Sanchez Threatens to Quit, Putting Spain on Election Course

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced that he may resign after a court in Spain opened an investigation into his wife, pushing the country into uncharted political territory and raising the possibility of a new general election.

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Sanchez, 52, canceled his public appearances through the weekend and said he’d reflect on the situation and announce his decision on Monday, effectively paralyzing Spain’s political system for the next five days. He blamed his problems on the attacks of his right-wing opponents.

“Is all this worth it?” he asked in an open letter posted on X. “Honestly, I don’t know.”

If Sanchez decides to step down, it would most likely trigger new elections. It’s possible for the prime minister to resign and hand over power, but this would require the support of a majority of lawmakers, which would be highly unlikely in Spain’s politically fragmented parliament.

Sanchez could also trigger a vote of confidence as a potential means to shore up his mandate in parliament, according to Federico Santi, a senior analyst at Eurasia Group.

On Wednesday, a Spanish court announced it was opening an inquiry into Sanchez’s wife, Begona Gomez, for alleged influence peddling following a complaint by Manos Limpias, or Clean Hands, a small public workers’ union best known for going to court against left-wing politicians and policies. Its leader has ties to the far right.

Manos Limpias says that Gomez received favors from Air Europa when she worked at the Instituto Empresa business school. The airline was later bailed out by Sanchez’s government.

The prime minister says the accusations are a politically motivated smear campaign orchestrated by the far right.

Sanchez’s announcement adds to the political uncertainty surrounding his government and to the policy paralysis that has stymied it since mid-2023, when the premier called snap elections after his party suffered a scathing defeat in local and regional ballots. The premier’s minority coalition is Spain’s weakest government in about 90 years.

Catalan Ballot

The country is already set for a high-stakes election on May 12 in Catalonia, the second-largest region, where Sanchez’s Socialists are trying to notch a win against separatist parties. Earlier this month, an election in the wealthy Basque region saw two nationalist parties take about 70% of the combined vote.

Sanchez is “trying to make himself the victim, alleging a collusion between the opposition and the media,” opposition leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo said in a radio interview Wednesday. Feijoo added that Sanchez is trying to mobilize support for his party ahead of the Catalonia elections and subsequent European elections in June.

Sanchez has built a career on unexpected comebacks and surprise decisions, many of which he doesn’t even share with his closest collaborators.

“This attack is unprecedented and so grave and crass that I need to stop and think with my wife,” Sanchez wrote in his letter. “Many times, we forget that politicians are people. And I can say without shame that I’m a man deeply in love with my wife who watches helplessly the mud that is thrown on her day after day.”

Sanchez framed the court proceedings against his wife as part of a broader strategy of “harassment and destruction” against him by the far right.

Spain has a long-tradition of keeping the private lives of its leaders’ families out of the public spotlight.

The letter comes against the backdrop of political discourse that has become increasingly aggressive over the past nine years. In 2015, Sanchez sparked a massive controversy when he called Mariano Rajoy, a former prime minister, “indecent” in a debate, a word that would barely register in the current context — with politicians calling rivals liars, insulting each other and even using profanity in public.

The scandal has been widely covered for weeks by a group of news websites, most of them critical of the government. In his letter, Sanchez said that the judge will call as witnesses the heads of these websites which are “clearly right and far-right.”

Sanchez specifically accused Feijoo, who heads the conservative People’s Party, and Santiago Abascal, of the far-right party Vox, of being participating in the alleged harassment.

Feijoo’s PP has seized on the Gomez scandal to attack Sanchez, calling on the premier and his wife to provide formal explanations. To avoid a conflict of interest, the PP says Sanchez should have recused himself from a cabinet meeting in which the corporate rescue package was approved.

--With assistance from Joao Lima.

(Updates with reference to Manos Limpias leader in sixth paragraph.)

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