World News

Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s New Leader, Returns From the Political Wilderness

Posted June 3, 2018 3:11 p.m. EDT

In 2015, Pedro Sánchez, a Socialist leader, used a televised election debate to mount a stinging attack against Mariano Rajoy, then Spain’s prime minister. It backfired.

He accused Rajoy of overseeing corruption in the conservative Popular Party. “The prime minister must be a decent person,” Sánchez told Rajoy. “And you aren’t.”

But Rajoy kept his cool, brushed off the accusation and went on to use it as evidence that Sánchez was a disrespectful politician.

On Friday, it was Sánchez who presided over the downfall of Rajoy, using the corruption charge against the prime minister to devastating effect. After a court ruling found that Rajoy’s party had benefited from a slush fund, Sánchez orchestrated a parliamentary revolt, winning the backing of a majority of lawmakers to oust Rajoy through a vote of no confidence.

On Saturday, Sánchez, 46, was sworn in as Spain’s new prime minister by King Felipe VI, a stunning and rapid turnaround for a man who returned to his party’s leadership only a year ago, after being ousted in a party mutiny. He took over on the same day that a new separatist administration took office in Barcelona, the Catalan capital, led by Quim Torra.

Spain now faces an uncertain situation, with a fragile Socialist government formed by an establishment party whose leader was believed to have missed his best chance to govern the country.

The challenge for Sánchez will be how to keep together an unwieldy alliance with the far-left Podemos and nationalist parties from Catalonia and the Basque region, which helped him replace Rajoy. Sánchez’s Socialist party holds only one-quarter of the seats in parliament.

“It creates some uncertainty — but nothing like the Italian case,” said Dani Rodrik, a professor of international political economy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. (He was referring to the Italian government that was formed in Rome last week between two parties that have a history of antagonism toward the European Union and immigration.) “It does not look like he has the mandate or votes to do much,” Rodrik said of Sánchez.

Still, Sánchez has defied the odds before. An economist by training, he was a relative unknown when he was first elected leader of his party, in 2014. His credentials at that point were limited — he had entered parliament not by winning votes in an election, but as an internal party substitute for a lawmaker who was leaving his seat early.

But the Socialists apparently hoped that a younger, more photogenic leader would allow them to turn the page on the fiasco of 2011, when Rajoy won a landslide election victory after voters punished the Socialists for Spain’s financial crisis and record unemployment.

By the time Spain held its next election, in 2015, however, Sánchez was no longer the new kid on the block. Two other parties had emerged — Podemos and Ciudadanos — to break up Spain’s bipartisan politics and take on the established parties with leaders more youthful than Sánchez.

Sánchez led the Socialists to their worst-ever election result, and then lost even worse six months later, when a political deadlock forced Spain to hold another inconclusive vote. After these electoral setbacks, he came under heavy personal criticism, accused of prolonging the deadlock by putting his own ambitions ahead of those of the Socialists and Spain as a whole.

He behaved like “a fool without scruples,” El País, a Spanish newspaper, wrote in a damning editorial at the time. The campaign to discredit Sánchez involved heavyweights in the Socialist party, notably Felipe González, a former prime minister.

Eventually, Sánchez was forced out by his own party. His opponents called on a new Socialist leadership to allow his archrival, Rajoy, to continue in office. A defiant Sánchez not only left the leadership, but he also resigned his seat in parliament so he would not have to follow his fellow Socialists in endorsing Rajoy’s re-election.

Rejected in Madrid, Sánchez set off on a road trip, driving around Spanish towns in a bid to rebuild support among the party’s grass-roots supporters. To the dismay of the Socialist politicians who had orchestrated his ouster, Sánchez returned after only seven months to win re-election to the party’s leadership, defeating their favorite, Susana Díaz, the regional president of Andalusia, the country’s largest region and a Socialist stronghold.

Over the past week, Sánchez has come across as a leader who has matured after returning from the political wilderness. He debated forcefully in parliament while striking complicated alliances with other parties, outflanking Ciudadanos, the party that wanted a snap election.

Sánchez returned wielding the holy sword of the legend of Parsifal, whose “steel has wounded but ends up curing,” wrote Rubén Amón, a columnist for El País. The appointment of Sánchez was against all odds, owed little to his own party and should be seen as “a personal triumph, a strictly individual victory,” Amón added.

The next step for Sánchez is to deliver on his latest pledges, including to “rebuild bridges” with the separatist parties that govern Catalonia and helped him oust Rajoy.

Sánchez faces a difficult task in Catalonia; Spain’s judiciary is prosecuting former leaders of the separatists for rebellion. Last month, before he got his opportunity to become Spain’s leader, Sánchez called Torra “a racist” in reference to past insults from Torra toward Spaniards and their values. In October, the Socialists also backed Rajoy when he imposed rule from Madrid on Catalonia to stop unilateral secession.

“It’s going to be complicated for Sánchez, but the fact that both sides are ready to dialogue is in itself a step forward,” said Jordi Hereu, a former Socialist mayor of Barcelona. “There’s an opportunity for these new leaders to show that they understand that this conflict has been going nowhere but has had a high cost, not least for the economy.”