New Spain opposition leader vows to get country 'back on track'

Sylvie Groult
New Secretary General of Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) Pedro Sanchez gestures on the second and last day of the PSOE extraordinary congress in Madrid on July 27, 2014
New Secretary General of Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) Pedro Sanchez gestures on the second and last day of the PSOE extraordinary congress in Madrid on July 27, 2014 (AFP Photo/Pierre-Philippe Marcou)

Madrid (AFP) - The new leader of Spain's main opposition Socialist Party vowed Sunday during his inaugural speech to lead the party back to power and get the crisis-hit country "back on track".

Pedro Sanchez, a 42-year-old economist who was virtually unknown only a few months ago, said Spain was "exasperated, angry, hurt" after six years of "unprecedented" economic crisis during a speech to an extraordinary party congress in Madrid.

"We are standing up again to get Spain back on track," he said to the applause of some 3,000 party delegates at the congress.

Sanchez won 49 percent of the votes cast by 130,000 party members in a primary held on July 13, putting clear distance between himself and Basque lawmaker Eduardo Madina, who finished second with 36 percent.

The result of the primary was ratified on Saturday at the party´s extraordinary congress.

Sanchez replaces veteran politician Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, 62, who stepped down in May after the Socialists suffered their worst-ever election showing in a European Parliament vote.

Spain holds general elections in 2015.

A tall, married father of two nicknamed "El Guapo" or "The Handsome One", Sanchez has cast himself as a fresh face for the party and a credible challenger to the conservative Popular Party which ousted the Socialists from power in a crushing November 2011 election defeat.

The Socialists have struggled to overcome criticism of how their last government handled an economic crisis sparked by the collapse of a property boom in 2008 that has left one in four out of work.

The party is also facing a fresh challenge from "Podemos", an upstart left-wing party that grew out of protest movements against economic inequality, which took a surprising 8.0 percent of the vote in the May European elections.

- 'Breathe of fresh air´' -

Sanchez will on Monday hold his first talks with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy since taking the helm of the Socialists.

He vowed during Sunday's speech that if the Socialists are swept back to power in 2015 they would scrap a labour law reform introduced by the ruling Popular Party that makes it cheaper and easier to fire workers.

"We will scrap this law because in the 21st century you can't pose alternatives from the 18th and 19th century of exploitation of workers," he said to applause from the delegates.

He also promised to repeal changes to Spain's abortion law that make it harder for women to terminate an unwanted pregnancy that the Popular Party plans to introduce and vowed to introduce a law ensuring that women are paid equally to their male counterparts for similar work.

"His project is innovative, it defends workers' rights," said Monica Melle, a 43-year-old university professor party delegate who attended the party conference.

While Sanchez's election to the helm of the party by a wide margin was a relief for the Socialists, who had feared a divisive, close-run contest, political analysts said it was too soon to tell whether he can reverse the party's fortunes.

"Pedro's Sanchez's election is a breath of fresh air for the Socialists. But as of now it is nothing more than that, fresh air," political analyst Carlos Elordi wrote in an opinion article published Sunday in daily Catalan newspaper El Periodico de Catalunya.

"Nothing guarantees that it will last. The Socialists' many problems can drown him within weeks," he added.

Sanchez has a master's degree in politics and economics from a Belgian university. He served as a top aide to the head of a UN high representative during the war in Kosovo.

He has since served on and off as a non-elected regional deputy in Madrid.