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How the crisis in Spain’s centre-right party is opening the door to the far right

The big winner of the conflict gripping Spain's Popular Party is Vox, analysts say, urging the right-wing opposition to close ranks or risk the far-right faction becoming the nation's second-largest party.

How the crisis in Spain's centre-right party is opening the door to the far right
Leader of far-right party Vox Santiago Abascal delivers a speech in Madrid. Vox's rising popularity was on show during this month's regional election in Castilla y León. Photo: JAVIER SORIANO/AFP

With a general election on the horizon, Santiago Abascal’s extremist lineup could become Spain’s main opposition party “if the PP doesn’t end its internal crisis properly,” said Astrid Barrio, a political scientist at Valencia University.

At least in the short term, “the biggest beneficiary in political terms is Vox”, which burst onto the political scene less than a decade ago, said Paloma Román, a political science expert at Madrid’s Complutense University.

PP leader Pablo Casado, who just a week ago appeared to be safe in his role, is now counting his final hours as opposition leader after raising explosive corruption allegations about the party’s most popular politician, Madrid’s regional leader Isabel Diaz Ayuso.

READ MORE: Why is Spain’s right-wing PP accusing their own leader in Madrid of corruption?

But it was a gamble he lost very publicly, and will have to step down at an extraordinary party congress whose date will be set on Tuesday during a meeting of the PP’s steering committee.

Walking a tightrope due to a loss of support within his party, Spain’s right-wing Popular Party (PP) leader Pablo Casado delivered a farewell speech on February 23rd 2022 to the Congress. Photo: DANI DUCH/POOL/AFP

Power struggle

At the congress, party members will chose a new leader, which is likely to be Alberto Nuñez Feijóo, a 60-year-old moderate and party stalwart who currently heads the northwestern Galicia region.

“He’s a candidate who has managed to keep Vox in check in Galicia and the leading advocate of the centrist ideology that has allowed the PP to rule Spain,” said Barrio.

Lluis Orriols, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III University, said there were two factors in the current political crisis that could strengthen Vox.

Firstly, he said, surveys suggested “a large number of defections” from the PP are not people who are “likely to abstain or be undecided (in the next general election), but are turning to Vox”.

And the struggle for dominance of the Spanish right is still unresolved.

Galician regional president Alberto Nuñez Feijóo is likely to replace Casado as PP party leader in the coming months. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

“Vox is not being restrained, unlike on the left where we see the Socialist party in control of the space which runs from the centre to the extreme left,” he said.

“In the electoral ambit of the conservative voter, Vox is clearly very competitive.”

The popularity of Vox was on show during this month’s regional election in Castilla y León, where the party won 13 seats, up from just one in the previous vote, shattering the PP’s hopes of winning an absolute majority.

READ MORE: Spain’s far-right Vox party poised to enter Castilla y León government

The PP has time on its side

But the game is not yet over for the PP.

Despite concerns Sanchez would call early elections to make the most of his rival’s weakness, he ruled out any such move on Wednesday.

“We’re not going to bring forward the general election” on the basis of the PP’s “vulnerability”, he said.

“The rise of extreme parties reduces the incentive for early elections,” wrote Anna-Carina Hamker and Mujtaba Rahman, analysts with the Eurasia Group, in a note on the crisis.

With the next election to be held no later than early 2024, analysts said the PP had time to get its house in order — and could even emerge strengthened.

“I imagine it will fight back, it’s not going to waste the political capital it has built up over such a long period of time, being the governing party that it is,” said Roman.

“Casado’s leadership degenerated a lot and most PP voters had little or no confidence in him,” said Orriols.

However, any new leader will have to restrain the “internal pressures” that have torn the party apart and resolve the battle “between the traditional, mainstream conservatives and the free agents who tend to sympathise with the populist far-right”.

READ ALSO:

A foreigner’s guide to understanding Spanish politics in five minutes

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POLITICS

Battle rages for control of Spain’s right-wing Popular Party

Spain's right-wing Popular Party is tearing itself apart in an internal battle pitting a rising regional star against a lacklustre national leadership, with the warring factions trading barbs over spying and corruption.

Battle rages for control of Spain's right-wing Popular Party

The crisis within Spain’s main opposition party erupted on Thursday when
the head of the Madrid region, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, publicly accused the
national leadership of resorting to dirty tricks to get rid of her.

“It is very painful when the leaders of your own party, rather than backing
you, are the ones trying to destroy you,” retorted the telegenic 43-year-old.

She was referring to allegations published in El Mundo and El Confidencial
saying the party leadership had paid a private investigator to find out whether her brother pocketed nearly €300,000 in commission for face mask contracts awarded by her regional government.

The story was widely believed to have been leaked by Diaz Ayuso’s entourage.

“It won’t ever be possible to prove I helped my brother in any way,” she said on COPE radio where she and party leader Pablo Casado laid out their
grievances – separately – on Friday.

READ ALSO: Why is Spain’s right-wing PP accusing their own leader in Madrid of corruption?

Earlier, Casado told COPE he had been asking her for months for clarification on the matter, but had received no answer.

“The commission was €283,000, which is a sufficiently large
amount to make you think there has been some sort of influence peddling,” he
argued.

‘Lady Liberty’, Casado’s nemesis

Diaz Ayuso is currently Spain’s most popular politician after capitalising on the widespread pandemic fatigue by allowing Madrid’s bars and restaurants a level of freedom to operate not seen anywhere else in the country.

Dubbed “Lady Liberty” by Britain’s Economist magazine, she almost won an
absolute majority in last May’s regional elections – a rare feat within Spain’s increasingly fragmented political landscape.

Casado, on the other hand, is haunted by the rise of the far-right Vox and
by the seemingly unshakable stability of Pedro Sánchez’s left-wing coalition government, which only holds a minority in parliament.

It was his idea to call snap elections in Castilla y León last Sunday to increase the party’s hold in a region where it has ruled for 35 years. But the plan backfired, leaving the party once again unable to govern alone.

READ ALSO: Why elections in little-known Castilla y León really matter for Spain’s future

And the party also had egg on its face after one of its deputies miscast his vote last month, allowing Sánchez’s government to push through a controversial labour reform rejected by the right – with the measure passing thanks to that single vote.

“Ayuso’s bombshell has gone off at Pablo Casado’s weakest moment,” Cristina
Monge, a political scientist from Zaragoza University, told AFP, describing the clash as “a fight to the death”.

“It’s one thing to have an internal dispute at a party congress. But this is a fight to the death in public, and that is what makes it especially vicious,” she said.

Co-existence impossible

For now, the PP has opened a formal investigation into Díaz Ayuso for “making very serious, almost criminal, accusations against the Partido Popular’s leader”.

The alleged espionage has alarmed other senior party figures such as the Galician regional leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo, who said it would be “unheard
of and unforgivable” to have spied on a party colleague.

The idea that Díaz Ayuso could be a better bet than Casado in the next general elections – which are set to take place by early 2024 at the latest – has been on the table for months, and may well be settled once and for all in the coming weeks.

“Both can’t survive, that would be impossible. The question is whether one
of them will survive, or whether it will be the end of both of them,” said Monge.

“There are still many things that remain unclear, this is only the start of a crisis which will run for a very long time.”

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