Spain’s conservatives seek ‘reboot’ after civil war

Galician moderate takes helm of crisis-ridden Popular Party

In mid-March, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, who has just been voted in as the leader of Spain's conservative Popular Party (PP), gave a speech in a theatre in the northern city of Oviedo.

The event was going to plan until half an hour in, when a young man interrupted from the gallery, haranguing the speaker for not acknowledging the achievements of the recently ousted party leader, Pablo Casado. The heckler was booed and removed from the room.

The incident was in keeping with the party’s recent dramas, which saw an ugly civil war erupt in February, exposing bitter rivalries and removing Casado. This weekend, at an extraordinary party conference in Seville, Spain’s biggest right-wing political force anointed the 60-year-old Núñez Feijóo, who is touted as a moderate, as its new leader while trying to pick up the pieces.

“We have to get Spanish politics away from confrontation and permanent hyperbole,” he told the party. “My project is one of understanding.”

The PP has been, along with the Socialist Party, a political mainstay of Spain's modern democracy. Founded by former members of the Franco regime after the dictatorship under the name Popular Alliance, it governed Spain under José María Aznar and then Mariano Rajoy, who was removed by a no-confidence motion driven by corruption scandals in 2018.

Erratic figure

Casado, who took the helm that year, was an erratic figure who lurched between the centre-right and hard-right while leading the party to a string of electoral humiliations. When it became public knowledge that Casado was investigating alleged corruption in the procurement of face masks by Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the PP’s powerful president of the Madrid region, his support within the party imploded and he was forced to step down.

“We’ve been through something which we’ve never experienced before,” admitted Díaz Ayuso. “We’ve always been an organised, presidential-style party . . . We’re at a stage now where we’re still closing the wounds.”

“We need to reboot.” said one senior PP official. “It’s like when a computer freezes – our party is frozen.”

But the PP’s woes go beyond internal disputes. Although it has sought to put the systemic corruption of the past behind it, the probe into the Díaz Ayuso face mask affair is a reminder of that tainted legacy. Meanwhile, it has struggled to draw younger voters, with half of its electoral base aged over 65.

But the most pressing issue for the conservatives is the threat from their right flank, in the shape of the radical Vox party. The third force in parliament, Vox continues to gain electoral ground with its aggressively nationalist rhetoric. Most recently, it made gains in a regional election in Castilla y León which has led to it becoming the junior partner in a coalition with the PP.

This marked the first time that the far right has formally entered a government in the democratic era, drawing criticism of the PP from across Spain’s left and also from some fellow European conservatives, such as Poland’s former prime minister Donald Tusk.

“Vox will be a problem and a priority for [Núñez Feijóo], without a doubt, as it was for Casado,” said Lluís Orriols, a political scientist at Carlos III university in Madrid.

“We don’t know if we are going to see a more traditionally conservative Feijóo, who is tough with the far right, or a Feijóo who continues the policy of the PP so far of normalising Vox and seeing it as a party with which it can make deals,” he added.

Núñez Feijóo was the unchallenged candidate to be the new leader based on his record in Galicia, where he has won four elections in a row, each time with a majority, making him and the northwestern region political outliers in a fragmented Spain.

Vox’s presence in Galicia remains minimal and as its president Núñez Feijóo, who is a speaker of the local galego language, has managed to avoid being seen as hostile to the region’s identity, unlike many of his fellow conservatives in Catalonia or the Basque Country.

So far, he has given few clues as to how he will handle the challenge posed by the far right. However, in mid-March, he was forced to backtrack after insisting that in cases when a father kills a child to hurt the mother the crime should not be considered “gender violence”. Such debates are the favoured terrain of Vox and his initial comment was seen as the latest example of that party dragging the PP further right.

“In recent times we’ve got stuck in Vox’s semantic arena,” admitted the senior PP official.

“It’s one thing is to be moderate when you’re president of Galicia where, for example, Vox is not very present, the PP has always been the dominant party and there’s practically no opposition,” said Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at Barcelona’s Autònoma University. “But it’s quite another in Madrid, where the atmosphere is much tougher and more antagonistic.”

He added: “The question is whether he can forge his own line or if he’ll be a prisoner of the party’s dominant forces in Madrid, which are very radical.”

Elections

With several elections approaching and a general election expected in 2023, the PP must decide whether it will continue to forge coalitions with the far right – a strategy which could be its only route back into government.

For now, Núñez Feijóo has suggested he will be a more statesmanlike figure than his predecessor, Casado, whose tenure was characterised by a refusal to support the government in almost every major policy area and vicious attacks on the Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez.

“I’m not here to insult the prime minister,” Núñez Feijóo told the party at the weekend. “I’m here, like all of you, to defeat him.”

Yet his past is not free of blemishes. In 2013, photographs appeared in the media of a young Núñez Feijóo holidaying in the 1990s with Marcial Dorado, a drug trafficker who has served a lengthy prison sentence. The politician managed to shrug off the friendship, which failed to dent his electoral appeal in Galicia.

But having survived that particular storm in his home region, a much sterner test lies ahead for him in Madrid.