Spanish conservatives at war over corruption claims

Face mask contract at centre of power struggle in Spain’s main opposition party

A dispute between rival factions of Spain’s main opposition party over corruption allegations has thrown it into disarray, threatening to derail its hopes of regaining power in the next election.

The crisis was triggered by revelations that the conservative Popular Party (PP) was investigating its president of the Madrid region, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, over a contract to provide face masks which her government awarded early in the pandemic.

On Thursday, Díaz Ayuso publicly blamed party leader Pablo Casado and his circle for waging a campaign to "destroy" her. In a statement, she denied any wrongdoing and said she "never imagined that the leadership of my party would act in such a cruel and unfair way against me".

Díaz Ayuso referred to media reports that influential figures in the party had attempted to spy on her and her family in order to uncover damaging evidence against them.

These developments have put Casado (41) on a collision course with Díaz Ayuso (43), who has long been seen as a threat to him.

The party leadership denied spying on the Madrid president and has responded to her outburst by confirming its concerns about the €1.5-million face mask contract, from which she has acknowledged that her brother Tomás earned a commission.

"The question is whether it's okay that on April 1st [2020], when 700 people were dying [each day] in Spain, you should sign a contract with your sister and make €286,000 by selling face masks," Casado said. Díaz Ayuso countered by saying her brother earned €56,000 from a face mask contract, although she acknowledged he also received other related payments.

Charismatic figure

Casado’s second-in-command, Teodoro García Egea, confirmed on Thursday that the party had been investigating Díaz Ayuso since October and was now considering taking legal action against her given that her claims were “very serious, almost criminal”.

Casado and Díaz Ayuso came up through the party ranks together and, after becoming leader in 2018, Casado chose her as candidate for president of Madrid. She led a minority regional government into the pandemic, when her profile soared due to her brand of libertarian populism, which made her the most effective right-wing opponent of Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez.

Last spring, Díaz Ayuso’s re-election, in which she more than doubled the PP’s seats in the regional assembly, confirmed her as the party’s most charismatic figure. However, her ambition of taking control of the apparatus of the PP’s Madrid wing and constant rumours that she planned to make the leap into national politics fuelled tensions with Casado which have now erupted into a full-blown confrontation.

On Thursday, Ángel Carromero, a senior aide to Madrid mayor José Luis Martínez Almeida whom media reports had implicated in the spying allegations, resigned. He was a close ally of Casado.

Both sides are now carefully watching both public opinion and the loyalties of their party colleagues.

A pro-Díaz Ayuso demonstration outside the PP’s headquarters in central Madrid on Thursday, with another planned for Sunday, reflected both her popularity among conservative voters and Casado’s image as a leader with a poor electoral record who swings between moderation and radicalism.

‘Absurd’ crisis

“Casado may have the support of the party’s regional leaders, but the Madrid president’s popular draw is huge and we will see her use it to the full in the next few days,” said Jordi Juan, editor of La Vanguardia newspaper.

So far, senior figures in the PP have mainly kept a diplomatic silence. However, the hardline maverick congresswoman Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo called for Casado to resign amid what she called “the biggest and most absurd and unbelievable crisis in the history of the Popular Party”.

Much will now hinge on whether Casado can prove any wrongdoing by Díaz Ayuso and whether the party decides to bring forward its convention, slated for July, in an effort to restore order.

The last PP government, of Mariano Rajoy, was removed from office in 2018 by a parliamentary no-confidence vote driven by a torrent of corruption cases.

The current turmoil comes just as Spain has embarked on an electoral cycle which the PP had hoped would culminate in it unseating the leftist government in a general election in 2023. That now looks less likely given the party’s woes.

Many see the PP’s decision to trigger a snap election in the rural region of Castilla y León last Sunday as a severe miscalculation. Although the party made gains, it is likely to have to form a coalition with the far-right Vox in order to continue governing, a decision which could prove a handicap in upcoming elections elsewhere.

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain