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19 April 2023

Spain’s left coalition defied expectations. Can its leader, Pedro Sánchez, win again?

The government is far from perfect, but the PM has improved the country’s economic prospects and international clout.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Spain’s current government did not exactly come to power in benign circumstances. It was January 2020. Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), had become prime minister in 2018 following a no-confidence vote in Mariano Rajoy, the incumbent from the conservative People’s Party (PP). But Sánchez had failed to secure a majority at either of two general elections held in 2019. So he formed a coalition with United We Can (UP), a radical left party that had grown out of the anti-austerity movement. The national coalition was Spain’s first since the 1930s, the latest example of the fragmentation of the country’s previously stable two-party system over the decade that followed the economic crisis.

The two coalition parties did not even command a parliamentary majority together, relying on small regionalist parties to come to power. Sánchez won his investiture vote with a tiny margin: 167 votes to 165. The country’s economy still bore scarring from the crisis. Protests, sometimes violent, for and against independence had once more taken to the streets of Catalonia. And then, weeks into the new government, the pandemic struck and all but devastated Spain’s crucial tourism industry.

The chances of the new government lasting long seemed slim indeed. Yet more than three years on, and as the end of its term nears, Sánchez’s ramshackle minority coalition has not only survived but done, on balance, a surprisingly decent job.

It’s true that Covid hit Spain hard and it experienced a deeper recession than most European counterparts. But the economy is now roaring back, and is predicted to grow faster this year than France, Germany or Italy; its exports hit a record high last year; unemployment is the lowest in 15 years; and inflation is the lowest in the eurozone. In a 2022 economic-performance ranking of 34 rich countries by the Economist, Spain came fourth.

Sánchez and Nadia Calviño, his economy supremo, have had some good luck. Spain’s low dependence on Russian energy has spared it some of the turmoil of other European economies following the invasion of Ukraine.

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Yet ministers also deserve credit. Their aggressive cost-of-living measures have helped, such as a suspension of VAT on basic food items and public-transport subsidies. As has Spain’s emergence as Europe’s wind- and solar-energy superpower; last year 42 per cent of its electricity came from renewable sources, and this year the proportion will pass 50 per cent. A standout achievement was a package of labour reforms, negotiated with both employers and trade unions, to confront the long-standing scourge of insecure work: last year the number of temporary contracts fell by 1.2 million and that of permanent ones rose by 1.6 million.

[See also: A history of Spain in 150 objects]

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Partly at the behest of UP, the government has also passed a wave of progressive legislation including improved abortion and transgender rights, and rules making it easier for migrants to move from the black market to legal employment. It has also made Spain the first country in Europe to give workers the right to take leave in cases of severe menstrual pain.

Furthermore, Sánchez has taken much of the heat out of the Catalan issue by adopting a conciliatory tone; pardoning nine jailed leaders of the failed 2017 independence bid and moving to reform the draconian sedition legislation under which they were charged. In part thanks to this friendlier approach from Madrid, support for independence in Catalonia has fallen.

In Europe, the country is more influential than it has been for decades. Unusually for a Spanish prime minster, Sánchez is a fluent English speaker. He has built close alliances with both France and Germany, playing a leading role in topics such as the eurozone pandemic recovery fund and even on the EU response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He visited Kyiv before any of his French, German or Italian counterparts, and Spain has prepared an ambitious agenda for its presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of this year.

Of course, the country’s government is far from perfect. Spanish unemployment is still high by eurozone standards, especially among the young. The country’s court system and its judicial appointments regime are dysfunctional. And there have been missteps. On 16 April Sánchez had to apologise after a well-intentioned but poorly drafted law tightening rules on sexual consent turned out to have included a loophole that would allow some convicted offenders to reduce their sentences. But Spain goes into its upcoming election season with better economic prospects, a fairer society, a better chance of holding together and more international clout than seemed likely when he became prime minister in 2018.

Sánchez deserves another term, but faces an uphill struggle in winning one. The PSOE trails the PP in the polls. And where the conservatives can, if necessary, govern with the far-right Vox, the forces to the left of Sánchez are fractious. A war of words is currently playing out between UP and Unite, a new leftist group launched by Yolanda Díaz, the popular labour minister.

In May, 12 of Spain’s 17 “autonomous communities” (including Madrid, a PP stronghold) will hold regional elections, the results of which will significantly set the tone for the general election later this year. And yet if there is one thing that the past few years have shown, it is that it would be a mistake to underestimate Spain’s tenacious prime minister. Pedro Sánchez has come back from tricky situations before – and may yet do so again.

[See also: The long history of corruption in Spanish politics]

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This article appears in the 19 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Axis of Autocrats