Spain’s Leader, Pedro Sánchez, Says He Won’t Quit Over Wife’s Corruption Case

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of Spain declared on Monday that he would not resign, nearly a week after publicly raising the possibility in response to corruption accusations against his wife that he and other officials denounced as a smear campaign.

The decision by Mr. Sánchez, who has repeatedly astonished his supporters and frustrated his conservative critics with his knack for political survival, is a momentous one for him, his country and all of Europe.

Mr. Sánchez inspired anxiety, bewilderment and right-wing hopes last week when he responded to the opening of a judicial investigation into his wife by canceling his public schedule and issuing an emotional public letter. He wrote that harassment against his family had become intolerable and that he was considering quitting.

But on Monday, he walked back from the precipice after days of apparent reflection out of the public eye. Spain’s public prosecutor’s office had already sought to have the complaint against his wife dismissed for lack of evidence.

“I’ve decided to continue with more strength,” Mr. Sánchez said in a defiant and highly anticipated speech on the steps of Moncloa Palace, the prime minister’s residence.

The trigger for the sudden and short-lived crisis was the decision by a Spanish judge to entertain a complaint from Clean Hands, a group known for filing cases in court against politicians and other prominent Spaniards.

The group filed a complaint accusing Mr. Sánchez’s wife, Begoña Gómez, of influence peddling and corruption — citing as potential evidence online news reports that it has acknowledged could contain false information. The judge ordered a preliminary investigation based on those online media reports, which claimed that Ms. Gómez had abused her position to help associates win public contracts. The government has denied any impropriety on the part of Ms. Gómez and called the complaint groundless.

Mr. Sánchez cast his deliberative period as proof of his humanity — “I have shown a feeling that is not usually admissible in politics” — and of the strength of his marriage.

Framing the accusations against his wife as part of what he called a “politics of shame,” he implored “Spanish society to be an example again.”

“Let’s show the world how democracy is defended,” he added.

His decision to stay on left unresolved lingering questions in Spain over whether Mr. Sánchez’s period of reflection was in earnest or had been a political play to garner support and sympathy.

For now, Mr. Sánchez will remain as one of the most reliably progressive voices from the European stage at a time of rising populism and nationalism.

Spain’s conservative and right-wing opposition, which cast Mr. Sánchez as a sort of sulking Achilles of Spain, had for days dismissed his self-described reflective period as an obvious political gambit and said his decision to remain as prime minister came as no surprise.

“He has missed a great opportunity to go,” said Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the leader of the center-right Popular Party.

Santiago Abascal, the leader of the far-right Vox party, suggested that Mr. Sánchez’s deliberations were a smoke-and-mirrors routine intended to hide “his lies.”

Even some of Mr. Sánchez’s allies seemed less than thrilled, lamenting the melodrama. And Vicente Guilarte, the president of the General Council of the Judiciary — noting the anxiety and less than “conducive climate” of the recent days — called for calm.

Mr. Sánchez, young, tall and photogenic, unexpectedly took power in June 2018 after he called for a no-confidence vote that brought down the conservative government amid a slush-fund scandal in the Popular Party.

He then formed a government with the support of the leftist Unidas Podemos and regional separatist parties, which harbor hopes of breaking away from Madrid. He immediately became a source of hope for liberals desperate for an international standard-bearer during a season of populist and hard-right victories across the continent.

Under his tenure, Spain has passed progressive legislation and its economy has improved. But by last year, he had become increasingly unpopular at home, with a reputation for reversals and political machinations. He then called a snap election.

His conservative opponents seemed a shoo-in. But the move turned out to be a masterstroke. Despite winning fewer votes than the Popular Party, Mr. Sánchez had called the elections early enough to staunch the bleeding of supporters and prevented his center-right rivals and the far-right party Vox from winning a large enough margin to form a government. Instead, he cobbled together a governing coalition out of almost all the remaining political forces, including smaller and in some cases opposing parties.

In recent weeks he had overcome other domestic hurdles, including the passing of a highly disputed amnesty law that pleased, and kept in the fold, coalition partners who supported independence in the northern region of Catalonia. Mr. Sánchez, if anything, seemed to be settling in for his second term.

But then, after months of largely ignored news reports claiming that his wife and her associates benefited from her relationship with the prime minister, a self-described anti-graft group with a record of pursuing long-shot cases filed a complaint based on several of those critical articles to a Spanish judge.

Two of the articles claimed that Ms. Gómez signed two letters of recommendation in 2020 to support a bid for a public contract by a group of companies to which she has personal and professional ties. The articles claimed that the main stakeholder of the group designed the master’s program that Ms. Gómez ran at Complutense University of Madrid and that the companies she supported competed with 20 rivals and won three contracts worth more than 10 million euros, or about $10.7 million.

On Wednesday, the judge agreed to investigate, Mr. Sánchez issued his emotional response, and the landscape of Spanish politics began to shake.

Clean Hands, the group whose complaint prompted the crisis, has said it would keep pressing.

“We are going to add new data this week to the complaint,” Miguel Bernad, the leader of the group, said on Sunday.

Mr. Bernad, who has himself become the subject of fierce debate in Spain over whether he is a knowing tool of the far-right wing or simply seeking to hold his government accountable, said his group had carried out an “exhaustive investigation.”

But he had also acknowledged in a previous statement that the judge might find that some of the supposed evidence his group had cited in its complaint — which was based “only on” articles critical of Mr. Sánchez — was “not true.”

Mr. Bernad cast himself and Clean Hands as the targets of a politically motivated pressure campaign, saying that “the media incriminates and throws stones at the messenger.”

On Monday, speculation persisted in Spain as to whether Mr. Sánchez had searched the depths of his soul or simply seized on the case against his wife to manufacture a crisis and create more political leverage.

But according to Daniel Innerarity, a prominent scholar of democracy, Mr. Sánchez had been stewing for some time.

He said he visited Mr. Sánchez on March 18 at the Moncloa Palace for a conversation about the challenges of democracy, artificial intelligence and politics. Seated amid Joan Miró paintings, he recalled, Mr. Sánchez seemed “despondent” and spent the first 30 minutes of their meeting venting about what he called groundless accusations against his wife in some news outlets and the personal suffering he said it was causing.

And so while Mr. Sánchez’s announcement that he was mulling resignation stunned many in Spain, Mr. Innerarity described it as potentially a long time coming.

“This was something he had been thinking about a long time,” Mr. Innerarity said. “It wasn’t improvised.”

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