Wednesday 23 January 2019

Machiavellian maverick who defied the odds

Sánchez carries out Spanish power grab to oust Rajoy as prime minister

Spain’s new prime minister Pedro Sanchez (left) shakes hands with Mariano Rajoy after the no-confidence motion in the Spanish Parliament. Photo: Reuters
Spain’s new prime minister Pedro Sanchez (left) shakes hands with Mariano Rajoy after the no-confidence motion in the Spanish Parliament. Photo: Reuters

James Badcock

Pedro Sánchez yesterday became Spain's seventh prime minister since the country transitioned to democracy after Mariano Rajoy was defeated in a no-confidence vote. But the Socialist's lightning assault on power leaves Spaniards largely in the dark about who their new leader really is or what his plans are - particularly on the country's biggest constitutional crisis, the thorny issue of Catalonia.

Still young at 46, there is plenty of time for Mr Sánchez to define his political career. When the economist and promising youth basketball player won his PSOE party's first-ever leadership election open to the entire membership in 2014, he was seen as a moderate candidate.

New Catalan president Quim Torra. Photo: Getty Images
New Catalan president Quim Torra. Photo: Getty Images

Now, having been cast out by the Socialist establishment and brought back by popular demand, he has the air of a Spanish Jeremy Corbyn, lifted into position by the grass roots and prepared to break the shackles of austerity.

He does not, however, wish to rock the boat in terms of market confidence in Spain's economic recovery, having promised to maintain the Rajoy government's state budget for 2018, despite previously criticising the expenditure plan as an "attack on the welfare state".

Born in 1972 in Madrid, Sánchez grew up in a wealthy family - his father is an entrepreneur and his mother a civil servant. He studied in the Spanish capital before getting a Master's degree in political economy at the Universite libre de Bruxelles in Belgium.

Politics, though, was always his passion. He was an opposition town councillor in Madrid from 2004 to 2009, after which he entered parliament as a lawmaker under Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's administration. That ended when the People's Party swept to power in 2011, driving out the Socialists.

But he returned to the lower house in 2013, going on to become Socialist party chief. In the 2015 general elections, he came after Rajoy but tried and failed to form an alternative government with Ciudadanos.

Fresh elections were called in 2016 and the Socialist party registered its worst result since Spain began its transition to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco.

After failing to impress voters, Mr Sánchez also navigated erratically in the aftermath, first preferring the liberal, pro-business Ciudadanos as possible coalition partners before courting the idea of a ragtag alliance with anti-austerity Podemos supported by separatist Catalan parties. That saw him branded rebel-in-chief by Socialist party elders. He was then ousted by his party executive and the national crisis was unblocked as PSOE abstained in Mr Rajoy's investiture.

But the mercurial politician relished his role as outsider pitted against the PSOE elite, storming back in a party primary and comfortably defeating Andalucian leader Susana Díaz, seen as the old guard's choice.

"He is Machiavellian. He is very able at adapting his behaviour to circumstance," says political analyst Pablo Simón, from Madrid's Carlos III University.

Mr Sanchez's impressive performance in harnessing support from the various sections of Spain's political spectrum to oust Mr Rajoy in the space of a few days suggests that he has matured in political exile.

But it is on the issue of Catalonia that Mr Sánchez must now apply his skills to bridge the gap between Madrid and Barcelona. Having supported Mr Rajoy's imposition of direct rule on the region after the Catalan parliament illegally declared independence last autumn, Mr Sánchez has promised dialogue with the separatist parties that still hold power in the region under Quim Torra, the substitute president for the self-exiled Carles Puigdemont.

In an ironic turn of events, on the PP's last day in power, the party published legislation that paves the way for the lifting of direct rule over Catalonia. With Mr Sánchez in power, the relationship between Madrid and Barcelona can truly be reset. It is now up to the new prime minister where it goes next.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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