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Here's why Spain's prime minister Pedro Sánchez is considering stepping down

Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez poses for a portrait after an interview with The Associated Press at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Spain, June 27, 2022.
Bernat Armangue
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez poses for a portrait after an interview with The Associated Press at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Spain, June 27, 2022.

BARCELONA, Spain — Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez left Spain in suspense after announcing he may step down because of what he called an "unprecedented" smear campaign against his wife.

Sánchez, who has been in office since 2018, stunned the nation Wednesday by announcing that he was canceling all official events until next week, when he will unveil his future plans. The announcement came hours after a Madrid provincial judge agreed to study allegations of corruption brought by a right-wing group against Sánchez's wife, Begoña Gómez.

Here's what you need to know about the potential political crisis in the eurozone's fourth leading economy and how it could play out:

What's next

The big question is what will the 52-year-old Sánchez — one of Europe's longest serving Socialist leaders — decide to do come Monday. His likely options are:

— Resignation: If Sánchez resigns then it will fall to Spain's King Felipe VI to consult with the leaders of the parties in the parliament's lower house to see if any politician can cobble together the support necessary to form a new government. Sánchez's party could feasibly remain in office but none of his colleagues has his charisma and respect.

— Vote of confidence: Sánchez could decide to face a vote of confidence by the lower house, which he could win with a simple majority based on the support he already enjoys. This could be a strategic move ahead of important regional elections in Spain's Catalonia region in May as well as those in Europe in June.

— Early elections: Sánchez could announce early elections, but the parliament could not be dissolved before May 29 to comply with a constitutional mandate that one year must pass between the dissolution of parliament by the prime minister.

All three options would likely put major legislative projects on hold, including a controversial plan to recognize the state of Palestine, reaching a deal with Britain on Gibraltar's status following Brexit, and a bill to give an amnesty to Catalan separatists that made an illegal secession push in 2017.

The letter

Sánchez's four-page letter stated that he needed time to reflect on his future. It was the first time a prime minister has ever done this in Spain.

The letter surprised many political observers for its intimate, emotional content for a leader who oozes cool confidence and, in European style, keeps his wife and two daughters out of the spotlight.

"This attack is without precedent, it is so serious and coarse that I need to stop and reflect with my wife," he said. "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."

Sánchez was able to form a new left-wing coalition government in November to start another four-year term with the support of myriad small and regional parties from around Spain. He has been hounded and vilified by right-wing opponents and much of the media before and since last July's elections. The leading opposition Popular Party, which won the most seats in the elections, attacks him for doing deals with separatist parties purely to stay in office.

In the past, Spain's right-wing parties launched similar campaigns against previous Socialist party prime ministers such as Felipe González and José Luís Rodriguez Zapatero.

Spain's Prime Minister and Socialist Party leader Pedro Sanchez and and his wife Begona Gomez, left, celebrate general election results in Madrid, Spain, April 28, 2019.
Bernat Armangue / AP
Spain's Prime Minister and Socialist Party leader Pedro Sanchez and and his wife Begona Gomez, left, celebrate general election results in Madrid, Spain, April 28, 2019.

The probe

Hours before Sánchez dropped his bombshell-in-a-letter, a Spanish judge agreed to look into allegations of corruption against Gómez made by a private group with a history of filing lawsuits mainly for right-wing causes. The complaint is based on news reports. On Thursday, the Madrid regional prosecutor recommended it be thrown out.

The court based in Madrid will eventually either shelve the complaint or open full investigations with a view to trial. But it now has the authority to call people in for testimony, which could cause greater embarrassment for Gómez. Gómez has not been indicted.

The judge agreed to look into the allegations that Gómez allegedly used her position to influence business deals. The court did not provide further information and said that the probe was under seal.

Earlier this year, Spain's government watchdog for conflict of interests tossed out a complaint made by the Popular Party against Sánchez in which the opposition party claimed that Gómez had allegedly influenced her husband in a decision related to an airline.

Gómez, 49, does not hold public office and maintains a low political profile. She studied marketing and has been involved with fundraising projects and non-governmental organizations.

Clean Hands

The allegations against Gómez were made by a group called Manos Limpias, or "Clean Hands."

Manos Limpias takes advantage of a peculiarity of Spanish law called the "popular prosecution" that allows individuals or entities to take part in certain criminal cases even when they haven't been directly harmed by the accused.

Manos Limpias describes itself as a union, but its main activity is as a platform pursuing legal cases. Many have been linked to right-wing causes targeting leftist politicians, and most of them never prosper. But it did play a role in a major legal case that ended in the conviction of the son-in-law of Spain's former King Juan Carlos and led to his daughter Princess Cristina being dragged into court before she was absolved.

Manos Limpias' general secretary, Miguel Bernad, belonged to a far-right party in the 1980s and early 90s. Last month, Bernad won an appeal in Spain's Supreme Court after a lower court had found him guilty for allegedly being part of an extortion ring.

On Thursday, Manos Limpias issued a statement to Spanish state news agency EFE saying that its allegations against Gómez were entirely based on media reports.

It said: "If they are not true, it would be up to those who published them to admit to their falsehood, but if they are true, then we believe that the legal case should continue forward."

Sánchez style

While many politicians have come out in support of Sánchez, the Popular Party maintains his decision is one of political strategy to win time and try to gain support.

Oriol Bartomeus, a professor of political science at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, said the move by Sánchez fits his profile as a politician who has managed to stay in power thanks to pulling off the unexpected.

"This is pure Sánchez, this is his style of knocking the pieces off the board," Bartomeus told The Associated Press.

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The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]