Earlier this year, while addressing members of his conservative Popular Party (PP), Pablo Casado made headlines when he broached the issue of abortion.
“If we want to finance pensions and healthcare, we should think about how we can have more children and not about aborting them,” the party’s leader said.
His use of Spain’s fragile pensions system to justify rolling back a 2010 law making abortion freely available pleased anti-abortion campaigners, while outraging many on the left. It also received a mixed response within his own party, where moderates fretted that Casado (38), who is the PP’s candidate for prime minister, had strayed into territory that was unlikely to win votes.
The incident was typical of Casado’s tendency to wade into sensitive issues with strong language and an unabashedly right-wing message. With a general election approaching on April 28th and his party trailing the governing Socialists in polls, Casado has made this strategy an integral part of his campaign.
Despite his image as a new broom in a party plagued by misconduct, Casado has also had to fend off allegations of wrongdoing
Last month, he caused a similar stir when he appeared to propose allowing pregnant immigrant women who lacked documentation to remain in the country if they gave up their children for adoption. He later claimed he had been misquoted.
More recently, he referred back to the terrorism of Eta, which no longer exists, as he asked supporters at a campaign event in Galicia to imagine they were victims of the Basque group's violence. He then accused the government of being at the beck and call of Eta's supporters.
"The PP's strategy is to be the biggest defender of Spain, to wave the biggest flag," said Josep Lobera, a sociologist at Madrid's Autonomous University.
“They have shifted to the right because they now have competition. The PP have never before had real competition on the right and that’s a new problem for them.”
One of those competitors is Ciudadanos, a relatively new party which initially placed itself in the political centre but has since moved to the right, gaining support with its stridently unionist position on the Catalan sovereignty crisis. More recently, the far-right Vox party has poached PP voters as it has surged in polls in recent months. Founded by disgruntled PP politicians, Vox has attracted many right-wing voters due to its uncompromising policies on immigration, feminism and Catalonia.
Many commentators have suggested that Casado, who became party leader last summer following the resignation of Mariano Rajoy, has dragged the PP to the right in a calculated bid to eclipse Vox. However, the move seems to come naturally to him. Casado won the party primary on a platform promising to lead a right "without apologies", and his candidacy defeated that of the more moderate Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, who had been deputy prime minister.
For much of his career within the PP, Casado was seen as a leader-in-waiting, a conservative dauphin. That was in great part due to the fact that he worked alongside several of the party's most influential figures. Among them was Esperanza Aguirre, the outspoken, Thatcherite, long-time president of the Madrid region.
In 2015, then prime minister Rajoy made Casado a senior party spokesman as the PP sought to freshen up its image. However, many saw the post as a poisoned chalice, as Casado found himself repeatedly defending the party from a barrage of corruption accusations that would ultimately lead to Rajoy’s ouster and the PP’s removal from power last year.
Despite his image as a new broom in a party plagued by misconduct, Casado has also had to fend off allegations of wrongdoing. Last summer, as he was campaigning for the party leadership, it emerged that he had not attended any classes before receiving a postgraduate degree in 2009.
In February, Casado launched a fierce tirade against prime minister Pedro Sánchez, in which he described the Socialist leader as a 'criminal'
A judicial investigation into the case was eventually shelved. But the scandal was one of a series of cases of politicians receiving degrees under questionable circumstances.
While Casado made his name in the government of Rajoy, it is former prime minister José María Aznar whose influence is believed to have shaped him the most. Aznar, who governed as PP leader from 1996 until 2004, hired Casado as his chief of staff at the FAES right-wing think tank, which the former prime minister founded.
“If anyone should ever replace me, Casado, who is a terrific guy, should do so,” Aznar said at one point. More recently, he declared that under Casado’s leadership “the PP has recovered its DNA”.
Casado’s tough rhetoric on issues such as Eta and Catalonia, where he has promised to reintroduce direct rule should he lead a new government, is reminiscent of Aznar’s alpha-male style. It also suggests a whitewashing of the legacy of the more passive Rajoy, whose tenure focused on stabilising the economy while mostly avoiding tendentious social and political issues.
"His understanding of politics is much closer to that laid out by Aznar in the FAES than that of Mariano Rajoy in the PP," says Carlos Cuesta, a journalist who has been friends with Casado for more than a decade. Casado's ideology, he says, is based on tax cuts, small government and transatlantic ties.
Meanwhile, Casado’s stance on social issues such as abortion, Cuesta says, is personal rather than a tactical ploy.
“There are a lot of people inside the party who are advising him to leave the right-to-life issue alone in the campaign,” he says. “But he believes in it.”
Casado is causing alarm among many moderate Spaniards, who see him as part of a three-pronged political right – along with Vox and Ciudadanos – whose aggressive style, they fear, frequently dips into populism, divides the country and exacerbates the Catalan crisis.
In February, Casado launched a fierce tirade against prime minister Pedro Sánchez, in which he described the Socialist leader as a “criminal” and accused him of conspiring with Catalan nationalists to break up Spain.
“The prime minister is our country’s greatest traitor,” he said.
On the campaign trail such attacks have continued, with Casado also warning that Sánchez is leading the country into an imminent economic crisis, a claim for which there is scant evidence. In an editorial, El País newspaper reprimanded the PP and its leader for “turning public debate into a place of impunity for lies, insults and manipulation”.
Polls suggest that the PP will be runner-up to the Socialists in the general election, losing many of its 134 seats in parliament. However, if the Socialists fail to secure a majority, Casado’s ambition of becoming prime minister will look less fanciful. He will carefully watch the performance of Ciudadanos, whom he has already invited to try to form a government with him, and Vox.
Those three parties managed to unseat the Socialists in Andalucía following a regional election in December. Their ability to do the same nationwide on April 28th, and in many regions and towns in local elections on May 26th, will depend in great part on whether Casado's tough-talking, unapologetic brand of politics can win over voters.