Spanish leader Sánchez to stay in power after resignation drama

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For the past five days, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, one of the continent’s most influential liberal voices, had his nation gripped with a question: Would he, or wouldn’t he, resign?

The bizarre political drama seemed straight out of a telenovela: After the opening of what he called a spurious investigation against his wife provoked by his political enemies, the dashing leader invoked familial honor in an emotive letter that meme-makers quickly set to song on social media, and in which he wondered whether it was “worth it” to continue in his post.

As he “reflected,” leaving the country in suspense, thousands rallied on the streets to show their support. He finally announced his decision after a portent-filled meeting with the Spanish king, Felipe VI.

The climax was ultimately anticlimactic: He said he would stay.

In a national address, the 52-year old from the center-left Socialist party, used the moment to reflect on a political reality that is today the norm far beyond Spain. Americans in particular can relate to it: the bitter polarization between right and left that has led to total breakdown in civility; the decay of discourse to the point that it has become what he called a “perversion of democracy.” He asked: “Is this what we want for Spain?”

“My wife and I know this will not stop,” he said, adding they were grateful for the support of the past few days, which, he said, had helped him to reach a decision. “I have decided to stay, to continue with more strength even as the head … of the government of Spain.”

Sánchez called for a collective reflection: “We should decide what kind of society we want to be.” He added: “I call on the Spanish society to become an example, an inspiration for a world convulsing and hurt, because the evil we are confronted with is far from exclusive to Spain. It is part of a global reactionary movement that aims to impose its regressive agenda through falsehood and defamation, hatred, fear.”

Sánchez is known for risky political gambits. But the past days reflected what analysts saw as a new height in Spanish political theater, even for him. It was, perhaps, a tactic aimed at whipping his fractious alliance of disparate parties in parliament into line at a time when his increasingly weak government has been unable to muster the votes to pass a budget. That alliance, which includes unruly Catalan separatists, is largely built on one shared goal: a desire to prevent the rise of a conservative government that also could contain the far-right Vox party, a political force anathema to them all.

Sánchez may have been sending the smaller parties he currently counts on to govern a reminder that he is the only person standing between them and such a government. But in the process, he may have also undermined his own credibility with the nation.

“He has created a serious uncertainty in the country without this leading to a significant change, neither on his political principles nor on his parliamentary support,” said Pablo Simón, a political scientist and professor at the University Carlos III of Madrid. “This is very counterproductive and has been rather irresponsible on his part.”

The drama that led to the announcement was triggered Wednesday after news broke that an investigating judge in Madrid had opened a case against Sanchez’s wife, Begoña Gómez, over alleged corruption and influence peddling. The investigation was sparked by Manos Limpias (Clean Hands), an organization linked to the far right that filed a complaint based on news reports, largely in the conservative press.

Those reports claimed that Gómez took advantage of her position as wife of the prime minister to secure a bailout for the Spanish airline Air Europa. Pandemic-era corporate bailouts, however, were par for the course in Spain. Spanish media outlets have reported that neither Gómez nor the public prosecutor’s office were informed about the investigation and that only the editors in chief of media organizations have been called to testify.

Later that day, in an unprecedented move, Sánchez published “a letter to the citizens” on social media calling the case part of a “harassment” operation “to try to bring me down both politically and personally, by attacking my wife.” Sánchez accused the leaders of both opposition parties, the center-right Popular Party (PP) and far-right Vox, of involvement.

“We often forget that behind politicians, there are people,” he wrote. “I am not ashamed of saying it, I am a man profoundly in love with my wife who feels powerless confronted with the dirt they throw at her, day after day.”

In addition to the case against his wife, Sánchez’s government is also facing an investigation into an alleged scheme by an aide of the former minister of transportation to collect illegal commissions on pandemic-era medical contracts.

During an interview following Sánchez’s letter, center-right opposition leader Alberto Nuñez Feijoo accused the prime minister of a level of “narcissism” and “infantilism” unthinkable “for a mature person.” He accused him of being unfit for government. Later in the week, the PP’s secretary general, whose party came in first during last year’s divisive election but failed to secure a governing majority, suggested that the right was ready and willing to govern.

Sánchez, a trained economist, has led the Socialist Party since 2014 and was the first politician in Spain to kick out a sitting prime minister through a no-confidence vote in 2018. He emerged as one of the continent’s leading liberals. His threatened exit came at a time when the European left has suffered defeats in Portugal and the Netherlands and the far and center-right is poised for major gains in the European Parliamentary elections in June.

During his two mandates, he has focused on gender equality, increasing the minimum salary by law, reinforcing workers’ rights and protecting LGBTQ and women’s rights. Some of those efforts — particularly a transgender law that allows people as young as 16 to legally change their gender on national IDs without medical supervision — sparked a significant backlash, including within his own party.

Sanchez is known for risk taking, including his decision to call snap elections last year in which his Socialists came in second but were still able to form a weak government with the tactical backing of smaller parties. To rule, he backed a law that would grant amnesty to hundreds of separatists and Catalan politicians for alleged crimes largely related to Catalonia’s illegal vote and declaration of independence in 2017, sparking violent protests by Spanish nationalists.

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