The unity of Spain’s first coalition government faced its toughest test in three years in power on Tuesday, after the two left-wing ruling parties disagreed over reform of a groundbreaking sexual violence law that has inadvertently led to reduced sentences for more than 700 criminals and has caused outrage nationwide.
Both parties have affirmed that the coalition will remain intact and will finish the legislature this year. But the wounds from the law are so open that they could herald the end of a fruitful alliance that has produced several progressive laws, but risks being divided by its flagship cause.
The fight took place a day before thousands of women and men planned to take to the streets of Madrid, Barcelona and other cities in the country in what has become year after year one of the largest concentrations in the world on the occasion of the International Women’s Day.
The Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), to which Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez belongs, and the anti-austerity party United We Can face one of the most important causes of their government: a law against sexual violence that, while support is growing and resources for victims, has also inadvertently reduced the sentences of at least 721 convicted since it went into effect in October, including the early release of 74 convicted, according to the judiciary.
The Law of Sexual Freedom should be one of the most important achievements of the government. Instead, it has become a political liability that is about to pit the two partners in Parliament against each other.
Unidas Podemos, which sponsored the new law last year, voted late on Tuesday against parliament considering a reform proposed by the Socialists to reinstate higher prison sentences for future sex offenders. But the proposed modification was approved -by 231 votes in favor, 56 against and 58 abstentions- to continue with the legislative process.
The Socialists pulled it off with rare backing from the leading opposition conservative party. Unidas Podemos considered that alignment a betrayal, taking into account the history of conservatives in opposing laws such as the expansion of the right to abortion.
The Socialists said the law contains flaws and want to introduce technical amendments to restore longer minimum sentences. For example, they want rape to receive a minimum sentence of six years instead of the four provided by the new law in force.
But the Minister of Equality, Irene Montero, of Unidas Podemos, which promoted the law, insists that the problem lies in the endemic sexism of some judges.
He pointed out that the socialists’ reform is contrary to the essence of the law, which established the lack of consent on the part of the victim as the key to determine if there was a sexual crime. The proposed change would re-emphasize whether the alleged offender used force.
The bitter debate in Congress promises to deepen the division between the socialists, who boast of having led the feminist cause for decades, and the upstart United We Can, which belongs to the wave of more radical leftist policies.
The socialist legislator Andrea Fernández presented the reform and rebuked the junior partner of her party, pointing out that: “We are tired of your rants, ladies and gentlemen of Unidas Podemos… The Law is not working properly and it must be modified.”
Lucía Muñoz of Unidas Podemos responded that the reform would mean that judges would have to ask us again if we closed our legs properly to prove that sexual abuse occurred.
The Socialists insist that consent will remain a central piece of the law, something United We Can disagree with.