Sánchez is back … now Spain’s leader must make his daring gamble pay off

The socialist leader traded clemency for the votes of Catalan separatists in a bold move that may backfire

Sam Jones Madrid






At the end of an investiture debate that had been fraught, savage and bizarre, even by recent standards, the defeated leader of Spain’s conservative opposition offered his socialist rival a handshake. It was not accompanied by his warmest wishes. “This was a mistake,” said Alberto Núñez Feijóo , the leader of the People’s party (PP), as he pressed the flesh with a smiling Pedro Sánchez on Thursday. “And you’re responsible for what you’ve just done.” Given Feijóo’s other characterisations of moves Sánchez has made to secure his Spanish Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) another four-year term, the word “mistake” seemed oddly mild. Sánchez’s decision to accede to the demands of the two main Catalan pro-independence parties – who had made their congressional backing for his new government dependent on an amnesty for hundreds of people involved in the unilateral push to secede from Spain six years ago – has proved profoundly divisive. A day earlier, the PP leader had rattled off a damning psychological profile of the acting prime minister. “You are the problem,” Feijóo told Sánchez. “You and your inability to keep your word, your lack of moral limits, your pathological ambition. “As long as you’re around, Spain will be condemned to division.” Another senior PP member has compared the proposed law to Franco-era legislation, while the farright Vox has called Sánchez a “despot” and accused him of perpetrating “a coup d’état in capital letters”. Overheated as much of the rhetoric has been, it cannot mask the fact that a lot of Spaniards have grave concerns about the amnesty. A poll in midSeptember showed that 70% of voters, including 59% of the people who voted for the PSOE in July’s general election, were against the amnesty law. The issue has also brought hundreds of thousands of people out to protest. Yesterday tens of thousands gathered in Madrid to show their opposition to the move. Some carried placards reading “Separation of powers” and “Traitors”. Sánchez, 51, who had opposed the act of clemency, now claims the law is needed to promote coexistence and heal the wounds of the past. His administration says it is designed to benefit the ordinary teachers, civil servants, police officers and firefi facing legal action over their roles in the events of October 2017. The PSOE has argued that a deal had to be struck to banish the possibility of a PP-Vox government that would undo years of social progress. The problem is that the most high-profile beneficiary of the proposed law will be Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan regional president, who fled to Belgium to avoid arrest for orchestrating the failed independence bid and whose hardline Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) party pushed for the amnesty alongside the more moderate Catalan Republican Left (ERC). For many, offering this to Puigdemont is unthinkable. Or wrong. Or both. Why, then, did Sánchez take the risk? The short answer is that he had to. “We all know that Sánchez took up the issue of the amnesty because he needed Junts’s votes,” said José Pablo Ferrándiz, at Ipsos Spain. “If he hadn’t needed those votes, we wouldn’t be talking about this now, nor about how important it will be to Spain’s development and to peace.” The decision will also have been driven by his character. One of his defining characteristics has always been his willingness to gamble. It paid off when he used a no-confidence motion to turf the corruption-mired PP government of Mariano Rajoy out of office five years ago, and when he called July’s inconclusive election after the PSOE’s drubbing in May’s regional and local elections. “He’s a leader who takes risks and who has been capable of changing his mind many times when it’s come to his own personal survival and his party’s survival,” said Ferrándiz. While the coming months promise to be turbulent for Sánchez’s new coalition, he has shown he is not to be underestimated. His famed ability to repurpose adversity could also help him stitch up the social fabric that was rent so violently six years ago. The problem is that the political stakes have rarely been higher. “If this legislature turns out badly, the Spanish left could be in opposition for 20 years, and history won’t remember Sánchez fondly,” said political scientist Pablo Simón. “But if it turns out well, we could see the pro-independence parties returning to the path of governability … But there are a lot of people who will be hoping Sánchez comes a cropper.”