A resolution

Practice mindfulness. Cut down on the Rioja. Learn rudimentary Pashto. Take up the bassoon.

As the new year begins, we have a tendency to make resolutions. Many are designed to tighten our waistlines or broaden our knowledge, while others are aimed at providing inner peace. It is the latter I am searching for as I lay out perhaps my most ambitious new year’s resolution to date: to work out who Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, really is.

I know that sounds banal. After all, there are plenty of answers out there already. “He’s a kind of Charles Manson of Spanish politics,” declared Hermann Tertsch, an MEP for the far-right Vox. Rosa Díez, a former Socialist colleague of Sánchez who has just written an entire book about how awful he is, calls him a “psychopath”. And Pablo Casado, leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP), has called him “the biggest criminal in the history of Spanish democracy”.

If you mash all that together, you get a bearded, gun-toting, Scarface character, entrenched in La Moncloa and so barking mad he makes Trump look like a Shaolin monk.

Yet if you ask the same question of those on other points of the political spectrum, you’ll get curiously different answers. Catalan nationalists tend to frame him as puppet-in-chief of a repressive Spanish state. The former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont presented Sánchez as a sinister-yet-confused half-wit when he said the prime minister “seems to think the vaccine is the constitution”.

Pedro Sánchez: a blue-suited prism.

For those on the hard left, meanwhile, Sánchez is little more than part of a wishy-washy wing of the country’s conservatives. Even his own coalition partners, Podemos, have accused his party of being “in step with the right and far right” recently.

All of the above highlights the hyperbole and histrionics of Spanish political debate, which has made great progress in recent years in emptying language of its meaning. But it also underlines the fact that Sánchez has become a six-foot-tall, blue-suited prism, allowing whoever views him to see whatever they wish, depending on their own particular grievances and obsessions. Separatist-appeasing, narco-chavista radical? Neo-Francoist centralist? Conservative wolf dressed up as a progressive sheep? Take your pick.

When he first appeared as an outsider in the Socialist Party leadership primary of 2014, Sánchez’s agenda was vague, moderate and pretty uninspiring – all characteristics that appeared to be exaggerated by his easy grin and tennis-coach looks. His uncontroversial platform and self-declared “felipista” status suggested he was more or less on the party’s right wing, in line with the market-friendly social democracy of Felipe González. Little that he did altered that view of him until, in 2016, he dug his heels in and refused to offer parliamentary support to Mariano Rajoy’s corruption-ridden conservatives as they sought to form a new government. That sudden, unflagged bout of conviction politics led to a lengthy paralysis in Spanish politics and, eventually, the removal of Sánchez from the party leadership by his rivals.

That episode also kicked off a much more interesting season in Sánchez’s political career. His determination to wrest back the Socialist leadership, as he motored round the country in his little Citroën gathering support, looked Quixotic. But he succeeded. Then he performed what is surely one of the most daring and remarkable parliamentary manoeuvres Spain or any European country has seen in recent times: a no-confidence motion which narrowly led to him replacing Mariano Rajoy as prime minister in 2018. The following year, Sánchez, a two-time election loser, resoundingly won the general election. But then he committed a hopelessly clumsy error: allowing familiar old disagreements within the left to prevent him from forming a new government. Redemption of sorts came when he won another election and resolved his differences with Podemos to form a pioneering coalition. Then coronavirus hit.

Apart from reading like the treatment for a racy new Netflix drama, the above highlights the instability of the country’s political landscape. It also provides frustratingly little material from which to build a clear picture of who Sánchez is. His government is undoubtedly on the left – but where on the left? He is in coalition with the neo-communists of Unidas Podemos, but his junior partners have made so many compromises on their way to government that their original radicalism has been heavily diluted. And surely it is a stretch to describe as “radical” a government whose economy ministry is led by Nadia Calviño.

Sánchez’s insistence on courting the support of Catalan and Basque nationalists has provided further ammunition for those who label him a traitor of Spain and a pal of lawbreakers and terrorists. But my impression is that his strategy in this area is a combination of conviction – a genuine desire to defuse tensions in Catalonia – and sheer survival instinct, based on the fact that he needs the parliamentary support of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV).

For decades, Spain’s leaders had little reason to worry about parliamentary numbers, such was the stability of the two-party system, allowing them to present a coherent “narrative” to voters: González was the centre-left moderniser; Aznar the Neo-Con deregulator; Zapatero the loose-spending promoter of social rights; Rajoy the drab austerity-monger; and Sánchez…what, exactly? Part of his problem is that in today’s highly fragmented Spanish politics, the challenge of keeping things together in congress naturally subsumes any overarching vision for the country that the prime minister may harbour.

For example, it’s hard to discern his policy on the matter of the monarchy, which is reeling from former king Juan Carlos’s drastic fall from grace. So far, Sánchez and his Socialists have walked a thin line between expressing respect for the institution and dismay at the former monarch’s sprawling catalogue of scandals. The feeling you get is that Sánchez is sniffing the wind of public mood before considering a leap onto one side or the other of the republican/monarchist fence.

In the coming months, Covid will continue to dominate public debate, meaning plenty of discussion and dispute over restrictions, testing, PPE and very little in the way of evidence about Sánchez’s political DNA. One exception could be how he and his government manage the 140 billion euros Spain is due to receive from the EU coronavirus fund.

A year from now I hope to have a clearer answer to the question of who Sánchez really is. But I won’t be holding my breath. I’ll save it for the bassoon.

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