(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.