It was the Sunday of the last big summer weekend. Everyone should have been at the beach or preparing to head home. Mariano Rajoy and Albert Rivera were not. They watched as the parliamentary spokespeople for their parties - the Partido Popular and Ciudadanos (C's) - put pen to paper and signed an agreement under which Rajoy is assured of the support of the 32 C's deputies in Congress for the investiture votes this week. It was a curious ritual. Neither leader had wanted to give his signature.
Maybe neither wanted to bind himself to anything long-term. The agreement is short-term as it is. If Rajoy fails to gain the support of 176 deputies in either of the two votes (one tomorrow, the other on Friday), the agreement will be ripped up. Albert Rivera will be free to come to an accord with someone else. He's making a habit of this. He had one with PSOE's Pedro Sánchez until Sánchez failed so drastically with the two investiture votes in March.
Added to the PP's 137 deputies, the 32 C's deputies give a total of 169, to which one more can be added - the vote of Ana Oramas of the Coalición Canaria. She had given Sánchez her backing in March. Like Rivera she has switched sides. Where will the remaining six come from? Anywhere? If they do not, it looks like a Christmas Day election.
Rummaging around among other regional parties might produce something. The conservative nationalists in Catalonia and the Basque Country have thirteen seats between them. While there wouldn't be formal support for Rajoy, could there be abstentions? Given Rajoy and the PP's attitudes towards Catalonia in particular, it might seem odd that this could even be a possibility. But the C's Inés Arrimadas was aware enough of it to have warned Rajoy last week that the C's could withdraw their support if there were nationalists' abstentions "in exchange for something".
Rajoy was talking to Sánchez yesterday, trying to convince him to get PSOE deputies to at least abstain. The painful truth for PSOE is that whichever way it goes, it cannot win. To be seen to be allowing Rajoy in would bring accusations of the "casta" at work - the two-party system of the PP and PSOE, so despised by Podemos (and once upon a time by the C's). Sánchez would receive nothing in return. His party could lose a lot if he did. President Armengol in the Balearics will have been reminding him of this; Podemos have been making warning noises about the Balearic pact of government if PSOE enables a Rajoy investiture.
None of the four main parties, with the possible exception of the PP, can afford to have a third election. PSOE lost seats in June, so did the C's. Podemos in effect stayed as they were, regardless of the alliance with the United Left. Who's to say that the PP wouldn't add to the fourteen seats it gained in June? A third election might just make it even more inevitable that the PP will finally carry on, though the C's cannot guarantee losing more than the eight seats they did in June.
The left, unless there were to be an unexpected rebound by PSOE and a leap for Podemos (also unlikely), would not be able to form a government, just as they were unable to after the December and June elections. Rajoy and the PP are, in truth, the only game in town. Sánchez may as well select six sacrificial names at random and get them to say sí rather than no.
If Rajoy were able to somehow drum up the 176 votes, what would it mean for Rivera and for the C's? The point to be made is that the agreement does not mean that there would be a coalition; it is only one to facilitate the investiture. It is possible that there might be a coalition, though this seems unlikely. Rajoy and Rivera don't like each other; the chemistry would be all wrong.
The PP would therefore form a minority government, with policies determined by the agreement. The C's have pressed for and obtained acceptance in respect of, for example, social policies, but Rivera has not got all that he wanted regarding anti-corruption measures: both the C's and Podemos have these at the heart of their respective agendas.
For Rivera, the agreement is designed to show the electorate that the C's are the only party capable of and willing to negotiate with both the left and the right. It might also demonstrate they are a party of vacillators; Rivera will prefer the positive spin. And he badly needs to get that across. The slump in the C's vote in June made it imperative that the party was not sidelined and so might undergo a decline as rapid as its rise. Prominence, more than anything, is what Rivera gets.