Paddy Woodworth: Spain may be unstable but it is no Italy

Sánchez’s record suggests he just might be the leader to bring about a renewal of Spanish democracy

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez: he has been  accused of being a “Frankenstein”, created by “separatist and communist hordes”. Photograph: Getty Images

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez: he has been accused of being a “Frankenstein”, created by “separatist and communist hordes”. Photograph: Getty Images

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The Spanish political deck has been tossed in the air, and then drastically reshuffled in the space of a week. This has produced a startling – or refreshing – configuration of forces hardly anyone could have previously imagined. The outgoing conservative prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, regarded as fire-proof by his supporters, has been unceremoniously shot down in flames, the first Spanish premier to be defeated by a no-confidence motion since Spain returned to democracy in 1978.

His nemesis and successor, Pedro Sánchez, though deeply distrusted by the veteran barons of his own Socialist Party (PSOE), has been swept to power with the support of the pariahs of the Madrid establishment – the pro-independence parties in Catalonia, former Eta supporters in the Basque Country, and the radical leftists of Podemos.

The auto-response of some commentators has been to reach for the words “crisis” and “instability”’, and to add Spain to Italy (and Brexit) as a gathering crisis for the EU emanating from its biggest second-rank members.

The parallel with Italy, however, is ill-founded. While it would be very rash to predict that Sánchez will be able to govern successfully with such heterogeneous and fractious allies, there is not a single committed Eurosceptic among those who voted with him against Rajoy last Friday.

Indeed, it was the intensely pro-EU sentiment of the biggest Catalan pro-independence party that led it into one of its major errors in the chaotic events of last autumn; it assumed that Brussels would at least give it a hearing when Madrid turned a deaf ear to its aspirations.

Reform the EU

And while Podemos certainly campaigns for an EU less dominated by the interests of the financial oligarchy, and more responsive to the needs of its ordinary citizens, it aims to reform the EU from within, not by withdrawal.

Neither is there any anti-immigration platform linking Sánchez’s current backers.

The success of Sanchez’s motion also represents a significant advance in tackling the systemic and toxic levels of corruption

As for crisis and instability, those are hardly novel factors in Spain today. The country has been wracked for many months by the conflict between increasingly irresponsible Catalan nationalism on the one hand, and Rajoy’s utter intransigence coupled with his willingness to exploit that conflict electorally by reviving militant Spanish nationalism on the other.

In the course of a week’s brief negotiations, Sánchez has succeeded in recognising, at a symbolic level, that the Catalan nationalists are intensely frustrated by Madrid’s hitherto rigid approach, without conceding any of their wilder demands. The easing of the almost unbearable tension that had arisen between two of Spain’s great power centres, however briefly, is surely to be welcomed.

Furthermore, the success of Sanchez’s motion also represents a significant advance in tackling the systemic and toxic levels of corruption that have far too long been tolerated by Spain’s two big parties, including Sánchez’s own PSOE in the past (and, indeed, by the mainstream Catalan nationalists).

The trigger for his motion was a high Court judgment on corruption in the PP. A former party treasurer, Luis Bárcenas, who had been appointed by Rajoy, and energetically supported by him even when his criminal modus operandi became evident, was sentenced to 33 years in prison, along with some 30 colleagues.

Moreover, the court found the PP guilty of benefitting institutionally, though perhaps unknowingly, from this corruption ring. And Bárcenas had admitted paying top PP members, including Rajoy, “top-up” salaries out of a slush fund. And the judges found that Rajoy’s sworn denial that he knew about these payments lacked credibility.

Devastating

Coming from a judiciary whose members are often, and sometimes with good reason, accused of being much too cosy with government, this sentence, replete with juicy details, was particularly devastating.

Nevertheless, had Rajoy resigned immediately, making way for a PP prime minister less tainted by scandal, the party would still be in power today. But his obdurate – and trademark – refusal to admit any mistakes whatsoever, and cling limpet-like to power, finally ensured his demise.

The PP has long behaved as though it were somehow entitled to rule Spain, and Rajoy clearly intends to continue to lead the party in what will undoubtedly by a bloody-minded and vengeful opposition to Sánchez. The tone has already been set by hysterical denunciations in Madrid’s most reactionary – and disturbingly popular – newspapers and broadcasters in tones which recall the rhetoric of Franco’s dictatorship.

Sánchez has been immediately accused of being a “Frankenstein”, created by “separatist and communist hordes”, collectively labelled, as in the 1930s, the “Anti-Spain”, and allegedly committed to doing maximum damage to their own country.

Yet Sánchez fought his way back to the leadership within months, purely on the basis of grassroots support

Most Spaniards, however, have long been weary of these polarising stereotypes, and Sánchez’s record suggests that he just might become the leader who can bring about a badly needed renewal of Spanish democracy. The odds against him are very high, however: his party only has 84 seats in a 350-seat parliament, and he appears to intend to govern with this minority. There will be no coalition, and probably only PSOE or independent ministers.

Daunting odds

Sánchez has overcome daunting odds before. After a brief period as party leader, he was ousted in 2016 by the ageing barons and younger protégés associated with Felipe González’s premiership from the 1980/90s. This circle was all too comfortable with corruption, and notorious for its tolerance of the use of death squads against Eta.

Yet Sánchez fought his way back to the leadership within months, purely on the basis of grassroots support. And last week, despite sniping from PSOE grandees, he built a parliamentary alliance that looked impossible. In the process he completely outwitted the PP’s rivals on the right, the stridently nationalist Ciudadanos, which had been widely tipped to lead any next government.

Retaining the support of his newfound allies while building rather than alienating PSOE voters will test his skills to the limit. And he will certainly fail if he does not meet the high hopes of the many Spaniards hurt by austerity policies.

Anyone who loves Spain must wish him well in his efforts to build a healthier, happier Spanish body politic. But he is unlikely to enjoy a moment’s respite from his many enemies, internal and external to the PSOE.

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