Spanish Socialists Crack Under Pressure to Let Rajoy Rule

  • Party splits over whether to oust leader Pedro Sanchez
  • Sanchez is blocking Rajoy’s efforts to form government

Leader of the Spanish Socialist Party Pedro Sanchez.

Photographer: Miguel Riopa/AFP via Getty Images

A dispute over whether to let acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy return to office tore apart the Spanish Socialist leadership on Wednesday, throwing the opposition to Rajoy’s People’s Party into chaos.

The day began with the Socialists’ elder statesman accusing embattled leader Pedro Sanchez of lying over his political strategy and ended with rebels talking to reporters from the sidewalk outside the party’s Madrid headquarters after they’d been locked out of their offices. In between, 17 of the 35 members of the group’s main decision-making body resigned, triggering arguments over whether Sanchez remains in control.

Sanchez, the main obstacle to a second term for his arch-rival Rajoy, was still hanging on as the Spanish capital awoke on Thursday, with his lieutenants insisting he still has the authority to call the remaining members of the executive committee to an emergency meeting later in the day. Sanchez is trying to hold on long enough to force a vote of the membership. He’s betting, as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did in the U.K., that the party’s rank-and-file will endorse his stand against Rajoy over the rebels’ calls for compromise.

“We are reaching ground zero of the political crisis in our country,” Lluis Orriols, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University, said in a telephone interview. “This will make it possible for Rajoy to negotiate support for a confidence vote very cheaply.”

Sanchez has been trying to rally support for an anti-Rajoy alliance since the acting prime minister lost his majority in December’s general election, but he’s struggled to bridge the ideological differences between anti-establishment group Podemos and the liberals of Ciudadanos, his most obvious allies. That impasse prompted a repeat election in June and could still lead to a third vote in December if parliament fails to choose a leader by the end of October.

The stepping down of 17 executive committee members, with three of the 38 seats already unfilled, triggers the dissolution of the body because more than half of its members left, according to critics’ interpretation of the party’s bylaws.

Sanchez Argument

Such action actually starts a process that ends in an extraordinary congress in which the party’s grassroots membership decides on the leadership, said Cesar Luena, one of Sanchez’s advisers and his party’s head of organization.

The executive committee, which has been called by Sanchez to a meeting Thursday, doesn’t exist any longer, Antonio Pradas, one of party lawmakers who resigned, told reporters in front of its headquarters after was denied access to his office. The party’s guarantees committee should rule about the correct interpretation of bylaws, he said.

“Luena isn’t the head of organization any longer, nor does the executive committee retain any powers,” said Pradas, a lawmaker for the Andalusia region. “We hope that rule of law is restored in the Socialist party.”

The extra yield that investors demand to own Spain’s 10-year government bonds over similar-maturity German debt narrowed two basis points, or 0.02 percentage point, to 102 basis points as of 9:17 a.m. Madrid time.

Felipe Gonzalez, a former prime minister and a talisman for generations of Spanish socialists, said Wednesday that Sanchez had promised him he’d let the PP govern amid concern among executives that the political stalemate may damage the economic recovery.
Socialist lawmakers voted against Rajoy’s candidacy in confidence votes on Aug. 31 and Sept. 2, in line with Sanchez’s public pledges at the time.

“I’m frustrated, I feel like I’ve been deceived,” Gonzalez told Cadena Ser radio. “He told me he would do one thing and then did the complete opposite.”

Likely Successor

Susana Diaz, regional president in the Socialist stronghold of Andalusia, is emerging as the most likely successor to Sanchez in the longer term, hinting at a leadership bid earlier in the week. Still, Diaz will probably want to avoid taking the reins before the PP gets in, since the leader who stands aside to let Rajoy govern may be permanently tainted in the eyes of the party’s supporters.

“I think Felipe is in the abstention camp, I’m in the camp of voting against Mariano Rajoy and getting an alternative government -- but I’d like to know where Susana Diaz is,” said Sanchez in an interview with Eldiario.es.

As rival Socialist factions exchanged barbs in Madrid, the Catalan separatist movement launched a renewed push for independence from the regional assembly in Barcelona. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont pledged to hold a referendum on secession in September next year. The Catalans already held one disputed plebiscite in 2014, with 81 percent backing independence on turnout of about 37 percent.

The emergence of Catalan separatism since the Socialists last held office in 2011 has decimated the party’s base. Previous Socialist majorities were built upon its strong support in Catalonia and Andalusia, but the swing toward separatism in Spain’s biggest economic region has left Catalan Socialists struggling to carve out a new political space.

‘Perfect Storm’

In part because of the problems in Catalonia, Sanchez has posted the worst result in the Socialists’ history in both of the general elections he’s fought. The Socialists suffered further losses in regional elections in Galicia and Basque Country on Sunday, falling behind Podemos in both ballots, in a warning to the party of what it’s future might hold unless someone can steady the ship quickly.

“Such a crisis within the Socialists is a perfect storm that could allow Podemos to become the alternative to the People’s Party,” Orriols said. “It’s opening a new window of opportunity to move ahead with the transformation of the political arena.”

Over nine months of political gridlock, Sanchez has refused to support Rajoy, saying the prime minister’s alleged ties to a party corruption scandal make him unfit to lead the government. If he can survive until next week, that argument will be bolstered with a group of former PP officials due to stand trial in the National Court in Madrid, an event that will dominate the headlines for months. Rajoy has not been charged and denies any wrongdoing.

Other Socialists leaders, including the regional presidents of Extremadura and Castilla-La Mancha, have urged Sanchez to reconsider his stance. Without a proper government in power, Spain can’t pass a budget bill and that could potentially hold up financial transfers from the central government to the regional administrations.

“The leader of the Socialist party is his secretary general Pedro Sanchez,” the party No. 2, Cesar Luena, told reporters in Madrid late Wednesday. “The party’s members are the ones that have to decide” if he stays.

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