Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has been prematurely counted out more than once in his relatively short but action-packed political career.
Battered and bruised after seeing his Socialists take a drubbing in local and regional elections in May, Sánchez took no time to lick his wounds. The very next day he stunned his buoyant rivals by bringing forward general elections from December to this Sunday, smack in the middle of the sweltering Spanish summer.
Translated from politics to street talk that was the equivalent of saying: Let’s settle this, once and for all.
Most polling points to the conservative Popular Party led by Alberto Núñez Feijóo getting the most votes and being in a position to form a coalition government with the far-right Vox party. If that comes about, Spain would follow a European drift to the right and put into question the two main pillars of Sánchez’s leftist government - the green energy revolution backed by the European Union and an ambitious women’s rights and LGBTQ agenda.
Núñez Feijóo and other critics often call Sánchez untrustworthy and willing to do anything to stay in power, but nobody accuses him of flinching when it comes to a fight.
A Madrid native, former basketball player and economics professor, Sánchez, 51, has proven he can pull off the unexpected. After mounting a grassroots insurgency to return to power as the Socialist Party’s general secretary in 2017, one year later he led Spain’s first successful no-confidence motion to overthrow his conservative predecessor and move into the prime minister’s office.
To stay in power, Sánchez had to enlist a far-left anti-establishment party in 2019 for the country’s first coalition in nearly half a century of democratic rule. Now he will have to pull off another win against the odds.
Neither a moving speaker nor a great debater, many consider him out of touch.
“(Sánchez’s) biggest talent is his sense of opportunity. The perplexing thing is how little he is able to capitalize on it (among voters),” political analyst Josep Ramoneda, a longtime observer of Spain’s Left, told The Associated Press.
“Why can’t he win the people’s trust? There are many factors, but it is true that he has a somewhat elitist tone of voice. He is, if you will permit me, too handsome to be prime minister. When he walks he has this swagger," Ramoneda said.
“And then there is something else: He is unable to transmit the same authority that long-standing prime ministers have commanded," the analyst said.
Sánchez, however, has consistently shown strength in forming policy, negotiating deals and making the tough call.
He has been a hyperactive legislator despite leading a minority coalition government.
One of his early acts as prime minister was the highly symbolic removal of the body of dictator Francisco Franco from a public mausoleum. Sánchez established his feminist credentials by always having more women than men in his Cabinet and with women deputy prime ministers in charge of the economy, environment and energy, and employment.
Fluent in English, Sánchez increased Spain’s profile in Brussels, where he is a firm EU backer and ally of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, despite her belonging to Europe's conservatives.
He responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe, an aggressive aid package to help people keep their jobs, and a campaign that made Spain a world leader in vaccination rates.
On the economic front, he passed expansive budgets and major labour and pension overhauls, and he persuaded Brussels to let Spain and Portugal bend EU rules to curtail energy prices and curb inflation. He lobbied for Spain to secure 140 billion euros in direct transfers and loans from the EU pandemic recovery funds, putting much of that money into clean energy sources. Spain’s economy is growing and creating jobs despite turbulence from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The seeds of his current troubles were planted when Sánchez won back-to-back elections in 2019 but still needed to form a governing coalition with the far-left Unidas Podemos (United We Can) party. During that campaign, he had said he “would not sleep well” if he had United We Can members in important Cabinet posts. Four years later, a sexual consent law championed by his equality minister, a Podemos politician, inadvertently reduced prison terms for hundreds of sexual offenders in the biggest misstep by his government.
What his supporters see as one of Sánchez’s biggest successes has also been used against him. Having inherited restive Catalonia in the aftermath of its failed 2017 secession attempt, Sánchez reduced tensions thereby opening talks with the separatists and pardoning nine of their imprisoned leaders. He later revised laws on sedition and misuse of public funds in a clear bone thrown to separatists facing legal troubles.
The Popular Party and many swing voters say Sánchez appeased the separatists in Catalonia and the Basque Country to win their backing in Parliament.
Sánchez’s chances depend on a strong turnout for his Socialists, who have surged in Catalonia while falling elsewhere, the revamped far-left coalition Sumar (Joining Forces) and a handful of smaller parties.
He has escaped some very tight squeezes. As prime minister, he has survived two no-confidence motions and a cliffhanger vote on a critical labour bill.
Nothing, however, tops his resurgence from being pushed out as the Socialist Party general secretary in 2016. Sánchez launched what many viewed as a Quixotic road trip to drum up support across Spain from rank-and-file party members. It worked, and he won an internal party primary to return to power.
Asked repeatedly in the current campaign what he will do if he is ousted from the Moncloa Palace, Sánchez has had the same answer: “I am going to win this election. I am convinced that I am going to win.”