Spain coalition row highlights leftwing tussle over feminism

Álvaro VILLALOBOS
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Equality minister Irene Montero's rape bill has caused tensions within the leftwing coalition

A public spat within Spain's two coalition parties over plans to shake up rape laws has cast a spotlight on the struggle between them to lead the country's resurgent feminist movement.

The row comes ahead of International Women's Day when rallies will take place across Spain that will likely draw hundreds of thousands of people in a nation where surveys show most women between 15 and 29 now call themselves feminist.

The dispute centres on a new draft law presented Tuesday by Equality Minister Irene Montero of the hard-left Podemos, the junior partner in the governing coalition, which would qualify all non-consensual sex as rape.

The justice ministry, headed by Juan Carlos Campo of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's Socialists, quickly said the bill needed to be fine-tuned, angering Podemos leaders.

According to an internal ministry report, the draft law -- which faces months of debate in parliament -- includes "unnecessary duplicated regulations" and does not establish "sufficient mechanisms to ensure its application".

But Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, one of Sanchez's deputies and Montero's life partner, quickly hit back, saying on Wednesday there were "many frustrated sexists behind the technical excuses" to change the legislation.

And Pablo Echenique, another top Podemos member, also weighed in, saying: "It seems that when prestigious women draft a law, a macho man has to come and say: 'Don't worry, I will show you how we do things round here'."

- 'We're a feminist government' -

Sanchez's righthand woman Adriana Lastra, the Socialist party's number two, sought to calm the spat by calling the bill a "victory".

"There are no sexist ministers, we have here a feminist government, from the first to the last," she added when asked about the Podemos comments.

The justice minister, meanwhile, said he simply wants all laws tabled by the government to be "as perfect as possible" while Iglesias said he had not singled out Campo with his comments.

The bickering has put the spotlight on the cracks in the minority coalition government, Spain's first such tie-up since it returned to democracy following dictator Francisco Franco's death in 1975.

And it has also drawn attention to the parties' "fight for the leadership" of Spain's feminist movement, said Cristina Monge, a sociology professor at the University of Zaragoza.

"The Socialist party boasts of being the governing party which knows how to legislate, and says Podemos are novices" while Podemos "accuses the Socialists of having less transformative ambition," she told AFP.

Both were speaking to their respective audiences with statements on the draft law to prevent "the other (party) from gaining voter share and thus power", she added.

- Gender-balanced cabinet -

Spain has regularly seen large rallies for gender equality over the past two years spurred by a range of issues, from violence against women to unequal pay -- and both Podemos and the Socialists have championed the cause of feminism.

After being sworn in for a second term in January, Sanchez appointed a 22-member cabinet which has an equal number of men and women, with women occupying key posts such as industry, foreign affairs and the economy.

And three of his four deputies are female.

Sanchez's government has in recent weeks appointed a woman to head Spain's oldest police force, the Guardia Civil, and another to run the secret service.

In each case, it is the first time a woman has held the post.

Podemos, meanwhile, made the reform of Spain's rape laws a priority.

Under Spain's current criminal code, evidence of violence or intimidation must exist for the offence of rape to be proved, a highly contentious legal nuance that is often tough to establish.

The draft bill tabled by Montero requires explicit consent for sexual acts, and removes the distinction between sexual abuse and the more serious charge of sexual assault.