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Spain is entering a bitter election cycle. Will its Socialist leader survive?

Spanish voters will go to the polls by the end of the year and the fate of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's gamble to govern with far-left forces is at stake.

(CN) — Spain, a rare outpost of progressive politics in a right-veering Europe, is heading into a toxic election cycle that will severely test Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, one of Europe's more successful left-wing politicians who's up for reelection this year.

Sanchez has led Spain since June 2018 as an ardent pro-European leftist reformer who is also the country's first openly atheist prime minister and its first leader fluent in foreign languages – English and French.

Since moving into the Moncloa Palace, the prime minister's residence in Madrid, Sanchez largely has lived up to the left's hopes with big political gestures and the passage of leftist economic and social policies while remaining untainted by scandals or corruption charges, though critics accuse him of cronyism.

His symbolic gestures were the removal of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco's body from a massive mausoleum outside Madrid, the pardoning of Catalonia's pro-independence leaders and scrapping an archaic sedition law used to imprison the Catalan politicians.

On economic and social policies, his government has pushed up minimum wages, cracked down on Spanish businesses' exorbitant use of short-term work contracts, strengthened trade union rights, put caps on rent increases and gas prices, provided struggling farmers with millions in subsidies, made many train rides free to ease the pain of inflation, mandated sex education in schools, strengthened abortion and transgender rights and passed tough sexual consent laws.

This last bill on sexual consent, though, is causing him major troubles after it opened loopholes that allowed 104 sexual offenders to get released from prison and 978 offenders to get their sentences reduced.

Beyond Spain, Sanchez has become an important figure in European Union and international affairs with his pro-EU liberal outlook, fluency in English and support for Ukraine and NATO. He recently visited China, where he urged President Xi Jinping to talk with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and he's preparing to make his first trip as prime minister to Washington to meet U.S. President Joe Biden on May 12.

By the end of the year, Sanchez must call new elections with his term in office ending and, despite his successes, he's facing a tough reelection. A date for the national elections has not been set, but they must take place at the latest by next January.

“It will be a very polarized election campaign,” said Andrew Dowling, an expert on Spanish politics at Cardiff University in Wales. “It will be quite abusive. There will be a lot of mutual hostility because that is the current political situation in Spain where left and right are highly polarized.”

This deep polarization can be traced to the devastation caused to Spain's economy and society by the 2007-2008 financial collapse. Spain was among the EU countries hit the hardest.

In the wake of the financial meltdown, Spanish politics have become the most fractured and divisive they've ever been since the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s as new radical parties emerged and challenged the status quo represented by Spain's center-left Socialists and its center-right Partido Popular, also known by its initials PP.

“The big news over the last 10 years in Spanish politics has been the end, or what seemed like it was going to be the end, of the dominance of two parties – the Partido Popular and the Socialist party,” said Duncan Wheeler, an expert on Spain at the University of Leeds in England.

“It wasn't a fight between left and right but a fight between who could dominate the right- and left-wing votes,” Wheeler said.

On the left, Unidas Podemos, founded by the pony-tailed, communist-inspired politics professor Pablo Iglesias, challenged the Socialists and picked up the votes of younger voters; meanwhile, on the right, Vox, an anti-immigrant nationalist party, began taking votes away from the Partido Popular. A new centrist party, Ciudadanos, sprang up too and it was for a while a force to be reckoned with, though it has fallen into near irrelevance.

Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias speaks as Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez looks on after signing an agreement at the parliament in Madrid on Nov. 12, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul White)

But Podemos – and its brand-new offshoot, a party called Sumar – and Vox remain strong in Spanish politics.

In 2020, Sanchez formed Spain's first coalition government since the restoration of democracy after the Franco dictatorship by joining forces with Podemos. Once in government, Podemos has pushed Sanchez further to the left.

In 2022, Vox for the first time got a taste of power by entering a coalition with the Partido Popular in the region of Castilla and Leon north of Madrid. It is now polling as Spain's third largest party.

Through such turbulence, Sanchez has done what few other social democratic leaders in Europe could: He staved off his party's collapse, outflanked rightist forces within his party and brought his Socialists back to power after ousting the corruption-plagued Partido Popular in 2018.

“The French Socialist party to all extents and purposes has disappeared and that's a party that was once getting 40 percent- plus in elections,” Dowling said. “The Spanish Socialist party has revived and survived and is now one of the strongest social democratic parties in Europe.”

Unlike other large center-left parties in Europe – such as the Social Democrats in Germany and Labour in Great Britain – the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, as the party is officially called, has not moved to the right, he said.

“Germany's a perfect example of it,” Dowling said. “They're just sort of neoliberal parties with a more human face.”

He continued: “In Spain that just wasn't possible because of the intensity of the economic crisis. The Spanish Socialists had to propound a progressive social message because of the strength of their left flank.”

Sanchez played a big part in this move to the left: In 2016, he was removed as party leader for advocating an alliance with Podemos and only got back on top after touring Spain in his car and rallying his party's base.

“He's been tested by fire,” Dowling said.

At this early point ahead of elections, Dowling said Sanchez has a good chance of remaining prime minister in a coalition with the left.

“It's advantage Socialists at the present time and it's advantage the coalition government,” he said.

Wheeler also sees Sanchez's chances of reelection as promising.

“My sense is that Pedro Sanchez is in a relatively good position for someone who's been in power for a while and gone through a pandemic,” he said.

Polls show the Socialists and Partido Popular are neck-and-neck with each getting support at somewhere around 30% of the electorate. But neither one may be able to obtain enough votes to obtain a majority, making it possible Spain could see its second-ever coalition government.

For the Socialists, it would be feasible to form a coalition with Podemos and Sumar, the newly formed party led by Labor Minister Yolanda Diaz, who is also a member of Spain's Communist Party.

But things get much more complicated for the Partido Popular if it tries to form a coalition with Vox due to its far-right rhetoric.

“The PP as a party is kind of trapped because of the continuing existence of Vox,” Dowling said. “It has to watch its right flank because if it offers too moderate a message, Vox can capitalize on that and take up hardcore PP voters.”

In this Dec. 2, 2018, photo, supporters of Spain's far-right Vox party wave Spanish flags as they celebrate regional election results in Seville. (AP Photo/Gogo Lobato)

The left-wing coalition under Sanchez may have been eager to pass so much progressive legislation in order to rile up fierce objections from Vox, Dowling said.

“It's in their interest for Vox and the PP to be pitched together,” he said. “Antagonizing the right and making sure Vox is center stage suits them perfectly.”

He said the left can use Vox and its extreme views – such as restrictions on abortion and ending Catalan and Basque autonomy – to motivate its voters.

“An angry right mobilizes the left in Spain,” Dowling said.

But the Partido Popular is getting stronger and regaining its posture following the fall of Mariano Rajoy in corruption scandals. Rajoy was the conservative Spanish prime minister from 2011 to 2018.

For the past year, the conservatives have had a new leader in Alberto Nunez Feijoo, a moderate 61-year-old senator and former civil servant who served previously as the president of Galicia.

Wheeler said Feijoo has managed to resuscitate PP's image following its corruption scandals. “They've kind of re-established their hegemony on the centrist votes," he said.

Feijoo has vowed that he will not have PP join a national coalition with Vox and promised to deliver a centrist message.

“The problem is that every move to the center means potential voters peeling off to the hard right,” Dowling said.

Still, if PP can pick up enough votes it might have the option of ruling as a minority government with Vox lending it support. Minority governments have been the norm since the end of the Franco dictatorship.

“The ideal position for the PP would be to have a minority government that is strong enough to be in power with Vox but refuse to have a coalition with Vox,” Dowling said. “Vox would function as an external supporting party.”

But he doubted Vox under the leadership of its founder Santiago Abascal would accept this scenario because of its strong ambitions to get cabinet seats and have a chance at governing.

“Vox will make high demands,” he said. “I don't think Vox will accept an external supporting role; they want to be recognized; they want ministries; they want portfolios.”

On the election campaign, Dowling said the left will likely depict themselves as an “optimistic narrative” and the right as “an apocalyptic, negative, dark vision of Spain.”

The right, by contrast, will attack the coalition of Socialists and far-left allies as a danger to Spain.

“They say the Spanish government is illegitimate,” Dowling said. “They call it a Frankenstein coalition. As far as the Spanish right is concerned, Podemos are basically communists and Spain has a communist-infiltrated government.”

Wheeler said Spanish voters might punish Sanchez for joining forces with Podemos, a party that's dropped in the polls and at risk of collapse at the hands of Diaz's new Sumar party.

In government, Podemos' young ministers were ideological and can be accused of driving through legislation to grab headlines in a desperate bid to achieve something while in power, Wheeler said.

“They kind of rushed things through and that's easy artillery for the right to then criticize,” he said. “Historically, since Franco the tradition has been that Spanish voters favor centrism, people who have gone to the center.”

Wheeler also said Sanchez may face backlash for his leadership style.

“Instead of trying to tackle really difficult problems, he constantly does the kind of big symbolic gestures to direct all the attention there,” Wheeler said. “Almost in a way moving Franco's body away was easier than sorting out structural issues with the economy.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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