Spain’s Worrying Turn

persuasion

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.”

by: persuasion

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.