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Spain’s Sánchez is still fighting for political survival — even after peace offering

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MADRID — Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has made a peace offering in a government spying scandal that has engulfed his administration, firing his intelligence chief. 

Don’t expect it to end the political war. 

Spain has been grappling with a series of allegations in recent weeks that the state targeted scores of pro-independence Catalan leaders using the controversial Pegasus spyware. Paz Esteban, head of the government’s National Intelligence Center (CNI), partially confirmed the claims last week during testimony before parliament. 

Notably, one of the targets was the Catalan region’s current president, Pere Aragonès, who helms a party, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), that Sánchez relies on for parliamentary support. Predictably, Aragonès was enraged. Unidas Podemos (UP), the junior partner in Sánchez’s leftist coalition, was similarly irate. Both called for Defense Minister Margarita Robles to also resign. 

Amid these disclosures, the Spanish government said Sánchez himself had been hacked with the Pegasus spyware. Several of his top ministers were similarly targeted, the government added, citing its own intelligence. The targeting took place during a diplomatic dispute with Morocco, encouraging speculation that Spain’s North African neighbor was responsible, although the theory has not been confirmed. 

Catalan regional president Pere Aragonès | Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images

So on Tuesday, the government announced it was replacing Esteban. Robles said the move was “necessary to reinforce the CNI and take a step forward, modernize it.” Sánchez said a change was needed after “an error in government communications security.”

Realistically, though, the personnel decision was also an olive branch to Sánchez’s political partners. The Spanish leader is grappling with the rise of both a conservative and far-right party, with recent polls showing they could perhaps unite to form a narrow majority if a general election were held now, potentially unseating Sánchez’s multi-party alliance.

The intelligence chief’s removal “was the most obvious peace gesture that the prime minister could offer ERC and … Unidas Podemos,” noted the daily newspaper El País in an editorial.

The gesture, however, has left the Catalan government unimpressed — at least in public.

Aragonès told the regional parliament that “nobody can claim that the crisis has been calmed or resolved” with the replacement of Esteban, insisting there has still not been a full explanation for the spying or guarantees it will not happen again.

While there is genuine anger within the independence movement at Sánchez’s handling of the affair, the Catalan leader’s true stance is believed to be somewhat softer.

“ERC needs to convey to its electoral base the idea that it’s having a real influence in Madrid and is not just a wallflower there,” said Francesc-Marc Álvaro, an author and columnist at La Vanguardia newspaper. 

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Aragonès’s tough talk is also aimed at hardline nationalists who may be skeptical about his gradualist approach to Catalan sovereignty, Álvaro added, “so that the more radical supporters of independence don’t accuse [ERC] of being traitors.”

One person close to Aragonès said that despite the outrage, “there is still room for maneuver” for the Spanish government to repair relations.

Robles, the defense minister, hinted that the government could move further to quell nationalist anger, suggesting that intelligence files detailing the surveillance of the targeted Catalans may be declassified, although only with judicial authorization.

However, for staunch unionists on the political right, Sánchez’s government, which also relies on the support of pro-independence Basque parties, has already gone too far in appeasing nationalists. The ABC newspaper described the removal of the intelligence chief as “a coup d’ètat” that amounted to “another triumph for the separatists.”

“The opposition’s point of view is: In order to stay in power [Sánchez has] sacrificed a key institution,” said Fernando Vallespín, a political scientist at Madrid’s Autónoma University. “They think that he has put his own survival ahead of the reputation of state institutions.”

Another concern for Sánchez during this scandal has been his coalition partner UP. His Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) has had a turbulent relationship with the party in recent months, clashing on everything from the response to the invasion of Ukraine to anti-prostitution legislation.

UP cautiously welcomed the news of Esteban’s removal, while warning against celebrating “a false closure” of the crisis. 

The party has long campaigned for a clearing out of the so-called “state sewers,” which it views as a deep-state apparatus established during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in the mid-20th century that has survived into the democratic era. 

While the recent revelations of surveillance of politicians did not affect UP members, the party has claimed to be the victim of such tactics in the past and it closed ranks with the Catalan nationalists over this affair.

“I think the drama will continue, but that there won’t be a split,” said Vallespín, referring to the coalition government and its fragile parliamentary majority.

The incentive to stay together, he said, lies in a collective desire to not cede power to the political right, which is enjoying a rise in the polls. 

The conservative Popular Party (PP) is enjoying something of a resurgence under new leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo, and polls suggest the PP could form a narrow majority with the far-right Vox in a hypothetical general election.

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (L) and president of the right-wing Popular Party (PP) Alberto Núñez Feijóo | Oscar Del Pozo Canas/AFP via Getty Images

“It’s not in the interests of any of the [government allies] to leave Sánchez exposed,” Vallespín said. “If they broke off with him, which would trigger elections, the alternative could be that the right would take power, which looks quite possible right now.”

One person close to the UP leadership confirmed that view.

“The issue for us is not whether the defense minister resigns or the head of the CNI resigns,” the person said. “The issue is making sure that we see out the legislature so that we can approve as many laws as possible and have a strong political record going into the next elections so we can beat the right.”

If Sánchez, the prime minister of the first coalition government of Spain’s modern era, does last the full legislative session, which is due to end in late 2023, he may well have the right to thank.

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