Three years ago Pedro Sánchez signed on as unemployed after he was ejected as Spain’s Socialist leader and quit as a member of parliament. What followed was a remarkable political comeback — returning to the leadership of his party and subsequently manoeuvring his way to national power.
“Things moved so fast that a book that was originally supposed to be about how he was thrown out of the party ended up as a book about how he became prime minister,” said Irene Lozano, who started collaborating with Mr Sánchez on memoirs intended to deal with his first short stint as party leader and is now one of his ministers.
Mr Sánchez is now counting on his characteristics of persistence, appetite for risk and capacity for reinvention to see him through Spain’s fourth general election in four years this Sunday.
But his critics say his decision to trigger the poll is a gamble too far, with the far-right poised to make big gains and little prospect that he can pull together a stable government even if his party comes first. According to most polls, the Socialists will win a lower proportion of the vote than the 29 per cent they obtained six months ago.
“We are in a labyrinth,” the 47-year old confessed this week as he contemplated the fragmented political landscape.
As the campaign has progressed Mr Sánchez has appeared under growing strain, admitting an error in having made comments that appeared to assert political authority over Spain’s judiciary. And while the far-right Vox party is poised to make big gains on Sunday, Mr Sánchez barely challenged Vox’s leader Santiago Abascal in the only leaders’ debate this week.
But having triumphed over his adversaries in the leadership primaries, taken power and seen off the radical left Podemos, which had previously threatened to overtake the Socialists, Mr Sánchez has an unquestioned grip over his party.
“He has extraordinary legitimacy within the party,” said Ms Lozano. “He took over the party at its worst moment and it is now the strongest Social Democrat party in Europe.”
Mr Sánchez has a more international profile than previous Spanish prime ministers. He speaks English and French and worked in New York, Brussels and Sarajevo in the 1990s. He came from almost nowhere to win the Socialist leadership in 2014 as the party tried to pull itself together after a devastating electoral defeat.
Ousted in 2016 after a dispute over whether to oppose the formation of a centre-right government at a time of political deadlock, Mr Sánchez toured the country in his car and regained the leadership after channelling activists’ fury at what many saw as a sellout to the right.
Last year he took power at the head of a minority government after securing the backing of far-left and separatist parties in a vote of confidence that ejected the then centre-right administration. But he has been unable to form a stable government despite increasing the Socialists’ ranks in the last election in April.
Since then Mr Sánchez has shifted ground from offering a coalition deal to Podemos in July — which the far-left grouping initially rejected — to declaring in September that such a government would keep him awake at night.
“I don’t think he is a person of strong ideological convictions,” said Lucía Méndez, a leading Spanish journalist who has known Mr Sánchez since 2012, when they taught at the same university. “But then you cannot have a very clear political project if you have to spend all day walking on a tightrope.”
According to most polls, the Socialists will still come first on Sunday while the main opposition People’s party will improve on its dire result in the last election and Ciudadanos — the closest Spain has to a liberal party — will suffer a collapse in its support.
Vox is set to be one of the big victors, benefiting from a backlash elsewhere in Spain to pro-independence protests in Catalonia. According to the polls, it could win between 12 and 15 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party in parliament.
Such an outcome could leave a governing majority beyond the reach of any coalition of left or right. It would also consign to oblivion what some Socialists insiders say what would have been Mr Sánchez’s preference — a government with Ciudadanos. In the previous parliament the two parties would have had a clear majority but Ciudadanos refused to negotiate a coalition.
Mr Sánchez made clear this week that his preference now is to form a minority government. But that might require the abstention of the PP in a formal parliament vote to install the new administration.
Ms Méndez says that such a scenario poses particular problems, because of its echoes of the prime minister’s past. “The PP has seen how the Socialists’ abstention in 2016 — which Sánchez opposed — humiliated the party and threatened its political position,” she said.
“With Vox on their right [is the PP] really going to give Pedro Sánchez a gift so that he can govern?”