Spain’s Socialist leader quits and opens door to end nation’s deadlock

For months, Pedro Sanchez had been resisting overtures by acting conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to enter a coalition or let his minority government rule, as Spain was knee deep in political paralysis following two inconclusive elections

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 October, 2016, 3:04pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 October, 2016, 9:50pm

Spain’s Socialist chief Pedro Sanchez has quit after high-ranking party members staged a rebellion against him, in a move that could pave the way to unblocking the country’s political paralysis.

Weakened by dismal results in general and regional elections, the Socialist party (PSOE) is deeply divided between those who want to let a minority government led by acting conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy govern, and others like Sanchez who categorically refuse.

But Sanchez lost a vote on the contentious issue at the end of a long, tense gathering of more than 250 members of the party’s federal committee - its de-facto parliament - at the Madrid headquarters, outside which supporters slammed his critics as “fascists” and “traitors.”

“I have announced... the resignation of the federal executive committee and also my resignation as secretary general,” he told reporters Saturday, before leaving the headquarters in a car surrounded by photographers and cameramen.

The party will now be run by an interim executive, which may direct its lawmakers to abstain in a parliamentary vote of confidence on a Rajoy-led government, instead of voting against it as they did last month under Sanchez’s guidance, prompting its failure.

This could unblock the political paralysis in Spain, which has been without a fully-functioning executive for more than nine months as rivals have failed to agree on a government following two elections in which none of the main parties won an absolute majority.

Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP) won both elections but without enough seats to rule alone, and it needs other groupings to either vote for its minority government or abstain.

With their 85 seats, the Socialists were key, but Sanchez opposed another Rajoy term, pointing to repeated corruption scandals hitting the PP and gaping social inequality sparked by years of austerity.

Sanchez’s resignation came after 17 of his 35-strong executive quit together on Wednesday in a bid to force him out.

But the man who was the first Socialist party chief to be elected by grassroots members in 2014 refused to go, leaving the PSOE in turmoil as supporters and critics clashed under the media glare.

This open warfare was just the culmination of months of internal dissent as the 137-year-old party took drubbings in general elections and regional polls last weekend.

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The tension spilled onto the streets Saturday as Sanchez supporters gathered outside the headquarters.

“No means no, no means no,” they shouted, using what has become a famous sentence used by Sanchez when he turned down Rajoy’s repeated offers to form a coalition.

His opponents however remained steadfast, arguing Sanchez needed to quit and an interim executive imposed immediately in a bid to end the political paralysis as time is running out.

Spain’s parliament has until October 31 to produce a government or new elections will be called in December - the third in a year.

In the end, with 133 votes against and 107 for, the committee knocked down Sanchez’s suggestion to call primaries to elect a new leadership - a move that would have made it near impossible to unblock the situation before the deadline.

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News of Sanchez’s demise sparked quick reactions.

“Those in the PSOE who want to give the government to the PP have won,” tweeted Pablo Iglesias, the head of far-left upstart Podemos with whom Sanchez has had a fraught relationship.

All eyes will now be on what the interim executive announces, and whether Rajoy decides to submit his minority government to another vote of confidence.

But whatever the outcome, analysts and party members say the damage to the PSOE may be long-lasting.

“The party is broken,” said Jose Antonio Perez Tapias, part of the federal committee.