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.

Spain's right-wing Popular Party
Madrid's Isabel Diaz Ayuso. Photo: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP

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

‘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.”

Member comments

  1. While the right are busy fighting among themselves the left can get on with winning over the majority of the people and staying in contact with the grassroots.

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Spain’s PP is hot on the heels of PSOE, but will they need Vox to govern?

With the next general election slated for December 2023, recent polling shows Spain's Conservatives gaining ground on the Socialists. Spanish political correspondent Conor Faulkner looks at whether the PP will need far-right Vox to govern, as they now do at a regional level.

Spain's PP is hot on the heels of PSOE, but will they need Vox to govern?

Recent polling from Spain’s CIS (Centre for Sociological Research) shows the incumbent PSOE-led government with a slight, but shrinking, advantage over opposition parties.

On 30.3 percent, Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE would form the government if elections were held today, but that score is unimproved since April and, crucially, the centre-right party Popular Party is gaining, polling at 28.7 percent in May, with the difference between the two now only 1.6 percent.

In fact, PP have been on a steady rise since a turbulent start to 2022 in which former leader Pablo Casado was forced to resign after becoming entangled in intra-party infighting with PP’s regional President in Madrid, Isabel Ayuso.

Casado was replaced by Galician Alberto Núñez Feijóo, considered to be a more traditional centre-right candidate in the mould of Rajoy, who served as President of Galicia between 2009-2022.

PROFILE: Feijóo, steady hand on the tiller for Spain’s opposition party

Whereas Casado was often drawn into scandal and outflanked on cultural issues by far-right Vox, Feijóo is considered a more conventional conservative less prone to populism, and his short tenure as leader has put the PP back on the road to electoral respectability. 

PP were polling around 21 percent in February, amid the public infighting, but since then have steadily risen to the 28.7 percent that they would get if an election were held today, according to recent CIS numbers.

Yet, while many view Feijóo as more centrist than his predecessor, at the regional level far-right Vox have entered into a regional government coalition with PP in Castilla y León.

With important regional elections looming in Andalusia in June, and a general election further down the line in December 2023, it remains unclear if PP would be forced to rely on Vox to overcome PSOE’s thin polling advantage and form a national government.

Crucially, PP’s recent rise has not chipped away at Vox’s polling numbers. According to the CIS, Vox’s polling numbers grew from 14.8 percent in April to 16.6 percent in May, and with centrist Cuidadanos all but electorally wiped out, hovering around 2 or 3 percent all year, and the far-left, junior coalition partner Podemos falling further in the polls, to below 10 percent, the CIS estimate a higher probability of a right-wing PP-Vox (45 percent) than they do a PSOE-Podemos (39.9 percent) government.

With Vox now firmly established as Spain’s third political party and already on the offensive in Castilla y Leon’s regional government – including its Minister of Industry, Commerce and Employment in the assembly recently declaring war against “the virus of communism” – all eyes will be on the upcoming Andalusian regional elections to see if PP is again forced to rely on Vox members to form a government.

Vox’s anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, climate-sceptic populist policy programme is controversial, and the prospect of them as junior coalition partner in a national government would be an abrupt change from a government that wants to introduce menstrual leave and provide financial aid to renters.

Their entry into government at the regional level in Castilla y León was the first time they have officially entered into an executive, at any level, although PP have relied on Vox votes in regional assemblies in both Murcia and Andalusia in the past.

READ ALSO: Spanish cabinet approves paid ‘menstrual leave’

Whereas under Casado’s leadership PP were often forced rightward on cultural issues in an effort to stop Vox shaving away at their core electoral base, under Feijóo the future is less clear. Although Feijóo is considered more centrist than his predecessor, Vox’s steady rise since its emergence into Spanish politics since 2014 worries many on the left and centre, particularly as it has now officially entered into government at the regional level.

Yet, Feijóo seems keen to draw some distinction between the two parties. “The leaders of Vox cannot prove experience in management [of the country] because they do not have it, [and] it seems that they do not like the European Union… the State of Autonomies does not satisfy them either,” he said this week, but did recognise their electoral gains as “obvious.”

“The difference between Vox and the PP,” he continued, “is that a good part of Vox leaders came from the PP and left the common home.”

“We are very interested in those votes that those leaders have because they were votes that the PP had. And, as you will understand, we are here to win,” he added.

What exactly that means for the future political makeup of La Moncloa – whether Feijóo intends to win back those votes for PP or keep them in the ‘common home’ and work with Vox in coalition – remains unclear.

With the Sánchez-led coalition having had almost its entire term swallowed up by the global pandemic, then war in Europe, and now a cost of living and inflation crisis, it seems likely the left could lose the next general election and the Spanish right will return to power.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether that means a PP government or a PP-Vox coalition and the prospect of the far-right in government. All eyes will be on Andalusia in June to see how Feijóo pivots his party as it looks ahead to general elections next year. 

READ ALSO: What a Vox government could mean for foreigners in Spain