Following the inconclusive results of Spain’s snap general election of 23 July, three months of political intrigue ensued. The pyrrhic victor, the People Party’s Alberto Núñez Feijóo, predictably failed to assemble a viable majority together with his traditionalist allies of Vox and smaller regionalist parties from Navarre and the Canaries. A poor end to their campaign saw them fall five seats short of an overall majority that most polls had predicted. Once again, calls for a grand coalition between Spain’s centre-left and centre-right fell on the deafest of Spain’s polarised political ears. This paved the way for the runner-up, the incumbent Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, of the PSOE, to write yet another page in his Manual de Resistencia (Handbook of Resistance, the title of his biography). This was his closest escape from political oblivion to date: last week, having secured the support of every secessionist party under the Spanish sun, Sánchez was sworn Prime Minister for a second time.
The past few weeks have seen an extraordinary display of opposition against the renewal of Sánchez’s mandate, culminating with civil society-led demonstrations attracting hundreds of thousands across Spain over the weekend. Waving EU and Spanish flags, demonstrators sought to attract Europe’s attention to the constitutional trainwreck performed by Sánchez to secure this unlikely comeback to office. Previously, every single judicial association (from left to right in the political spectrum), the professional bodies of Spain’s lawyers and attorneys, and close to every Professor of Constitutional Law in Spain had written letters to the European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, warning him of the democratic backsliding performed by Spain’s executive. It is no hyperbole to say that Sánchez’s manoeuvring signalled the death of separation of powers, and an attack on the country’s judiciary worthy of the authoritarian impulses of Victor Orbán, Mateusz Morawiecki or Donald Trump.
As part of his deal with political outlaw Carles Puigdemont (who fled Spanish justice in 2017), Sánchez agreed to pass an Amnesty Law that, only weeks earlier, he and his ministers had rejected as both illegal and unconstitutional. In a chilling turn for democratic standards, he also agreed to investigate judges in “parliamentary commissions” as part of a so-called “lawfare” conspiracy against certain politicians. This set the country’s executive, legislative and judicial powers on a full-speed collision course. The Amnesty Law includes crimes such as embezzlement, misuse of public funds, terrorism, and even collaboration with Russian meddling in European affairs. In short, in exchange for parliamentary support, Sánchez’s acting government agreed to perform profound constitutional change for the purpose of securing its own survival, successfully derailing the attempts of the election’s winner to form a viable majority.
Not one to leave anything to chance, Sánchez had carefully prepared the ground for this possible scenario. During his first term in office, Sánchez had named his own Justice Secretary, Dolores Delgado, as Spain’s Attorney General – an unprecedented move that set off all the alarms in Brussels. Her subsequent promotion to the highest office of the Judicature has only just been revoked by Spain’s Supreme Court on the grounds of unequivocal abuse of powers. Given the unconstitutional nature of the Amnesty Law, denounced by every credible expert in Spain, Sánchez named a known political supporter, Cándido Conde Pumpido, as president of Spain’s Constitutional Tribunal, hence colonising another crucial institution for Spain’s Rule of Law. Conde Pumpido is a known supporter of the Amnesty Law, and is even thought to have been party to drafting it.
The European Union
When similar (albeit arguably not as serious or blatant) attempts to undermine separation of powers and the Rule of Law were performed by the authoritarian governments of PiS in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary, the European institutions rightly intervened, however ineffectively, to uphold the democratic standards of those member states. In the case of Spain, however, the European Union is faced with a far messier task if it is to prove that the same standards apply to the “Big Five”: this would entail an intervention against the sitting Prime Minister of one of the Eurozone’s major economies, a key player in NATO’s support for Ukraine, the cornerstone of Europe’s strategic relationships with Latin America and, to make matters worse, the current President of the Council of the European Union and Social Democracy’s only surviving poster boy.
Meanwhile, many Spaniards have reacted with a mixture of anger and disbelief. The Amnesty Law is just one of many unpalatable surprises for those (amongst them former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González) who believe in the Republican principle of equality before the law and in the Socialist standard of redistribution of wealth and opportunity. The political agreement sealed by Sánchez not only reinforces the all-reaching, suffocating political might of secessionist parties in Catalan regional politics (despite these parties falling short of 30% of the vote share in the region, and close to 16% of those eligible to vote) but also writes off a staggering 15 billion of the regional government’s external debt.
The pact, benefitting one of Spain’s wealthiest regions, will inevitably see poorer territories fare badly in comparison: for instance, whilst the Catalan administration will be granted funding control of critical train infrastructures, poorer regions like Extremadura or Asturias, traditionally ruled by the Socialists themselves, remain isolated from the country’s transport network whilst having to contribute to fund the pardoning of debts incurred by their wealthier neighbours, often in the course of implementing (now also written off) corrupt policies of embezzlement, misuse of funds, and illegal commissions on public works. These ugly optics have contributed to a rarely seen sense of grievance throughout the country, and a political anger that is beginning to permeate every layer of the fabric of Spain’s society. Sánchez seems to have secured a further few months in office, but the crucial question remains: at what cost?
Carlos Conde Solares is Chair of Foro de Profesores and an Associate Professor of Spanish History at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle