Santiago Abascal’s extremist lineup could become Spain’s main opposition party “if the PP doesn’t end its internal crisis properly,” said Astrid Barrio, a political scientist at Valencia University.

At least in the short term, “the biggest beneficiary in political terms is Vox”, which burst onto the political scene less than a decade ago, said Paloma Román, a political science expert at Madrid’s Complutense University.

PP leader Pablo Casado, who just a week ago appeared to be safe in his role, is now counting his final hours as opposition leader after raising explosive corruption allegations about the party’s most popular politician, Madrid’s regional leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso.

READ MORE: Why is Spain’s right-wing PP accusing their own leader in Madrid of corruption?

But it was a gamble he lost very publicly, and will have to step down at an extraordinary party congress whose date will be set on Tuesday during a meeting of the PP’s steering committee.

Walking a tightrope due to a loss of support within his party, Spain’s right-wing Popular Party (PP) leader Pablo Casado delivered a farewell speech on February 23rd 2022 to the Congress. Photo: DANI DUCH/POOL/AFP

Power struggle

At the congress, party members will chose a new leader, which is likely to be Alberto Nuñez Feijóo, a 60-year-old moderate and party stalwart who currently heads the northwestern Galicia region.

“He’s a candidate who has managed to keep Vox in check in Galicia and the leading advocate of the centrist ideology that has allowed the PP to rule Spain,” said Barrio.

Lluis Orriols, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University, said there were two factors in the current political crisis that could strengthen Vox.

Firstly, he said, surveys suggested “a large number of defections” from the PP are not people who are “likely to abstain or be undecided (in the next general election), but are turning to Vox”.

And the struggle for dominance of the Spanish right is still unresolved.

Galician regional president Alberto Nuñez Feijóo is likely to replace Casado as PP party leader in the coming months. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

“Vox is not being restrained, unlike on the left where we see the Socialist party in control of the space which runs from the centre to the extreme left,” he said.

“In the electoral ambit of the conservative voter, Vox is clearly very competitive.”

The popularity of Vox was on show during this month’s regional election in Castilla y León, where the party won 13 seats, up from just one in the previous vote, shattering the PP’s hopes of winning an absolute majority.

READ MORE: Spain’s far-right Vox party poised to enter Castilla y León government

The PP has time on its side

But the game is not yet over for the PP.

Despite concerns Sanchez would call early elections to make the most of his rival’s weakness, he ruled out any such move on Wednesday.

“We’re not going to bring forward the general election” on the basis of the PP’s “vulnerability”, he said.

“The rise of extreme parties reduces the incentive for early elections,” wrote Anna-Carina Hamker and Mujtaba Rahman, analysts with the Eurasia Group, in a note on the crisis.

With the next election to be held no later than early 2024, analysts said the PP had time to get its house in order — and could even emerge strengthened.

“I imagine it will fight back, it’s not going to waste the political capital it has built up over such a long period of time, being the governing party that it is,” said Roman.

“Casado’s leadership degenerated a lot and most PP voters had little or no confidence in him,” said Orriols.

However, any new leader will have to restrain the “internal pressures” that have torn the party apart and resolve the battle “between the traditional, mainstream conservatives and the free agents who tend to sympathise with the populist far-right”.


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