‘Very atypical’: Why is Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez thinking about quitting?

Spaniards are waiting to learn if the Socialist leader will resign. Analysts say his announcement could be a political play.

Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and his wife Begona Gomez appear on a news channel in a bar, following his decision to suspend public duties after the court launched a preliminary investigation into his wife, in Bilbao, Spain, April 25, 2024. REUTERS/Vincent West
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and his wife Begona Gomez appear on a news channel in a bar, following his decision to suspend public duties after the court launched a preliminary investigation into his wife [Vincent West/Reuters]

Madrid, Spain – Spain is waiting with bated breath to discover if Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez will quit over a corruption scandal connected to his wife.

The nation was stunned when Sanchez announced on Wednesday that he would retire from public life for five days, while he considered if he would continue to lead the government.

“I urgently need an answer to the question of whether it is worthwhile … .to lead the government or renounce this honour,” he wrote in a letter shared on his account on X.

Sanchez will announce his decision on Monday.

He could either quit, continue in his post, or call for a parliamentary vote of confidence.

“Why should Sanchez resign over this? The courts should decide if he has done anything wrong, not the media,” Begona Tamarit, 52, a marketing executive from Madrid, told Al Jazeera.

“In this country who would replace Sanchez? He is the only adult in the room in a country filled with very mediocre politicians.”

However, Sergio Garcia, 39, a bartender in Barcelona, said Sanchez should go.

“He is the prime minister and should set an example. He must resign. No one is above the law in this country, least of all the prime minister,” he said.

As everyday people in Spain struggled to understand Sanchez’s surprise move, some commentators said it could be a clever way to gain the upper hand over the opposition conservatives or the far right and their allies in the media.

However, other analysts suggested Sanchez might be exhausted not just by the accusations against his wife, Begona Gomez, but by the pressures of leading a minority left-wing coalition which failed to pass this year’s budget and struggles to pass laws because it depends on a patchwork of small parties.

The crisis started when a Madrid court announced on Wednesday it was launching a preliminary investigation into allegations of influence peddling and corruption against Gomez, who has not commented.

Gomez, 49, a marketing graduate, has been married to Sanchez since 2006 and works in academia and marketing.

She stays out of the limelight but has supported her husband throughout his political career.

“We are a team, and as a team we row in the same direction,” she said during a television interview in 2016.

The allegations against her were made by Manos Limpias (Clean Hands), which describes itself as a union but mainly makes legal cases linked to right-wing causes.

Notably, it was involved in a 2017 episode which led to the conviction of King Felipe VI’s former brother-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin, for corruption.

In the bid against Gomez, Manos Limpias made a “popular prosecution”, a peculiarity of Spanish law that allows entities to take part in certain criminal cases even when they have not been directly linked to the accused.

El Confidencial, a respected online news site, reported that investigators were looking into Gomez’s links to several private companies which received government funding or won public contracts.

The site reported that the investigation was examining ties between Gomez, who does not hold public office and maintains a low profile, and Spanish tourism group Globalia, which owns Air Europa, a Spanish airline.

Gomez allegedly met Javier Hidalgo, Globalia’s CEO, when the carrier was in talks with the government to secure a bailout, after it was hit by the pandemic.

On Thursday, the state prosecutor asked the Madrid court to throw out the allegations against Gomez but did not say why.

The judge can either pursue the case or throw it out.

These are not the first allegations levelled at Gomez.

In 2022, right-wing media ran a fabricated story that she was transgender with links to drug trafficking. On New Year’s Eve, protesters outside the Socialist party headquarters in Madrid strung up an effigy of the prime minister and beat it with sticks.

‘Very atypical behaviour’

The Spanish leader accused Manos Limpias and parties on the right of launching a smear campaign against him and his wife, who he insisted was innocent.

“This attack is without precedent, it is so serious and coarse that I need to stop and reflect with my wife,” he wrote in a four-page letter published on X.

“Most of the time we forget that politicians are people. And I do not blush to say it, but I am a man who is deeply in love with my wife, who is living with the feeling of impotence while being pelted with mud.

“To summarise, this is an operation to harass me by land, sea, and air to try and make me give up politics through a personal attack on my wife.”

Astrid Barrio Lopez, a political scientist at the University of Valencia, does not think Sanchez will quit.

“This is very atypical behaviour and irresponsible because we are left without a leader for days. It is not good for the country’s stability,” she told Al Jazeera. “Sanchez’s letter seems like he is going to resign but for a politician like him to resign seems very strange. I think that what he wants to do is to strengthen his position.”

She added: “We know that he is a very pragmatic person and he is going to use this position to his own advantage. I think he wants to win the narrative against the forces on the right and paint himself as the victim.”

Nicknamed El Guapo (the Handsome One) for his looks, Sanchez is known for pulling off smart political moves which catch his opponents on the hop.

Last May, he called a snap election after the Socialists did badly in local elections.

In 2018, he came to power by calling the first successful vote of confidence since the return of democracy and unseated the conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy after a series of corruption scandals.

Sanchez published a book about this experience called Manual of Resistance in which he wrote: “It might sound presumptuous, but I realise that I grow in difficult situations.”

The crisis comes ahead of key regional elections in Catalonia on May 12 and European Parliament elections in June. A poll published by the Centre for Sociological Investigations on Thursday suggested his Socialists would win the most votes in Catalonia, possibly ending the rule of separatist parties.

While Socialist leaders rallied to support Sanchez, Alberto Nunez Feijoo, the head of the opposition People’s Party, said the prime minister could not “throw a teenager’s tantrum so that people beg him not to go and not to be upset”.

Alfonso Lopez Sanchez, a political commentator with RetiEspana lobbying group, said Sanchez’s decision could be motivated by exhaustion with the country’s fractious politics.

“Nobody knows right now what Sanchez wants to do. He did not consult the Socialist party or the king of Spain before making this announcement,” he said in an interview with Al Jazeera.

“Perhaps there is a certain tiredness, or he is fed up with what has happened to his wife which has driven him to make this unprecedented decision in a Western democracy.”

Lopez said he believed Sanchez may be frustrated by leading a minority coalition government, made up of the Socialists and the far-left Sumar party, which was not able to pass a budget.

The Socialist government also faced strong criticism for passing a controversial amnesty law for Catalan separatists who faced charges over the failed 2017 independence bid in return for their support to prop up his government.

Source: Al Jazeera