FOCUS: After crisis, Spain right-wing opposition shifts to centre

Spain's right-wing Popular Party (PP) anoints a new leader on Saturday to get the faction back on track following a major internal conflict -- a moderate pragmatist who will reorient it towards the centre.

FOCUS: After crisis, Spain right-wing opposition shifts to centre
Former Galician regional president and now PP leader Alberto Nuñez Feijoo at a Popular Party meeting in Santiago de Compostela on March 2nd, 2022. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

At an extraordinary congress in the southern city of Seville, the PP will formally hand the reins to Alberto Núñez Feijóo, an experienced politician who will become Spain’s main opposition leader.

As well as patching up internal divides following a brief-but-brutal crisis, Feijóo will also lead the PP’s response to Spain’s left-wing government and to the far-right Vox, which has seen a surge in support.

The 60-year-old, who has run the northwestern region of Galicia for 13 years, is the only candidate running, in a sign of the party’s desire to set aside its internal differences.

And his credentials are impressive: as regional leader he won four absolute majorities and has prevented Vox from making any headway in Galicia despite its growing popularity across Spain.

He has also steered clear of scandal, despite the emergence of photos from the mid-90s showing his friendship with Marcial Dorado, a cigarette smuggler later jailed for drug trafficking.

While admitting they were friends at the time, Feijóo said he had no idea about Dorado’s illegal activities.

“We aspire to be the reference for all Spaniards who have ever trusted us — and for those who have never trusted us,” he tweeted ahead of the two-day congress which begins on Friday.

An experienced pair of hands will come as a relief following the bitter clash between two of the PP’s younger faces: outgoing party leader Pablo Casado, 41, and rising hardliner and regional leader in Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, 43.

READ ALSO: A foreigner’s guide to understanding Spanish politics in five minutes

In February, their increasingly-tense relationship exploded into all-out war when she accused him of secretly gathering alleged evidence of corruption against her and her entrepreneur brother over a contract to buy Covid-19 face masks.

Ayuso has denied any wrongdoing. Public prosecutors have opened an investigation into the case.

Tensions between them had sharpened after her landslide victory in regional elections, her success throwing Casado’s lacklustre leadership into sharp relief, with their public confrontation pushing party barons to engineer his ouster.

“The time had come to turn a new page,” said Esteban González Pons, a PP lawmaker in the European Parliament who rushed back to Spain to help organise the congress.

General elections are due by the end of 2023 but Pedro Sánchez’s left-wing coalition is already worn out by the pandemic, the resulting economic crisis, soaring inflation, social unrest over spiralling prices and the global uncertainty caused by the war in Ukraine.

The national outlook “could get complicated” with inflation and rising prices “hitting people’s pockets ever more deeply while wages remain unchanged,” said Ana Sofía Cardenal, a political scientist at Catalonia’s Open University.

Feijóo with former Spanish Prime Minister and PP leader Mariano Rajoy in 2016. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

In this context, Feijóo, “who is more centrist, could win votes in the centre or the centre-left”.

The far-right has become a headache for the PP, which has watched how Vox has, in eight years, managed to obtain 52 of the 350 seats in Spain’s parliament as its own showing has fallen from 186 to 88.

Although it has taken longer for an extremist, ultra-nationalist party to take root in Spain, Vox is different from its counterparts in France, Italy or Germany in that it “splintered off from the PP,” admits a senior party source, indicating all of the faction’s founders were once PP members.

Under Casado, the PP shifted to the right as it sought to staunch the flow of voters to Vox.

“Lately, our political rhetoric has been using the same language as Vox,” the source said, although Feijóo’s appointment had raised hopes “that we can win some of them back”.

Feijóo’s job is now “to attract the centrist voters” that brought former PP prime ministers Jose María Aznar and Mariano Rajoy to power, said Ernesto Pascual, a political scientist at Barcelona’s Autonomous University.

He needs to get the message across that “moving towards extremism is not the way to win a ruling majority,” he said.

Polls, however, suggest the PP could need to join forces with Vox to govern with a majority, like it has just done for the first time at the regional level in Castilla y Leon, just north of Madrid.

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Why Madrid has become a haven for Latin American dissidents

Well-known faces of Cuba's protest have in recent years gone into exile in Madrid, which is rivalling Miami as a haven for Latin American political opponents.

Why Madrid has become a haven for Latin American dissidents

“Miami has always been the destination of those who suffered from Latin American dictatorships,” Cuban dissident and playwright Yunior García, who went into self-imposed exile in Madrid in November, told AFP.

But now “many Latin Americans are choosing to come to Spain,” added García, one of the organisers of a failed mass protest last year in the Communist-ruled island.

The Spanish capital is especially attractive for an artist and dissident fleeing a dictatorship because of its “bohemian” atmosphere, García said.

Spain has long drawn migrants from its former colonies in Latin America who have often sought work in low-wage jobs as cleaners or waiters — but in recent years prominent exiles have joined the influx.

Award-winning Nicaraguan writer and former vice president Sergio Ramírez and Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo López, a former mayor of Chacao, an upmarket district of Caracas, are among those who have moved to Madrid.

“Madrid is the new Miami, the new place where so many hispanics come fleeing dictatorship,” said Toni Cantó, the head of a Madrid regional government body charged with promoting the region as the “European capital of Spanish”.

Many Latin Americans are able to establish themselves easily in Spain because they have double citizenship, in many cases because their ancestors came from the country.

Others like García arrive on a tourist visa and then request asylum.

Sometimes, especially in the case of prominent Venezuelan opposition leaders, the government has rolled out the welcome mat and granted them Spanish citizenship.

Cuban political dissident Carolina Barrero is pictured during an AFP interview in Madrid. Spain has long drawn migrants from its former colonies in Latin America who have often sought work in low-wage jobs, but in recent years prominent exilees have joined the influx. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

‘Good option’

Contacted by AFP, Spain’s central government declined to comment.

But shortly after García arrived in Spain, Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares told parliament that Latin Americans “share our values, they look naturally to Europe”.

For Cubans, getting a visa to enter the United States has been even more complicated in recent years since Washington closed its consulate in Havana in 2017. It only partially reopened in May.

“Spain is a very good option,” said Cuban journalist Abraham Jiménez, who fled to Spain in January when he finally was able to obtain a passport after years of being denied one.

Spain has received previous waves of Cuban dissidents in the past.

Under an agreement between Cuba, Spain and the Catholic Church, in 2010 and 2011, more than 110 Cuban political prisoners arrived in Madrid, accompanied by dozens of relatives.

There are now about 62,000 Cubans officially registered in Spain, with Madrid home to the largest community.

Cuba is “a pressure cooker, and ever time pressure builds” Havana eases it by forcing dissidents into exile, said Alejandro Gonzalez Raga, the head of the Madrid-based Cuban Observatory for Human Rights who fled to Spain in 2008.

Cuban journalist Mónica Baró is pictured at her home in Madrid. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

‘Lost everything’

Cuban independent journalist Mónica Baró said she left Cuba for Madrid in 2021 because she said she could no longer bear the “harassment” of Cuban state security forces.

Madrid shares the same language and has a “shared culture”, as well as a well-established network of Cubans, that has helped her overcome the “traumas” she brought with her, Baro added.

But not knowing if she will ever see her parents, who remained in Cuba, again saddens her.

“When you leave like I did, you have the feeling that you buried your parents,” said Baró, who faces arrest if she returns to Cuba.

García said he welcomed the absence in Madrid of the deep “resentment” and “rage” towards the Cuban regime found in Miami among its much larger community of Cuban exiles, which he said was “natural”.

These are people “who had to leave on a raft, who lost everything they had in Cuba, whose family suffered jail time and sometimes death,” he said.

Madrid on the other hand, provides “tranquility to think things through,” he added.

“I don’t want anger, resentment, to win me over,” García said.