After a week of bitter public infighting driven by accusations of corruption and espionage, the leader of Spain's main opposition Popular Party (PP), Pablo Casado, has agreed to step down.
The conservative party was thrown into chaos last week when its president of the Madrid region, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, accused Mr Casado of orchestrating a dirty tricks campaign against her.
Her allegations followed news that the party was investigating a €1.5 million contract which her administration awarded for the procurement of face masks at the beginning of the pandemic and which benefited her brother. Media reports had also claimed that senior party figures close to Mr Casado had made efforts to spy on Ms Díaz Ayuso, who is extremely popular with conservative voters.
Mr Casado denied the spying allegations and, after initially confirming that he suspected his colleague of wrongdoing, he backtracked, saying that her explanations about the contract had satisfied him.
However, the affair brought to the surface simmering discontent within the party at Mr Casado’s leadership. A demonstration on Sunday by supporters of Ms Díaz Ayuso outside the PP’s national headquarters in Madrid further weakened his position and a string of high-profile figures in the party have publicly abandoned him in recent days.
Such was the pressure on the leader that there were reports he might be forced to resign after a late-night meeting with PP regional leaders on Wednesday. However, after the gathering the party issued a statement in which it said Mr Casado will remain in charge until an emergency convention is held, which is slated for early April. It said he will not seek to continue as leader beyond the convention.
Earlier, Mr Casado had made what appeared to be a farewell appearance in Congress.
“I understand politics as the defence of the noblest principles and values, the respect for adversaries and commitment to colleagues,” he said, as he received a standing ovation from members of his party before leaving the chamber on his own.
The imminent departure of Mr Casado has seen the PP’s leader in Galicia, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, touted as his likely successor. Mr Núñez Feijóo has won four successive majorities in elections in the northwestern region and is seen as a moderate figure. This contrasts with Mr Casado, who has had a poor electoral record since taking over as leader in 2018 and who has often veered towards hardline positions in an effort to compete with the far-right Vox.
While his path to the party leadership currently looks clear, Mr Núñez Feijóo has not yet confirmed whether he will run as a candidate.
“I thank the colleagues who have encouraged me to run, but I’m the one who has to decide if I will do so,” he said.
Although Ms Díaz Ayuso has emerged as the victor in her very public dispute with Mr Casado, she still faces questions about the face mask contract.
The anti-corruption prosecutor’s office has opened an inquiry into the deal, from which Ms Díaz Ayuso has admitted her brother made money although she denies any wrongdoing.