Spain’s Sanchez faces a big showdown with the best judges

(Bloomberg) — Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is heading for a major confrontation with the judiciary in an escalation of a longstanding dispute linked to an increasingly partisan political background.

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Lawmakers will vote Thursday on a proposal that would allow the government to bring its two candidates to the Constitutional Court by changing the way the judiciary’s governing body, the CGPJ, operates. The government says this is needed amid a four-year standoff with the main opposition party over the renewal of the CGPJ.

Sanchez’s bold move to circumvent the deadlock highlights the profound polarization of Spanish politics in recent years.

For decades, Spain’s two dominant political parties have relied on mutual goodwill to greenlight the renewal of key judicial bodies, including a council known as the CGPJ, which elects members of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. But an increasingly fractious political environment has undermined those traditions and put Sanchez’s socialist government at loggerheads with the opposition Popular Party.

The chief of the Supreme Court, who also served as head of the CGPJ, resigned earlier this year over the crisis, which he says risks collapsing the judiciary as cases rise and dozens of vacancies remain vacant. The European Commission has called on Spain to change the system it uses to appoint judges, among other structural reforms.

By using Congress to change the way the government appoints judges to the Constitutional Court, Sanchez is betting that he will be able to continue to govern with current allies in Congress even if it means deepening the country’s political divisions ahead of the elections in next year.

But in a sign of the increasingly tense situation, El Pais newspaper reported that the Constitutional Court could hold an extraordinary session to decide on a request by the opposition Popular Party to block legislative changes that allow Sanchez to appoint allies to the court.

Sanchez has held talks with opposition leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo to discuss a solution to the crisis. But those talks collapsed due to the PP’s anger at a government proposal to amend criminal malfeasance and sedition laws. The PP says it has no legal obligation to agree to a renewal.

The sedition and malfeasance laws, also voted on Thursday in Congress, are widely seen as beneficial to Catalan independence leaders who face criminal charges for their involvement in the failed 2017 secession attempt.

Sanchez’s minority coalition government relies on a broad group to pass legislation, including Catalan and Basque nationalists.

The governing body of the judiciary is made up of a combination of magistrates, lawyers and academics. Eight of the 20 members are chosen from three-fifths of Parliament, meaning they have traditionally sought support from both major parties.

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