This town ain’t big enough for the both of us

Crisis and continuity in the Spanish right

Artillery Row

“The situation in Ukraine is better than in the People’s Party (PP), because there are no nuclear armaments there”. Such was the damning diagnosis of the infighting within Spain’s principal opposition party, alongside declining approval ratings, by José María Aznar. Spain’s former Prime Minister (1996-2004) brought Felipe González’s fourteen-year Socialist rule to an end with the centre-right party’s first victory in the general elections.

The pandemic revealed the first cracks in the alliance

With the appointment of Alberto Núñez Feijóo as leader of the opposition earlier this year, the PP has weathered a potential implosion, but urgently needs to get its house in order quick to remain a credible prospect for the 2023 national elections and keep far-right party Vox at bay.

How and why has the party that last ruled Spain from 2011 to 2018 suffered and survived a succession of largely self-inflicted blows? The uncovering of corruption scandals dating back to Aznar’s period in office resulted in a vote of no-confidence (a first for post-Franco Spain) in Mariano Rajoy’s PP government in May 2018. The Socialist Pedro Sánchez was named interim Prime Minister. It took two elections in 2019 for a coalition government, another first for modern Spanish democracy, to form.

A longstanding bipartisan model whereby the Socialists and PP alternated in power had been blown apart. The emergence of Podemos and Vox at different extremes of the political spectrum transformed the electoral landscape, with a new populist turn alongside the emergence of left- and right-wing blocks.

The need to mark a new beginning made the appointment of a youthful replacement for Rajoy, Pablo Casado (b. 1981), a logical albeit unexpected choice. When Cristina Cifuentes, President of the Madrid Regional Government for the PP (2015-2018), was ousted following revelations about a fake university Masters degree and video footage of her shoplifting beauty creams, Casado rallied for Isabel Díaz Ayuso (b. 1978) to be her replacement. Their friendship dated back to time together in the PP’s “New Generations” at the turn of the century. Aznar had mentored them both as they came through the ranks.

Díaz Ayuso’s rise was less meteoric than Casado’s, but she was perceived to be loyal and was well-versed in social media, transforming Pecas, the pet dog of former Regional President Esperanza Aguirre (2003-2012) into a Twitter celebrity, and later directing Cifuentes’s digital campaign for the 2015 regional elections. Personal friendship aside, Casado and Díaz Ayuso were united in seeking to discredit Sánchez, taking no quarter in their attacks on his coalition with Unidas Podemos (the re-baptised Podemos) and concessions to Catalan secessionists.

The Covid-19 pandemic revealed the first cracks in the alliance. Díaz Ayuso fought to keep Madrid as open as possible with Casado adopting a more cautious approach.

With death rates far exceeding those of other European capitals, reports began to circulate that the Madrid President had ordered that residents of old people’s homes (at least non-private ones) ought not to be admitted into hospital.

Suspicions were raised about her taking up residency at the height of the first wave in a luxurious apartment-hotel owned by Kike Sarasola (whose father, a murky Basque businessman, had stage-managed the relationship between Pablo Escobar and Felipe González, the former President later accused alongside Sarasola Sr. of trading favours in the fraudulent tendering process for the construction of the Medellin underground) at the time when his Room Mate chain received a lucrative license to use empty hotels to house old people and healthcare professionals.

A resounding victory allowed the PP to rule alone in Madrid

Díaz Ayuso weathering the storm can be attributed to her personal charisma and appeal to small-business owners and employees who feared lockdowns more than the pandemic. The Madrid President raised the stakes by calling early regional elections for May 2021, Pablo Iglesias resigning from his post as Deputy-Prime-Minister to stand for Unidas Podemos against Díaz Ayuso. This proved to be an unexpected gift to her campaign, allowing for the effective recycling of Cold War rhetoric for pandemic times with the populist campaign slogan: “Freedom or Communism”.

In the build-up to elections, Casado disregarded the possibility of the PP entering into a coalition with Vox whilst Díaz Ayuso kept her options open. A resounding victory allowed the PP to rule alone in Madrid whilst making her an increasingly credible future leader at the national level given her ability to buck the broader trend of voters defecting to Vox. Having previously overtaken Unidas Podemos to become the third biggest force in Spanish politics, the far-right party, led by disaffected ex-PP member Santiago Abascal, had its eyes set on becoming the foremost voice of right-wing conservatism.

Since the pandemic, polls have consistently indicated voters display a marginal preference for the right- over the left-wing bloc, but that the Socialists remain the leading single party given Unidas Podemos’s decline.

Casado ironically wound up being more dependent on Vox than Díaz Ayuso. The February 2022 regional elections of Castile and Leon (often seen as a barometer of the political mood as well as representing the conservative heartlands in which Aznar was raised) delivered disappointing although not altogether unexpected results for the PP.

If the rise of the far-right is a pan-European phenomenon, a Spanish peculiarity is the willingness of centre right parties to share a platform with Vox as a result, Abascal and co. enjoy enhanced electoral possibilities and the ability to influence policy in key areas such as immigration and family law. In Castile and Leon, Vox supported the investiture of the PP on the condition there was a coalition government with them occupying the Vice-Presidency.

Díaz Ayuso went public with claims of phone-tapping

An increasing number of voices within and beyond the PP began to cast doubt on Casado’s ability to fight elections. Fearing Díaz Ayuso’s ambitions, he made a pre-emptive strike. On 16 February, various Spanish newspapers reported that, following instructions from the PP’s Madrid-based government headquarters, the City Hall had spied on Díaz Ayuso in an attempt to gather intelligence on the reputedly illegal commissions paid to her brother in order to secure masks from China at the outset of the pandemic when the local heath-care system was on the brink of collapse.

Díaz Ayuso went public with claims of phone-tapping and similar clandestine operations, accusations the Party Secretary Teodoro García Egea said verged on criminal slander. The rapid escalation of mutual recriminations ensured that Madrid wasn’t big enough for Díaz Ayuso and Casado, the latter nicknamed “The Sixth Sense” by a PP bigwig in reference to the film in which Bruce Willis plays a character unaware he is dead.

On Sunday 20 February, demonstrations were held outside the party’s national headquarters calling for Casado’s resignation and pledging support for Díaz Ayuso. García Egea resigned and Casado was invited to reconsider his position. in the midst of the crisis in Ukraine, he quietly stepped aside to make room for Feijóo, current President of the Galician regional government with four consecutive absolute majorities to his name.

The sixty-year old had surprised many by not standing to replace Rajoy, but playing the long-game and keeping one’s own council have long been attributes attributed to the Galician character. Feijóo’s candidacy would have been an obstacle to the regeneration agenda especially given his close historical ties to local drug lords, who loomed large in the public imagination given the success of television series Fariña/Cocaine Coast (2018), a genuine cultural phenomenon now streaming on Netflix.

Four year on, Feijóo cannily repackaged himself as a safe pair of hands, a moderate counterweight to the internecine intrigues within the party and the populist posturing of Vox. He excused himself from being at the inauguration of the new Castile and Leon parliament. Appointing Juan Manuel Moreno, President of the Andalusian Parliament as his second, serves to decentralise the PP’s national operation, leaving Díaz Ayuso to have Madrid as her personal fiefdom in exchange for keeping her ambitions at bay, at least for now.

Since his arrival, polls indicate that the PP score better in terms of intention of vote and prospective number of seats than they have at any point since the last general elections. If a week is a long time in politics, 2023 is a lifetime away but Casado’s departure has clearly boosted the PP and Díaz Ayuso’s prospects.

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