Spain's Socialists deepen rift with coalition partner over sexual consent law reform

MADRID (Reuters) -Spain's ruling Socialist party deepened a rift with junior coalition partner Unidas Podemos on Tuesday by seeking to close a loophole in a new sexual violence law that convicted rapists have used to reduce their sentences or win early release.

The "Only Yes Is Yes" law, which arose partly as a result of social outrage over the so-called Wolf Pack case, centred on consent and was meant to resolve cases where defendants were convicted of the lesser crime of sexual abuse because victims did not resist out of fear.

But because the new law carries a lower minimum sentence - the result of merging the crimes of sexual abuse and aggression - it has allowed some perpetrators convicted before it took effect to successfully seek reduced sentences or early release.

In one of the most significant splits of Spain's three-year-old coalition, the Socialists on Tuesday relied on support from opposition parties who called for the law to be reformed rather than those of their coalition partner.

They won the motion to advance the bill 231-56. Several centre-right parties, including the main opposition People's Party, backed the move, while left-leaning parties - which usually support the coalition's bills - voted against. Far-right Vox abstained.

Unidas Podemos controls the Equality Ministry that drafted the new law. It argues that changes would dilute the definition of consent and say the law has been misinterpreted by judges.

But the junior partner has failed in lengthy negotiations to convince the Socialists to compromise and will now vote against the reform motion.

Combating gender violence had been high on the leftist coalition's agenda since the "Wolf Pack" case, in which five men referring to themselves by that name were jailed for the lesser crime of sexual abuse in 2018 after gang-raping a young woman at the Pamplona bull-running festival in 2016.

But as a result of the new law Spanish judges have agreed to 721 sentence reductions while 74 offenders had been released from prison by March 1, according to the ruling body of judges.

The two parties are jockeying for position on gender issues ahead of an election this year and modifying the law is a way for the Socialists to undermine one of Unidas Podemos's flagship policies, said Silvia Claveria, political science professor at Madrid's Carlos III University.

"It's a way of saying that what you've done as a party you haven't done well and you have a partner who acts like an older brother and gets you out of trouble," Claveria said.

While neither party has signalled its intention to rupture the coalition, Unidas Podemos may leave to differentiate itself from the Socialists ahead of the election, Antonio Barroso, of risk advisory Teneo, wrote in a client note.

Any coalition break-up was unlikely to precipitate early polls, but could hamper the government's ability to pass laws such as pension reform or an affordable housing bill, he added.

The Socialists on Tuesday played down the rift, with the government saying it was a "technical discrepancy".

(Reporting by Charlie Devereux and David Latona; Additional reporting by Belen Carreño and Emma Pinedo; Editing by Aislinn Laing and Alex Richardson)