Economist Sánchez voted Spain’s new socialist leader after resounding victory

Sánchez, until recently a relative unknown, vows to unseat conservative government

Pedro Sánchez: won 49 per cent of the votes cast by 130,000 party members in the Spanish Socialist Party leadership contest. Photograph: Reuters/Javier Barbancho

Pedro Sánchez: won 49 per cent of the votes cast by 130,000 party members in the Spanish Socialist Party leadership contest. Photograph: Reuters/Javier Barbancho

Tue, Jul 15, 2014, 01:00

Pedro Sánchez, a young economist who was virtually unheard of only a few months ago, has promised to unite his party and unseat the conservative government after his overwhelming victory in the Spanish Socialist Party leadership contest.

The Madrid-born economist won 49 per cent of the votes cast by 130,000 party members on Sunday, putting clear distance between himself and second-placed Eduardo Madina. José Antonio Pérez Tapias was third. “This is the beginning of the end of the government of Mariano Rajoy,” said Mr Sánchez (42) after his victory was confirmed.

He is now the favourite to become the party’s candidate in the 2015 general elections, a choice that could be made in November, although a date has yet to be fixed.

Sunday’s resounding result is a boost for the socialists, who had feared a divisive, close-run contest. It also announces a generational change for a party that has been out of office since 2011 and has struggled in the polls ever since.

A tall, good-looking former basketball player who speaks English and French, Sánchez is very different in profile from the figures who have dominated Spanish politics in recent years.

Experience

“He is not widely known by Spaniards but he is not new to politics,” says Ignacio Urquizu, a political analyst at the Fundación Alternativas think tank who has watched Mr Sánchez’s career closely. “He has plenty of political experience, albeit not in public office.”

The new Socialist leader worked his way up from the bottom of the party, initially in its Madrid wing, before becoming a deputy in the national Congress. Mr Sánchez constantly highlighted the low-budget, grass-roots nature of his campaign for the leadership, during which he often drove himself to party events in his Peugeot, shunning hotels to stay in the homes of local party members.

However, his ability to amass support in key socialist strongholds such as Andalusia suggests a canny ability to win over influential regional party figures, as well as members on the ground.

After his official unveiling as leader at the party Congress at the end of this month, Mr Sánchez will have to decide where to place the party on the political spectrum, particularly on social and economic issues. The question of how to handle Catalonia, which is campaigning for independence, is also a pressing one.

So far, the indications are that Mr Sánchez will steer a moderate rather than radical course as he seeks to recover votes the party has lost to the left. In May, a new problem for the party emerged in the form of Podemos, a fiercely leftist, anti-establishment movement which won 1.2 million votes in the EU elections.

“I can share the outrage of some,” Mr Sánchez told Radio Nacional de España, in reference to Podemos. “But I cannot share impossible policies. We have to build a product that is solvent, of the left and realistic.”

Writing in the leftist newspaper Público, Arturo González summed up the scepticism of many on the left when he took a swipe at Mr Sánchez’s telegenic looks. “We don’t yet know if he’d be better at advertising Nespresso or leading the Socialist Party,” he said. “But let’s give him a chance.”