Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez considers resigning amid investigation into wife

A wave of political unrest hit Spain on Thursday as Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez publicly considered resigning from his post after a judge agreed to investigate his wife over allegations that he and other officials denounced as a campaign politically driven defamation.

The judge's decision to take over the case – which was brought by a self-styled anti-corruption group based on online news reports of alleged influence peddling – prompted Mr Sánchez supporters will unite behind him and prosecutors will move quickly Thursday to try to get the case dismissed.

Mr. Sánchez, whose political survival skills have amazed both his supporters and detractors for years, wrote in a public letter on Wednesday that the allegations against his wife, Begoña Gómez, were false and amounted to harassment. One of Europe's most prominent left-wing leaders, Sánchez has canceled his public schedule as he ponders his next move. On Monday he plans to address the nation.

As Sánchez hunkered down with his family and resisted pleas from his allies to hit the campaign trail ahead of key elections in the Catalonia region and for the European Parliament, supporters talked of mobilizing demonstrations to persuade him to stay.

And a broad group of Spaniards, from the political elite to the street-level citizens, expressed dismay at the unusual retreat of a prime minister who had only recently regained his seat in last summer's elections, and at the strange state of things of the country.

“It's a disaster,” said Pablo Simón, a political scientist at the Carlos III University of Madrid, who said he was struck by the deeply personal tone of Mr. Sánchez's letter. He added that the investigation into Mr. Sánchez's wife of 18 years apparently triggered an emotional reaction because, politically speaking, “there were no clear incentives for this move; It's very risky.”

“He did something unprecedented in a democracy,” Simón added, suggesting that the prime minister was betting that the public would find the investigation against his wife so scandalous that it would prompt a national reckoning. Sánchez called for a “social vote of confidence,” he said, in which he calls on the public, the media and even the establishment opposition to take a stand and decide: “Do you consider this acceptable?”

The trigger for the sudden crisis was a Spanish judge's decision to uphold a complaint from Mani Pulite, a group known for bringing court cases against politicians and other prominent Spaniards.

The group filed a complaint accusing Ms. Gómez of influence peddling and corruption, citing as potential evidence online news reports that it acknowledged may contain false information. The judge ordered a preliminary investigation based on such online media reports.

Two of the articles allege that in 2020, Ms. Gómez signed two letters of recommendation to support a tender for a public contract by a group of companies with which she has personal and professional ties. The articles claim that the group's main shareholder designed the master's program that Ms. Gómez taught at the Complutense University of Madrid, and that companies backed by Ms. Gómez competed with 20 competitors and won three contracts worth over 10 million euros, or approximately $10.7 million.

Mani Pulite's complaint also cited an article in the online media outlet El Confidencial that said Ms. Gómez had met with representatives of Air Europa, a Spanish airline, in 2020 to sign a confidential agreement in which the airline would pay 40,000 euros to year ($43,000) at the Africa Center which he directed at a private university. Months later, the airline received more than 400 million euros in bailout funds during the pandemic.

In a statement, the Africa Center denied having “ever received financial contributions” from Air Europa's parent company or affiliates. The Center is said to have signed during Gómez's tenure in 2020 a sponsorship deal with the airline's parent company that included four plane tickets to a work event in London, which “never executed” due to the pandemic . It is claimed that Ms Gómez's 2018 contract expressly prevented the Center from benefiting from her “family position”.

The Spanish press has widely reported that one of the pieces of news cited by Mani Pulite has already proven to be incorrect. The online newspaper The Objective accused the government of covering up information that a grant had been awarded to the prime minister's wife, but it turns out that the recipient of the subsidy she was a restaurant entrepreneur who shares the same name as Ms. Gómez.

The judge called two journalists to testify about their reporting. Ms. Gómez, Mr. Sánchez's wife, was not summoned and did not comment on the complaint.

The government, however, called Mani Pulite's complaint unfounded, arguing that Gómez did nothing irregular or improper and that newspaper headlines linking the prime minister to corruption fueled the opposition that had first thrown the mud.

Spain's independent prosecutor's office on Thursday filed what it called a “direct appeal” to Madrid's provincial court to dismiss the preliminary investigation.

Miguel Bernad, leader of Mani Pulite, acknowledged that the complaint could be based on false information.

“It will now be up to the judge to verify whether such journalistic information is true or not,” he wrote in a note.

Mr. Sánchez wrote in his public letter that the allegations against his wife, who played a key role in his political rise, were not true.

“We have denied the falsehoods expressed, while Begoña has taken legal action to have these same digital companies rectify what we believe is false information,” he wrote, adding that it was “an overland harassment and demolition operation, by sea and air to try to weaken me politically and personally by attacking my wife.”

In Spain, individual citizens of groups like Mani Pulite can file legal complaints even when they are not personally involved and have not suffered harm. The group's website describes its main purpose as filing “all types of complaints against political or economic corruption that harms the public or general interest.”

Spain's national court in 2021 found the group guilty of using smear campaigns to extort banks and companies. Spain's Supreme Court overturned the decision because it said no crime had been committed, but called the group's methods “reprehensible”.

Deputy Prime Minister Yolanda Díaz, leader of the left-wing Sumar coalition, echoed complaints of a smear campaign on Wednesday and She said that right-wing forces “could not be allowed to win.”

But Spain's main opposition conservative party, still smarting from its failure to form a government despite receiving more votes than Sánchez, who bypassed him by building a broader coalition, seized the opportunity to square off against a political enemy.

Accusing Sánchez of engaging in victimization for political gain, the center-right Popular Party insisted that the prime minister tell all “about the scandals surrounding his party, his government and his partner.”

If Mr. Sánchez resigns, several procedures are likely, experts say.

His government would take on an interim status until parliament agreed on a new candidate to try to put together a governing coalition. Mr. Sánchez could also ask Parliament to decide whether to stay with a vote of confidence that requires only a simple majority.

Sánchez could also call another snap election, as he did after his party suffered a major blow in last year's regional elections.

At the time, he managed to gather enough support to block the center-right People's Party and the far-right Vox party from forming a government. He then cobbled together a parliamentary majority among the other fractious and often opposing parties.

But calling early elections would carry risks, especially as the latest polls show his Socialist Party trailing behind the People's Party.

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