Sánchez’s unlikely return as Spanish socialist leader threatens turmoil

New opposition leader eyes Rajoy’s minority government after primary win

On Sunday night, following Pedro Sánchez’s resounding victory in the leadership contest of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), politicians of different stripes tweeted their messages of congratulations.

There was one glaring omission: prime minister Mariano Rajoy ignored Sánchez and instead chose to toast Real Madrid for securing the Spanish soccer league title that same evening.

It was a reminder of the animosity that exists between the two men and hints at the turbulence Sánchez’s second spell as leader of Spain’s biggest opposition party is likely to generate.

Despite lacking the support of most of the party’s hierarchy, Sánchez (45) won by a stunning margin: just over 50 per cent of party member votes, ahead of Andalucía regional premier Susana Díaz on 40 per cent, followed by former Basque regional premier Patxi López on 10 per cent.


“We’re going to be true to our mandate from the ballot box, which is to make the PSOE the left-wing party of this country,” Sánchez told supporters after the result was confirmed.

Ended in acrimony

Less than eight months ago, his first tenure as party leader had ended in acrimony, apparently finishing his front-line political career. But Sánchez’s extraordinary comeback has been fuelled both by the ire of grass roots Socialists and an ability to reinvent himself.

"In the bad times, Spaniards are drawn to the rebels, the angry ones and those who have been humiliated," noted Enric Juliana of La Vanguardia newspaper as he reflected on Sánchez's success.

When he first emerged as a relative unknown to take the reins of the PSOE in 2014, Sánchez was a moderate, with orthodox economic policies, who enjoyed the backing of influential figures within the party, such as former prime minister Felipe González and Díaz herself. But he soon fell out of step with them and the party was deeply divided by his refusal to approve the PSOE’s abstention in a congressional investiture vote which would have allowed Rajoy to form a new conservative government.

Sánchez was replaced by a caretaker leadership which duly abstained, easing Rajoy’s investiture but repelling many longstanding Socialist supporters.

Radical figure

Sánchez has returned as a more radical figure, profiting from his previous refusal to help Rajoy and promising to reorganise a PSOE that many activists believed had lost touch with them.

Many of those who voted for Sánchez on Sunday appear to have done so not because of a firm belief in his leadership abilities but rather because he represents a change of tack for a party which they felt had drifted too close to Rajoy’s austerity-minded, corruption-plagued Popular Party (PP). Those to Sánchez’s right are clearly worried.

"Saying 'no' to Mr Rajoy isn't a vision for Spain, it's an angry outburst," said Inés Arrimadas, of the liberal Ciudadanos party, which has been helping the PP to govern. "I hope the internal crisis of one party doesn't put the stability of a country at risk."

The government and likes of Ciudadanos will also be concerned by Sánchez’s intention of reaching out to the populists of Podemos, to his left. Podemos recently presented a no-confidence motion against Rajoy which Sánchez appears unlikely to support, but he does seem determined to disrupt the PP’s minority government.

Difficult to predict

That could potentially lead to a third general election in two years and although Rajoy would be confident of defeating Sánchez for a third time, Spanish politics has become increasingly difficult to predict.

In the meantime, the returning Socialist leader has the daunting task of uniting a party that he split apart last autumn, with a national conference scheduled for next month.

Rajoy’s snub on Sunday was widely reported. But perhaps equally significant was the fact that on publicly congratulating Sánchez, his shell-shocked, defeated rival Díaz failed to mention his name – reflecting how difficult many Socialists are finding it to accept him as their leader again.