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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Spain and Mali foreign ministers speak after row over NATO remarks

Mali's Foreign Minister said Saturday he had spoken with his Spanish counterpart after a row over comments the Spaniard made about the possibility of a NATO operation in the African country.

Spain and Mali foreign ministers speak after row over NATO remarks

Mali’s Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop wrote in a tweet that he had spoken by phone with his Spanish counterpart Jose Manuel Albares about the comments, which were made in a radio interview.

“He denied the remarks and expressed his attachment to friendly relations and cooperation with Mali,” wrote Diop.

Spain moved to calm the row Saturday, a day after a day the military regime in Bamako had summoned their ambassador for an explanation.

“Spain did not ask during the NATO summit or at any other time for an intervention, mission or any action by the Alliance in Mali,” said a statement from Spain’s embassy.

The row blew up over remarks by Albares in an interview Thursday with Spain’s RNE radio. Asked if a NATO mission in Mali could be ruled out, Albares said: “No, we can’t rule it out.”

“It hasn’t been on the table at the talks in Madrid because this is a summit that is laying out, so to speak, the framework for NATO action.”

“If it were necessary and if there was to be a threat to our security, of course it would be done,” he added.

Albares was speaking on the sidelines of the NATO summit as it drew to a close in Madrid. Diop had told state broadcaster ORTM on Friday that Bamako had summoned the Spanish ambassador to lodge a strong protest over the remarks.

READ ALSO: Nato apologises after hanging Spanish flag upside down at Madrid summit

“These remarks are unacceptable, unfriendly, serious,” said Diop, because “they tend to encourage an aggression against an independent and sovereign country”.

“We have asked for explanations, a clarification of this position from the Spanish government,” he added.

At the Madrid summit, Spain pushed hard to prioritise the topic of the threat to NATO’s southern flank caused by the unrest in the Sahel — the vast territory stretching across the south of Africa’s Sahara Desert, incorporating countries such as Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

Jihadist attacks there are pushing increasing numbers of people to flee north towards Europe, with Spain one of the main points of entry there.

READ ALSO: Spain’s capital ramps up security to host Nato summit

At the summit, NATO acknowledged the alliance’s strategic interest in the Middle East, north Africa and the Sahel.

Mali has since 2012 been rocked by jihadist insurgencies. Violence began in the north and then spread to the centre and to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.