Waiting outside the Spanish Parliament this week for the new Socialist prime minister to arrive, software engineer María López described herself as a bit of a Pedro Sánchez “groupie.”
“I know it is not very cool of me, but I want to see him in the flesh,” the 36-year-old said. “He has done more for women and Spain’s image in a few weeks than the last government did in years.”
When Sánchez took over from the conservative Mariano Rajoy after a surprise no-confidence vote last month, rivals predicted that his weak minority government would be a disaster — ripe for collapse within months. But early signs suggest the opposite. Backed by a hyperactive media operation, and after a rapid-fire series of policy announcements, the 46-year-old Sánchez is going down well with voters, rallying those on the left to his cause after nearly seven years of a conservative government.
The government has been making a lot of strong moves so far.
Lluis Orriols, politics professor, Carlos III University
Polls this week have shown the Socialist Party’s support at the highest in years, as it takes votes from the far-left Podemos Party as well as from the liberal centrist Ciudadanos group — both upstart movements of the kind that hoped to make traditional political forces such as the Socialist Party irrelevant.
“While it is still early days, the government has been making a lot of strong moves so far, with announcements on inequality and women winning support from progressives and the left,” says Lluis Orriols, a professor of politics at Carlos III University in Madrid.
One of Sánchez’s first acts was to appoint the country’s first mostly female Cabinet, while he also struck a progressive tone by allowing entry to a boat carrying migrants rejected by Italy. And he has also brought his more liberal stance to the thorny issue of Catalonia by meeting Joaquim Torra, leader of the Catalan government, for the two sides’ first discussions in years about the future of the region.
Announcing his economic program to Parliament, Sánchez promised to raise taxes on companies and increase public spending as Spain’s economic crisis recedes, saying the country needed to “redistribute” wealth as well as create it. This week he also pledged to remove the remains of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco from the Valley of the Fallen, a monument to those killed during the Spanish Civil War that some argue venerates fascism. “No democracy can allow a monument to a dictatorship,” he said.
All this is part of a broader plan to bolster the party’s support among the center left ahead of the next general election, scheduled for 2020. A poll this week by Sigma Dos for El Mundo newspaper found the Socialist Party was the most popular, with 26 percent support compared with 19.7 percent in March.
This is still the honeymoon period; let’s see what happens after the summer.
Francisco Camas, analyst, Metroscopia
The improvement in the party’s standing is a ray of hope for the European center left, which has been under pressure from the populists on both sides of the spectrum. Traditional center-left parties have been humbled in recent years in France, Germany and Italy. Few social democratic governments remain in power.
Yet analysts know it is far too early to be confident that Sánchez’s support will last. “This is still the honeymoon period; let’s see what happens after the summer,” says Francisco Camas, an analyst at polling agency Metroscopia.
One of Sánchez’s problems is obvious: his weak grip on Parliament. While he was able to garner enough support to oust Rajoy, his party has only 84 of Parliament’s 350 seats, meaning he will struggle to pass meaningful laws ahead of the next election. He has already lost a vote on appointing a new board for the state TV company RTVE and his economic agenda could struggle to gain approval.
Ignacio de la Torre, chief economist at Arcano, says Sánchez’s economic program would be “mostly PR, as he is unlikely to be able to legislate on it.”
This leaves Sánchez open to the charge that his government is more about style than substance, focused most of all on campaigning to win a majority in the next election. Albert Rivera, leader of Ciudadanos, this week charged that the Sánchez government looked more like an “electoral committee.”
Some have also criticized Sánchez for his widespread use of social media — echoing Canada’s Justin Trudeau and France’s Emmanuel Macron. Posted photos show the prime minister wearing trendy sunglasses aboard a private jet, and running with his dog. A series of close-up photos of Sánchez’s hands tweeted by the government included the caption “The prime minister’s hands show the determination of the government.” It was ridiculed in the media.
.@sanchezcastejon evalúa sus recientes encuentros con líderes europeos tras visitar esta mañana a #AngelaMerkel en Berlín. Las manos del Presidente marcan la determinación del Gobierno. Mañana comparece ante el @Congreso_Es pic.twitter.com/QZqtwQa3rT
— La Moncloa (@desdelamoncloa) June 26, 2018
There have already been some government slip-ups. Màxim Huerta, Sánchez’s newly appointed culture minister, was forced to step down last month after revelations about his taxes. And while the prime minister’s politics have galvanized many of his natural supporters in recent weeks, he has also benefited from the disarray in the People’s Party in the wake of Rajoy’s departure.
Now cast into opposition, the People’s Party is fighting a messy internal leadership battle between Pablo Casado, a young rising party star, and Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, the powerful former deputy prime minister. But the battle should conclude this weekend with a party vote — leaving the winning candidate free to try to end Sánchez’s honeymoon start.
“I can stand up to Pedro Sánchez,” said Sáenz de Santamaría this month. Casado this week said he was also up for a fight: “I will not allow Pedro Sánchez to continue running the show without opposition.”
By Michael Stothard
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