Spain’s Worrying Turn

The beguiling façade of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez hides an authoritarian bent

Sánchez, left, pledged never to ally himself with radicals like Pablo Iglesias of the Podemos party, right. But to gain power, the prime minister did exactly that. (Photo: Olaf Speier/Shutterstock)

[Leer en español]

When Pedro Sánchez was sworn in as Spanish prime minister in June 2018, he vowed to usher in a new era. He called it “the Second Great Transformation.” The first had been the transition to democracy after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. The second would lead to a country of “free men and women in harmony with nature.”

Three months later, the Socialist leader came to the rostrum at the U.N. General Assembly, speaking of a planet ruled by empathy and social commitment. And so he joined the club of young, handsome and progressive leaders—alongside Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron—who radiated moderation and a soft heart.

Sánchez leaned into that image, posing aboard a government plane wearing sunglasses in photos reminiscent of a famous shot of JFK from 1960. Sánchez copied Obama’s gestures too. And he traveled to 15 countries in six months, clocking up 66,000 air miles and establishing himself as one of the new breed of charismatic centrists on the international scene.

Back home, it was all a bit harder. To begin with, he had to convince people that he deserved to be the prime minister. Sánchez hadn’t won any kind of election. In fact, he’d led his center-left Socialist Party, known as PSOE, to the worst election defeat in its history, winning just 85 of the 350 seats in Congress.

So how had he become prime minister? Through an audacious act of political adventurism: cobbling together a coalition of small parties, some quite extreme, to expel the center-right People’s Party, or PP, from power through a no-confidence vote.

The first Sánchez government was short-lived. He’d still need to call two more elections in the following eight months. Finally, in January 2020, with a bare majority, his coalition government was formed. It has been more than a year since, and the velvety image that Sánchez projects abroad has had little in common with his harsh and divisive behavior in his own country, devastated as it is by the Covid pandemic and subject to an authoritarian drift that is straining the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary.

Let’s get back to 2018. Spanish society was buckling under a growing malaise. The aftershocks of the Great Recession, together with a long series of corruption scandals, had discredited both of the major traditional moderate parties: PSOE on the center-left and PP on the center-right. Even the monarchy was under fire. Investigated for tax evasion, King Juan Carlos—the great helmsman of our transition to democracy in the 1970s—had been forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Felipe, in 2014.

Eager to air out the political scene, Spaniards moved away from the two-party system. Soon, the rise of new political parties, including far-left and far-right movements, fragmented and paralyzed our Congress.

Then there was the crisis in Catalonia, which has been misconstrued by more than a few foreign correspondents. In a highly decentralized Spain, where regions have more self-governing autonomy than anywhere else in the European Union, Catalonian separatists took over the regional parliament in 2017, and undertook an illegal vote aimed at destroying Spain’s constitutional order. It also risked an armed conflict, considering that half the population of Catalonia rejects the nationalist position. Spaniards were livid at the spectacle, which felt to many of us not so different from how the storming of the Capitol in Washington felt to many Americans: an attack on our very system.

Amid this instability, Sánchez spotted his chance. Far from forming a grand coalition alongside the center-right, he worked to unseat the then-conservative prime minister over an old party-funding scandal at the PP. In a high-minded speech in parliament, Sánchez called for a Spanish rebirth, and evoked the “decency” of two German cabinet ministers who had just resigned when found to have plagiarized part of his university dissertation. That was how Europeans behaved. And that was the standard he would hold people to.

Barely three months after his move to La Moncloa, the prime minister’s official residence, Sánchez was revealed to have plagiarized parts of the dissertation that had earned him a doctorate in economics in 2012. It was the first warning sign, our first glimpse at something hiding behind his beguiling façade. More would follow.

An advocate of moderation, Sánchez vowed to his voters that he would never reach out to Podemos, a newly ascendant far-left outfit whose leaders had advised the Castro-Chavista regimes of Latin America. “They’re radicals, and useless at governing,” Sánchez said solemnly on television. “If I brought them into the government, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night, like 95% of the citizens of this country, who also wouldn’t be at ease.”

But in January 2020, Sánchez sealed the deal that brought Podemos into his coalition government. The party’s leader, Pablo Iglesias, was an obscure academic who got his start hosting a talk show on Iran’s HispanTV, and is known for an alarming history of extremist statements: “It’s more important to be a communist than to say you are”; or “I’m jealous of Spaniards who live in Venezuela”; or “The existence of private media is an attack on freedom of speech.” Today, he is Spain’s deputy prime minister, and has installed his personal partner at the head of the Ministry of Equality.

Political alliances with the likes of Podemos and others recalled the fears of a moderate Socialist Party leader whom Sánchez had purged when he took over the party: “We can’t form a Frankenstein government alongside those who want to break up Spain.”

But Sánchez could do that. The 35 members of Congress from Podemos weren’t quite enough for a majority that would allow Sánchez to pass budgets and keep power for four years. So he wove a network of deals with the separatist left, whom he had ruled out as coalition partners before the election. In time, he got on swimmingly with the Catalan leaders who had been sentenced to lengthy jail terms for the 2017 separatist stunt. Speculation about imminent pardons is rife. He also made a deal with the Basque party Bildu, successor to the separatist terrorist group that murdered more than 800 people—including senior Socialist figures—over more than four decades, and as recently as 2010.

To quench the Podemos thirst for official posts, Sánchez formed the largest and most unwieldy government in our democratic history, with 23 cabinet ministers and some 1,200 advisers: a bloated and ineffectual Frankenstein administration, as its mismanagement of the pandemic laid bare.

Spain has recorded excess mortality of more than 80,000 dead from Covid, according to the National Statistical Office. Among frontline healthcare workers, infection rates were the highest in the world. And after lengthy lockdowns, we’ve suffered the worst economic crisis in the European Union, with the fall in GDP forecast to have been 12% in 2020. A Cambridge University study concluded that the Spain’s pandemic response was the least efficient among 33 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. One thing the government did manage to do was place government identifiers on crates of the Pfizer vaccine. “Naturally—Pedro Sánchez’s government is paying for them,” one Socialist Party congresswoman noted, by way of justification.

Vicious infighting between socialist and communist cabinet members is constant. But Sánchez’s overwhelming priority is power, and he shows a worrying authoritarian bent.

Since 2018, he has repeatedly bypassed Congress with decretos, executive orders reserved for extraordinary situations. He declared a state of emergency in response to Covid-19 that will stay in force until May, sidestepping parliamentary oversight and banning street protests. He has been fined by the Elections Board for undue use of institutions in his campaigns. He has shamelessly seeded loyalists throughout nominally independent state bodies such as RTVE, the state broadcaster, and CIS, our powerful state-owned public opinion research agency. He has deemed as “classified” all kinds of previously public information, from his use of government aircraft to his wife’s salary after she was installed in a post above her qualifications, as well as his friends’ vacations in official residences. And he has often ignored resolutions of the Transparency Council, an independent body that champions accountability in public life. Or rather, a body that used to champion it: Sánchez is also meddling in the council’s autonomy, getting two of its members dismissed.

Sánchez also lies with stunning ease, then vows to crack down on “fake news,” which seems to include any kind of reporting he finds uncomfortable. Press associations and Reporters Without Borders have denounced new obstacles to press coverage, including the creation of an official “committee against disinformation” that, among other things, promises to “examine freedom and pluralism in the news media.”

The most serious clashes are taking place in the judicial system. In an unprecedented move, Sánchez named a party political figure as attorney general—a post that, in Spain, is meant to be independent of politics—and his frictions with the body that oversees the judiciary have raised serious concern at the European Union. Associations of Spanish judges and the General Council of the Judiciary have accused the executive branch of threatening the separation of powers.

Besides this, there is a campaign against the monarchy, with Podemos leaders even invoking “the guillotine.” Here, Sánchez faces a problem: King Felipe VI is now backed by 74% of Spaniards.

The well-regarded former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González pleaded for “consensus and moderation.” But Sánchez has tied his power to corrosive forces that threaten the unity of Spain and its constitutional framework. A few Socialist party veterans have raised their voices against what is happening. Sánchez, they say, has abandoned his ethical commitments. For them, it is no longer an ideological question about left and right, but a matter of decency. It’s too little, and far too late. Sánchez has discarded the PSOE’s moderate, social-democratic identity, and has merged it with the anti-system left. No one thought he would go this far.

His takeover of the PSOE has also left its traditional voters politically homeless. It is a dynamic with parallels to Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party. Both men took parties with broad popularity and with activist wings that didn’t like the leadership, squeezed out the moderates, and transformed a mainstream party into an illiberal one.

Toxic leaders can undermine even stable democracies. We’ve seen it in the United States. We’re seeing it in Spain. Once you get past the superficial gleam, you grasp that Sánchez is closer to Trump than to Trudeau. Like Trump, Sánchez exhibits a pathological narcissism and lack of scruples. And Sánchez too has a knack for building parallel realities from lies and making the extraordinary seem commonplace, even as he weakens our institutions and our ability to live together in peace.

He also shares Trump’s upside-down relationship with scandal. Far from weakening him, the succession of scandals he has faced is anesthetizing Spaniards, exhausting their capacity for outrage. This accounts for his remarkable staying power in public opinion. According to a well-respected polling average, his PSOE would win a new election held today, with a 26% plurality of the vote to the PP’s 23%. Polarization and bad blood between them has made a “grand coalition” all but unthinkable.

Meanwhile, Sánchez can count on European Union aid—some €140 billion, or about $170 billion—meant to soften the catastrophic blow of the pandemic. This is one reason that the Frankenstein government could serve out its full four-year term.

Sánchez did promise a “Second Transformation,” and he may have the time to carry it out. In the process, he is endangering the legacy of our real transformation: the one that followed Franco’s death, and brought with it the most prosperous, freest and most peaceful era that Spain has ever known.  

Maite Rico is a columnist for El Mundo and former deputy editor, Latin America correspondent and international reporter at El País.

[Translated from the Spanish by F.P. Toro]

[This is an updated version of the article, to include a correct link to the news report accusing Sánchez of plagiarism.]

See also: Italy’s Long Covid: Political fallout from the pandemic is just beginning.