Can Pedro Sánchez Put Spain Back Together Again?

The 2017 crisis in Catalonia tore the country apart. The new Spanish prime minister will need to fend off rivals and manage alliances to stay in power long enough to heal the wounds.

Catalan Socialist party candidate Miquel Iceta (L) and Spanish Socialist party leader Pedro Sánchez attend a campaign meeting in Barcelona on December 17, 2017.
Catalan Socialist party candidate Miquel Iceta (L) and Spanish Socialist party leader Pedro Sánchez attend a campaign meeting in Barcelona on December 17, 2017. (JOSEP LAGO/AFP/Getty Images)

MADRID — Pedro Sánchez unexpectedly took office this month as Spain’s prime minister. He will now need to defy the odds again to keep the job.

Sánchez is a political survivor. Two years ago, the Socialist party secretary-general was derided as “a fool without scruples” by the Spanish newspaper El País in a stinging editorial that coincided with a campaign by some members of his party to remove him. The campaign succeeded — Sánchez was ousted in October 2016 in a party mutiny — but he then staged a remarkable comeback, garnering sufficient grassroots support to get reelected as Socialist leader only seven months later.

His Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party holds only a quarter of the seats in the Spanish parliament. His appointment was the result of a vote of no confidence that ousted Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, rather than an endorsement of his own leadership and Socialist policies. And Sánchez, 46, will also now need to maintain unwieldy alliances with the far-left Podemos party and nationalist parties from Catalonia and the Basque region, which helped him unseat Rajoy on June 1.

But in politics, strength and weakness are relative concepts. And Sánchez’s prospects look better when contrasted with those of his main rivals, some of whom now face serious challenges of their own.

The party that has fared the worst from Spain’s political upheaval is, of course, Rajoy’s own conservative Popular Party (PP), which had been tanking in opinion polls even before Spain’s national court convicted it of operating a slush fund in May, which gave Sánchez his chance to force a confidence vote.

The PP faces a complicated rebuilding exercise, as well as a search for a new leader. It’s not clear who can replace Rajoy. For better or worse, he maintained a strong grip on his party, even as his support in parliament waned. Rajoy himself was handpicked as leader of the PP in 2004 by the outgoing prime minister, José María Aznar.

But Rajoy never considered orchestrating such a handover and cautiously refused to address the issue of his succession, instead using divide-and-conquer tactics to keep impatient younger challengers at bay. The presumed front-runner, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, has just withdrawn his name, and the party elder, Aznar, has been calling on the party to rethink its strategy. To the dismay of Rajoy, Aznar even offered his own services to help “rebuild” the center-right movement in Spain.

Even if the PP manages a clean transition and settles on a new leader in July, its legal travails are far from over. Rajoy was ousted after a corruption ruling that sentenced his former party treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, to 33 years in prison and fined the party over its slush fund.

But judges are still due to rule on six other parts of this lengthy and complicated corruption case, including one that focuses on the ledgers kept by Bárcenas while he was treasurer, which he allegedly used to pay specific amounts to politicians, drawn from the kickbacks he received from businessmen in exchange for giving them public works contracts.

Over the past two years, the weakening of the PP has mostly benefited Ciudadanos, the party whose support Rajoy needed in order to start his second term. Founded a decade ago, Ciudadanos has been campaigning vigorously against political corruption. But by jumping on the PP’s corruption scandal, Sánchez managed to outflank Ciudadanos, which wanted Rajoy’s removal to lead to a snap election in which it hoped to benefit from its recent surge in opinion polls — likely a result of its fierce opposition to Catalan secessionism.

In the end, Ciudadanos found itself outwitted by Sánchez’s adroit parliamentary maneuvering. Ciudadanos insisted that Sánchez was unsuited to take over and suggested instead an interim government of technocrats, but the party failed to see that he could ignore such a demand and search instead for other allies within a fragmented Spanish parliament.

In order to stop Sánchez from taking office, the lawmakers of Ciudadanos ended up voting against the motion of no confidence to oust Rajoy. By not even abstaining from the vote — which could have insulated them from criticism — Ciudadanos scored an own goal and gifted Sánchez “all the ethical, mythical, and political capital from Rajoy’s exit,” José Ignacio Torreblanca, a columnist, wrote in El País earlier this month.

The sudden change in government also hurt the reputation of Albert Rivera, the 38-year-old leader of Ciudadanos, who had been putting pressure on Rajoy — demanding that he address both party corruption and Catalan secessionism more effectively — but was caught flat-footed by Sánchez. Once Rivera understood that his demands for a snap election would go unanswered, he sounded in parliament almost like a petulant child deprived of his toys. He accused Sánchez of putting together “a Frankenstein government,” dependent on allies determined to destroy Spain.

And then there is the question of whether the far-left Podemos party will allow Sánchez to stay in office until 2020, the deadline to hold another national election. Sánchez cannot ignore Podemos, which could pull its support for the Socialists if it senses an opportunity to win more votes at the polls. But he is also dealing with a far weaker challenger than in December 2015, when Podemos won its first seats in parliament and came close to leapfrogging over the Socialists to become the main left-wing party of Spain.

Since entering parliament, Podemos has not only lost the allure of being the new kid on the block but has also been undermined by internal feuding. Significantly, the party’s promise to uproot the political establishment recently turned instead into a debate over whether Pablo Iglesias, the party’s leader, had embraced the sort of luxurious lifestyle that he previously denounced. In May, Iglesias survived an internal vote of no confidence over his decision to buy — together with his partner and fellow lawmaker Irene Montero — a luxury family home on the outskirts of Madrid.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Sánchez is holding on to the support of the Basque and Catalan lawmakers who helped precipitate Rajoy’s downfall. Sánchez won them over in part by playing one off against the other, betting that neither the Basques nor the Catalans would want to bear the responsibility for allowing Rajoy to continue in office.

But the Socialist leader also made pledges on which he will now need to deliver. He promised the Basques that he would keep the fiscal concessions they had negotiated with Rajoy’s government in return for approving the former prime minister’s last national budget, only days before the historic vote of no confidence.

At the same time, Sánchez offered to negotiate with the separatist parties of Catalonia and rebuild the bridges between Madrid and Barcelona that Rajoy had helped burn down. Still, Sánchez has not explained exactly how he hopes to solve a Catalan conflict that reached a boiling point last year, when the separatists defied Spanish courts to stage a botched attempt to secede unilaterally.

Sánchez has little room to maneuver over Catalonia. His Socialist party backed Rajoy last year when the central government in Madrid imposed direct rule on Catalonia to stop then-Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and his fellow separatist lawmakers from declaring independence. But Sánchez is dealing with a new Catalan administration, led by Quim Torra, that must also rethink its approach, having hit the wall last October with its attempted secession.

For a start, Sánchez could seek to fulfill the longstanding Catalan demands that do not involve voting over independence, such as those relating to the financing of infrastructure works in the region. His new government could also kick-start a reform of the Spanish Constitution — perhaps opening a can of worms, but at least one that sparks a discussion that stretches beyond the future of Catalonia and forces all of Spain’s stakeholders to gather around the table.

In addition to managing Catalan separatism, Sánchez seems keen to show a more progressive and tolerant face to the world, presenting Spain as a modern, egalitarian country comfortable with its social and cultural diversity. He has already appointed a government in which women run almost two-thirds of the ministries — the highest proportion in Europe. He also jumped at the opportunity to contrast Spain’s new government with Italy’s new populist leaders by offering to welcome in the eastern port of Valencia more than 600 refugees forced to drift perilously at sea after their boat was denied the right to dock in Italy and Malta. As the refugees headed toward Spain, Sánchez’s government also announced that Spain would reintroduce state-subsidized public health coverage for all residents, including migrants living in the country illegally — a right that Rajoy’s government rescinded for those without legal residency.

Still, Sánchez suffered an important setback only a week after naming his administration when his culture and sports minister, Màxim Huerta, resigned after an online publication, El Confidencial, revealed that he had previously been forced to pay more than 200,000 euros (more than $250,000) in back taxes for using a shell company to hide his earnings.

To limit the damage, Sánchez forced Huerta’s immediate replacement — but not before Podemos and others jumped on the controversy to send a strong reminder to Sánchez that they would be watching his every step.

Spain’s new prime minister had proudly claimed that his team was “highly qualified.” Given his shaky grip on power, Sánchez will be praying that no other rotten apples surface in his cart.

Raphael Minder is the Spain and Portugal correspondent for the New York Times and the author of the book, The Struggle for Catalonia: Rebel Politics in Spain. Twitter: @RaphaelMinder

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