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1 June 2018

Spain’s new prime minister Pedro Sánchez is the ultimate comeback kid – but for how long?

His own party dumped him. Now Pedro Sánchez is Spain’s new prime minister. 

By David Mathieson

US President Bill Clinton once described himself as the “comeback kid” but he has nothing on the new prime minister of Spain, Pedro Sánchez. Just two years ago the 46-year-old economist was fighting for his political life. Having lost two general elections, he resigned as a deputy in the Spanish congress and was forced out of the leadership of his party, the socialist PSOE. But he refused to be cowed. Driving himself around Spain, he waged war on his own party machine. Like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, he appealed over the heads of party grandees, speaking directly to the party faithful. And, like Corbyn, he won the vote of the grassroots membership to become leader of his party.

That first upset was just a tremor of the political earthquake which he has triggered now, by ousting long-time Spanish premier, Mariano Rajoy in a vote of no confidence. Under constitutional law, when a motion of no confidence is carried in the Congress, the proposer (in this case Sánchez) automatically replaces the defeated leader (Rajoy). The process is swift, brutal – and had never happened before this week.

Sánchez’s rise to power is important because it demonstrated that he has the cojones to face down opposition and upend received wisdom. But it is not a clear indicator of what he will do next. Unlike Corbyn, his politics are hard to define. He retook control of this party by tacking to the left and expressed radical views which suprised even some of his closest associates. Whether this rhetoric is a guide to how he will tackle the many problems in his prime ministerial in-tray is anyone’s guess.

The PSOE leader’s immediate difficulty will start in the Spanish Congress, the lower legislative house, of which he is not currently an elected member. His parliamentary group is small – there are just 84 PSOE deputies in the 350 seat parliament. Sánchez is the leader of the biggest opposition party in the Congress, but, as the numbers suggest, he is not in a strong position and does not have a majority.

To make any legistlative changes, Sánchez will need the support of many other groups. But building ad-hoc coalitions in a highly fractured legislature will be taxing. Opponents have already dubbed his government a “Frankenstein” administration with various bits tacked on to make an uncontrollable whole. And even if Sánchez can cobble together votes in the Congress, the right-wing Popular Party (PP) retains an overall majority in the Senate, which is capable of creating a legislative log-jam. The Spanish Senate is similar to the House of Lords, in that it cannot prevent legislation indefinately and but it can delay, obstruct and frustrate party managers in the Congress.

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Sánchez has promised that there will be early elections in Spain, possibly this year. But neither he nor many of the other parties who supported him to oust Rajoy will press too hard. Opinion polls suggest that most Spaniards are fed up with the political class as a whole and that fresh elections would not return any clear winner with an overall majority. Perhaps the biggest shift will be on the right. Voters look set to punish the apparently endemic corruption of the the PP – it was recent court cases which led to Rajoy’s downfall – and shift to the more moderate Citizens Party (Cs). Polls suggest that the Citizens Party will hoover up votes from the centre and right and could receive the most votes in the next election. In that case, Sánchez could be a short-term president and replaced by Albert Rivera who bears many similarities – politically and physically – to France’s centrist President, Emmanuel Macron.

Between now and the next elections, Sánchez has promised to implement the current budget, which was recently passed after months of parliamentary wrangling. Like Gordon Brown who promised to retain the Tory tax and spending plans after 1997, Sánchez made the pledge to avoid spooking the markets and win over votes from the Basque nationalist deputies who have extracted generous concessions for funding their region. But, like Brown, Sánchez will find this comes at a political price. PSOE actually voted against the budget just a few days ago; their voters and other parties on the left will expect a boost in public spending sooner rather than later.

Probably the biggest task facing Sánchez is resolving the problem of Catalonia. He supported the outgoing PP admininstration policy of direct rule, while also calling for dialogue with Catalan separatists, who have declared an illegal independence from the rest of Spain. He must now show that that dialogue can make a difference. It will be a hard task. Public opinion in the region is polarised 50-50. Voters in other regions of Spain are angry with Catalan nationalists. Most seriously, elected politicians are in jail and more court cases – run by an independent judiciary over which Sánchez has no control – are pending.

When the vote to seal Rajoy’s fate was announced, delighted deputies from across the left began to chant “Sí, se Puede” (yes, it can). But the real question for Sanchez when he moves into the Prime Ministerial office this weekend is, can he?