Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has been reelected, but his majority on the left relies on unstable allies. The far-right faction is exerting pressure on judges and law enforcement officials to resist the government, spreading baseless allegations of an unlawful coup. After the right-wing opposition organisations overwhelmingly won the municipal elections conducted in May, many people thought Pedro Sánchez, the head of the Socialist Party of España (PSOE), was politically finished. And yet he seems to believe in himself – like no one else does.

Following in the footsteps of his socialist predecessor Felipe González in the 1990s, Pedro Sánchez, also a socialist, has again assumed the position of prime minister in Spain. He is now just the second leader in the country’s democratic history to secure a third term as prime minister. If Sánchez completes his mandate, he would have governed Spain uninterruptedly from 2018 to 2027. It was very unforeseen in 2018 that Spain would experience many years of governance under a social democratic regime. 

However, Sánchez’s choices were restricted by the July election outcomes, which prevented the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and Spanish nationalist Vox from obtaining the majority that many had anticipated they would achieve. In addition, there was no apparent dominance of left-wing parties. Unlike in the previous legislative session, the formation of a new government required the support of almost every political group in parliament, save for the PP-Vox alliance. Securing the support of Carles Puigdemont, the leader of Junts per Catalunya (JxCAT), a right-wing Catalan separatist group that often opposed the 2020–23 government led by Sánchez’s PSOE and left-wing Unidas Podemos, seemed very improbable.

Many analysts saw the PSOE leader as a finished man, and it seemed that Spain was on track for another election to resolve the deadlock. However, their assumption was once again incorrect. Following a vote of investiture in December, Sánchez successfully obtained a majority, resulting in Spain being once again governed by a coalition government of left-wing parties. After António Costa’s resignation in Portugal, Spain stands out as one of the few surviving strongholds of progressive ideology inside the European Union.

Anti-Sanchez Opposition 

Just after the beginning of the new government, thousands of Spanish citizens marched around the country to demonstrate of opposition to Sánchez’s mandate extension. By waving EU and Spanish flags, demonstrators tried to shift attention away from Europe to Sánchez’s constitutional trainwreck, which he needed to ensure this unlikely comeback to power. In the past, almost all Spanish constitutional law professors, left-to-right professional associations representing Spain’s legal profession, and other associations wrote to Didier Reynders, the European Commissioner for Justice, alerting him to the country’s executive branch’s democratic backsliding. According to the protesters, it would not be hyperbole to argue that Sánchez’s actions signalled the end of the balance of powers and an attack on the country’s judiciary suited for the authoritarian tendencies of Mateusz Morawiecki, Victor Orbán, or Donald Trump. However, where this opposition really begun? 

The controversy has arisen aroung the so-called Amnesty Law, that made it possible to create a new left-wing government. In exchange for support from the leader of Catalonian separatists, and especially Carles Puigdemont, who escaped Spanish prosecution in 2017, Sánchez agreed to enact an Amnesty Law that he and his ministers had only weeks before denounced as unconstitutional and unlawful. He also consented to look into judges in “parliamentary commissions” as part of a purported “lawfare” plot against specific politicians, which was a disturbing development for democratic principles. 

This put the nation’s judicial, legislative, and executive branches in full collision mode. Crimes covered by the Amnesty Law include terrorism, embezzlement, misappropriation of public finances, and even cooperation with Russian intervention in European affairs. To put it briefly, Sánchez’s acting administration effectively blocked the election winner’s – right wing party Partido Popular (PP) – efforts to garner a majority by agreeing to implement significant constitutional changes in return for legislative support, which was needed in order to creat a new cabinet and start ruling. 

As some conservative commentators claim, never one to take anything by surprise, Sánchez had already laid the groundwork for just such an eventuality. Sánchez made the historic appointment of his own Justice Secretary, Dolores Delgado, as Spain’s Attorney General during his first term in office, which alarmed everyone in Brussels. 

Spain’s Supreme Court has only recently reversed her following elevation to the highest position of the Judicature due to clear-cut misuse of authority. Since the Amnesty Law was declared illegal by all reliable experts in Spain, Sánchez appointed Cándido Conde Pumpido, a well-known political ally, to the position of president of the Constitutional Tribunal of Spain, therefore colonising yet another vital institution for the country’s Rule of Law. Conde Pumpido is well-known for having supported the Amnesty Law and is even credited with helping to develop it. This helped conservative oppostiiton to crate a narration of Orban-styled policies implemantation in Spain, making it yet another case of the so-called illeberal democracy according to them. 

Apart from this the new Sanchez administration faces some other problems, most notably structural challenges. He will not only need to co-exist and co-operate with separatist forces. There are serious issues to be solved in the areas of foreign policy, digital revolution, and territorial organisation.

The never ending debate

Once again, Catalonia is at the centre of the territorial dispute, and how it is related to Spain has an impact on the country’s ability to cohabit peacefully and uphold the rule of law. But the problem is not limited to Catalonia’s independence movement; it also involves national identity and the allocation of economic resources.

Money is always one main topic related to Catalonia. Catalonia has tried in the past to take financial power away from the national government. The national tax, pension, and benefit systems would be weakened if the area had its own treasury, which would surely stoke anti-Catalan sentiment even more. 

The Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) could also try to use their backing at the beginning of the next year to pressure better treatment for the area, maybe as a means of pressuring EH Bildu, who seems certain to take over the Basque administration. Other areas, including Galicia, Valencia, and Andalucia, are also experiencing regional conflicts; however, in these cases, the issue is one of funding rather than separatist politics. Favouring Catalonia will also serve to strengthen the narratives promoted by populists like Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the PP President of the Madrid area.

Treating certain regions unfairly or unevenly can encourage political instability as well as inequality and hostility. The last one is going to be exploited by potential splitters from the left, but also Partido Popular and far-right Vox. In this regard, the progressive coalition will need to exercise extreme caution in order to preserve a cohesive party stance, as well as national unity.

Palestinian question and digital transformation 

Sánchez personally begged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a long-term truce in Gaza when he was in Israel. In addition, he said that the number of Palestinian deaths was truly unbearable and mentioned Spain’s willingness to acknowledge the state of Palestine.

It is quite probable that the administration has now lost the chance to utilise the rotating presidency inside the EU to openly advocate for policies like a deal with Mercosur, the trade group in South America. However, Spain still has a chance to break the hegemony that France and Germany have in European politics thanks to its influence in Ibero-America, North Africa, and the Mediterranean.

As long as its coalition partners continue to act predictably and Spain is able to solidify its historical position as a trustworthy friend and partner, its foreign strategy will be successful. It might play the role of a helpful go-between for stronger countries.

In addition to foreign and domestic issues, regarding separatism and regional autonomy of specific parts of Spain, Sanchez this term focused on the digital transformation of the country, which is necessary. Spain is one of those “Old European” countries that, compared to e.g. Poland, let alone Estonia, is still at a standstill in terms of digital infrastructure. To open a bank account or do the smallest thing in public administration, you still have to use mail and make a personal visit to the office. Just like in Italy or France…

With a budget of €20 billion and growing, the government seems to be prioritising the digital revolution, which affects various sectors. The transformation’s overarching goal is to provide the resources and infrastructure needed to support the digitalization of public services and companies in the next years. It poses a challenge to legal regulation as well as to business, employment growth, taxes, judicial collaboration, and foreign relations. The change will have an impact on Spain’s conception of the state, public service delivery, and the impending economic revolution.

Future Ahead? 

These problems involve a multitude of obstacles that Spain will face in the near future. The support provided by the coalition government is fragile and contingent. It introduces a variety of viewpoints and interests, and is likely to address several long-term requirements across the nation.

Conversely, the reverse is also feasible. If a satisfactory resolution to territorial disputes, which satisfies a majority based on social factors rather than just numbers, is not found, it might lead to political instability and need another round of elections. In the event of this occurrence, the outcomes will, once again, be quite uncertain. 

Cover photo: Protesters in Madrid march against Pedro Sanchez government supported by Catalan separatists, November 2023. Source.

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