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Surreal claims, lawfare and abuse: toxic politics in Spain reflect the new Europe



Pedro Sánchez may have decided to stay on as Spanish prime minister, but what made him hesitate – “harassment and bullying” of him and his wife by his political opponents – is unlikely to go away anytime soon, in Spain or elsewhere in Europe.

In an ever more polarised political sphere and on a social media battlefield where reality coexists with the wildest fictions, politicians across the continent have to live – or not – with being targets of surreal accusations, “lawfare” and increasingly ugly abuse.

From Warsaw to The Hague and Helsinki to Madrid, leaders have faced what – in the case of Sánchez – the film director Pedro Almodóvar called “harassment, through the media and the courts, until they are broken emotionally and judicially”.

In an op-ed last week in El Diario, Almodóvar said the strategy had “no relationship with actual politics. It is a technique based on cruelty and personalised psychological torture, complemented by misrepresentation and manipulation.”

Allegations of an organised rightwing campaign against Sánchez have been lent credence by the re-emergence of a 2014 recording of a People’s party (PP) minister and a disgraced police officer discussing plans to “politically kill” Sánchez, partly by targeting his wife.

Pedro Sánchez and Begoña Gómez casting their votes in elections last year. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The rightwing PP has helped spread unfounded allegations that Begoña Gómez, who married Sánchez in 2006, is actually a man, that her family are involved in drug trafficking in Morocco, and that they operate a chain of sex clubs.

The complaint of influence peddling and corruption against her that finally prompted Sánchez to reflect on his future also looks tenuous: prosecutors want it dropped and even the far-right linked pressure group that filed it has said it may be fake news.

The prime minister’s rightwing and far-right opponents have called him a “compulsive liar”, a “psychopath”, a “squatter”, a “catastrophe”, a “usurper”, a “terrorist sympathiser” and a “traitor” who deserved to be “strung up by the feet”.

But Sánchez is far from the only European politician to have come under a sustained and personal attack in recent times. In an extraordinarily vicious election campaign in Poland last year, the eventual victor, Donald Tusk, faced a similar barrage of vitriol.

Donald Tusk, who faced opposition vitriol during Polish elections last year. Photograph: Alex Nicodim/Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock

Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS), claimed the liberal opposition candidate would surrender half of Poland to Russia and help the EU import illegal migrants, and that he aimed to instil “German order” in Poland, alluding to the Nazis.

Tusk, Kaczyński said, was “pure evil”, “the enemy of the nation”, and “a traitor who must be morally exterminated”. His then ruling party also tried legal action, passing a bill to “investigate Russian influence”, clearly aimed at smearing the opposition.

Sánchez and Tusk resisted. But in the case of the former Dutch finance minister Sigrid Kaag, she quit politics at the last general election in November after a torrent of online abuse and multiple death threats.

A veteran UN diplomat, Kaag, 62, said the environment for politicians in the Netherlands had become “toxic” as she and colleagues faced a continual barrage of “hate, intimidation and threats” and often needed tight police security.

Kaag faced ‘a never-abating crescendo of allegations, insults, intimidation’. Photograph: BSR Agency/Getty Images

Kaag, who is married to a Palestinian former diplomat, said she faced “a never-abating crescendo of allegations, insults, intimidation – you name it”, and not just online – once, a man was arrested carrying a flaming torch outside her home.

Often amplified by Dutch extreme-right militants and conspiracy theorists, the extent and gravity of the threats would “impact the quality of our democracy” by hindering “people of calibre, women, people of colour” from entering politics, she said.

Sanna Marin delivering her resignation speech. Photograph: Markku Ulander/Lehtikuva/AFP/Getty Images

The former Finland prime minister Sanna Marin also stepped away from politics last year after losing a tight three-way election race and being forced to defend both her work ethic and her right to a private life from media and opposition criticism.

“I am human,” said Marin, who was the world’s youngest prime minister when she was elected in 2019, adding that she did not see anything wrong with “we politicians also having free time, spending it with our friends”.

But she said the at times violent criticism – in particular unfounded allegations, amplified by far-right accounts, of drug consumption – had been “very difficult” for someone who “never missed a single day of work”.

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