Beleaguered Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez clinched a crucial parliamentary victory this week, but his hold on power — loosened immeasurably by the coronavirus crisis — looks set to slip still further.

Pedro’s Problems

On Wednesday, May 20, Spanish lawmakers backed Sánchez’s proposal to prolong the state of emergency by the narrowest of margins — just 15 votes. It is the fifth extension of the country’s COVID-19 lockdown to date, and will see Spaniards confined for at least another two weeks.

Despite being behind Italy and the UK, Spain is the third-hardest hit in Europe, with almost 30,000 deaths linked to the coronavirus outbreak. Recent days have seen significant progress in the public health fight, however, with Spain’s daily death toll now routinely below 100. But for Sánchez’s political aspirations, there is little good news.

Wednesday’s vote was the government’s tightest victory so far, with success only secured by a last minute pact with the center-right Ciudadanos party.

Coalition’s Grip on Power Close to Collapse

This eleventh hour agreement carried a heavy political cost for the prime minister: antagonizing the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC). Ciudadanos lawmakers are staunch unionists, standing firmly against any accommodation with those they regard as separatists.

In the aftermath of the vote, the ERC — whose tacit support for Sánchez’s coalition proved pivotal in forming a government — made their discontent clear. 

The prime minister was undermining “the spirit of the investiture, a spirit which was a platform for progressiveness and a wall against fascism,” said party spokesman Gabriel Rufián.

The rebuke comes amid growing pressure on the Spanish prime minister to honor his promise to resolve the Catalan dispute through dialogue. Preoccupied with the pandemic, Sánchez’s priorities have been elsewhere of late. Now, aligned with Ciudadanos unionists, it’s unclear when — or even how — he will commence negotiations with the Catalans.    

This is not Sánchez’s only constitutional conundrum, either. There was confusion when he appeared to backtrack on a deal with Bildu — a pro-independence Basque party — on the reversal of certain labour laws. The u-turn happened just hours after Bildu had supported his lockdown extension proposal, widening divides in the government’s fragile coalition.

‘Headless Chicken’

Sensing his weakness, Sánchez’s political opponents are out for blood. On the day of the vote, Popular Party conservatives branded the prime minister “a headless chicken” before joining with the hard-right Vox group to oppose his motion. It is the first time the two parties have united.  

On the streets, too, Sánchez faces condemnation. Recent weeks have seen thousands of Spaniards mobilize against the government’s handling of the crisis, flouting social distancing rules to protest en masse. Ending the lockdown appears to be their principal demand, though more and more are calling for the prime minister’s resignation as well. 

Answering his critics directly, Sánchez did something on Wednesday that most other world leaders have not: he said sorry.

“I wish to apologize to citizens for our own mistakes, compelled at all times by the urgency of the situation, the shortage of resources, and the exceptional and unprecedented nature of the crisis and its huge proportions,” he told parliament. 

Contrition often plays well with the public; but for Sánchez, it might be a case of too little, too late.