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Spain’s PM Sánchez could quit after far-right attacks on wife and bid to ‘politically kill’ him


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On Monday, Pedro Sánchez, the great and unpredictable survivor of Spanish politics, and a leader who has seen off more than his fair share of rivals, critics and adversaries, will reveal whether or not he intends to carry on as prime minister.

The announcement will come five days after the socialist prime minister shocked Spain by posting a four-page cri de coeur on social media in which he said that the continuing “harassment and bullying operation” being waged against him and his wife by his political and media opponents had led him to cancel his public duties for the rest of the week while he reflected on his future.

Hours earlier, a Madrid court had said it had opened a preliminary investigation into Sánchez’s wife, Begoña Gómez, “for the alleged offence of influence peddling and corruption”. The investigation followed a complaint from the pressure group Manos Limpias (Clean Hands), a self-styled trade union with far-right links that has a long and familiar history of using the courts to pursue those it deems to pose a threat to Spain’s democratic interests.

“Now that we’ve reached this point, the question I quite legitimately ask myself is: is it all worth it? I sincerely don’t know,” the prime minister wrote in his letter. “I need to stop and think about it.”

Sánchez insisted on his wife’s innocence and openly accused the conservative People’s party (PP) and the far-right Vox party of colluding with Manos Limpias and hostile sections of the media in an attempt to bring about his “personal and political collapse” by attacking his wife.

Sánchez’s letter – which he is understood to have written himself and without consulting his advisers – has been described by his allies as a deeply personal measure of last resort from a man sick of the attacks on his wife, which have escalated over recent years.

“We often forget that there are people behind politicians,” he wrote. “I’m not all embarrassed to say that I’m a man who’s deeply in love with his wife and who has to live with the helplessness of seeing all the mud that’s slung at her every single day.”

Mud may be a polite choice of words. Among the rumours that rightwing and far-right types have tried to spread about Gómez are that she is a trans woman, that she is involved in drug trafficking in Morocco and that her family runs a prostitution ring.

On Friday, two Spanish papers – La Vanguardia and ElDiario.es – published audio and transcripts of a 2014 meeting between a senior PP minister and José Manuel Villarejo, a former police inspector accused of spying on, and working to discredit, some of Spain’s most high-profile politicians. In the recordings, the two men discuss plans to spy on Gómez’s father in order to “politically kill” Sánchez. During the conversation, Villarejo also mentions that he is “directing” the activities of Manos Limpias.

Sánchez himself is well used to the crude cut and thrust of Spanish politics, a ruthless arena whose language and personal barbs would be far beyond the pale in the House of Commons. He also knows how to give as good as he gets.

But his reliance on the support in Congress of Basque and Catalan nationalists – not to mention the deeply controversial and divisive Catalan amnesty deal that brought him back into office after last year’s inconclusive general election – has made him an easy and irresistible target for his opponents’ invective.

The former PP leader Pablo Casado deployed a series of unflattering descriptions of Sánchez, calling him a “traitor”, a “felon”, a “compulsive liar”, a “squatter” and a “catastrophe”.

Others have been equally forthright. A judge called Sánchez a “psychopath without ethical limits”, while Vox’s leader, Santiago Abascal, has muttered darkly about the day when Spaniards would want to see the prime minister “strung up by his feet”.

Committed Sánchez foe Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the populist People’s party president of the Madrid region, claims the PM is ushering in ‘a dictatorship through the backdoor’. Photograph: Europa Press Entertainment/Europa Press/Getty Images

Bluntest of all, as ever, was Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the populist PP president of the Madrid region and a committed foe of the prime minister, who has accused him of enacting a “totalitarian” project and ushering in “a dictatorship through the back door”.

During last November’s investiture debate, Ayuso took exception to a jibe Sánchez made about her family – namely, her brother’s alleged business dealings during the Covid pandemic – and was caught on camera calling the prime minister a “hijo de puta”, which could politely be translated as a son of a bitch.

A few months after becoming prime minister in 2018, Sánchez joked about how he was seen by the PP. “I know you think I’m a dangerous, extreme leftwinger who’s trying to break Spain apart,” he said. “I know that everything I do, and everything my government does, is illegal, immoral and even fattening.”

Almost six years on, the mood is far uglier and the laughs in shorter supply. The Catalan amnesty deal has incensed elements of the right and far right, and there have been clashes between riot police and fascists and neo-fascists outside the socialists’ Madrid headquarters.

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An effigy of Sánchez was also beaten by protesters during a New Year’s Eve protest in the capital.

Although Manos Limpias admitted on Thursday that its complaint against Gómez could be based on incorrect media reports, the ultra-conservative, ultra-Catholic Hazte Oír (Make Yourself Heard) group lodged a new criminal complaint against her for alleged influence-peddling a day later.

Alberto Núñez Feijóo, leader of Spain’s opposition People’s party, has accused PM Pedro Sánchez of melodrama and playing the victim. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

The prime minister’s supporters insist that Sánchez’s letter is proof that he is not the machiavellian political machine his detractors would suggest; rather that he is simply a devoted husband at the end of his tether. Such suggestions have failed to impress the PP, which has accused Sánchez of melodrama and trying to play the victim.

“The prime minister of Spain can’t throw a teenage fit so that people line up to tell him not to be upset and to carry on,” the party’s leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, said on Thursday. “Being prime minister is more serious than that.”

Despite a well-deserved reputation as a gambler and a very shrewd political operator – and despite the contortions that have kept him in the Moncloa palace – Sánchez claims he is not the power-mad leader his enemies would have people believe.

“For all the caricatures the right and the far right have tried to force on me, I’ve never been attached to power,” he wrote towards the end of Wednesday’s letter. “What I am attached to is duty, political commitment and public service.”

Thousands of people gathered outside the socialists’ Madrid offices on Saturday to show their support for Sánchez. Some carried party flags, others placards reading, “Stay!” and “Yes, Sánchez, carry on!”. Inside, the party’s federal committee assembled and called on the prime minister to continue in office.

If Monday’s decision remains a mystery – will Sánchez go? Will he submit to a confidence vote? Will Spain head to the polls in July to vote in its sixth general election in nine years? – the one certainty is Sánchez’s characteristic unpredictability.

After being defenestrated by his own party in 2016 for refusing to facilitate another corruption-mired PP government, Sánchez regained the leadership seven months later and the following year became the first Spanish party leader to successfully topple a government using a motion of no confidence.

Not for nothing did Sánchez call his 2019 memoir Manual de resistencia (Resistance Manual).

The question now is whether resistance in a divided Spain and amid an increasingly poisonous political atmosphere is futile – or still worthwhile.

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