A power struggle has broken out in Spain’s opposition People’s Party.
Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the popular president of the region Madrid, has accused national party leader Pablo Casado of trying to “destroy” her by hiring private detectives to investigate allegations of corruption.
Casado’s right-hand man and party secretary, Teodoro García Egea, has accused Ayuso in turn of making “almost criminal” insinuations.
Other conservatives are taking sides. Esperanza Aguirre, who governed Madrid from 2003 to 2012, has defended Ayuso. Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the president of Galicia and leader of the moderate faction, has called the investigation into her “unforgivable”. Casado has the support of the mayor of Madrid as well as the party’s group leaders in Congress and the Senate.
At issue is a €1.5 million contract to import face masks from China. Madrid’s government hired Ayuso’s brother, Tomás, to arrange the deal in 2020.
Business daily El Confidencial and the conservative newspaper El Mundo revealed this week that the People’s Party had hired private investigators to find out if Tomás received a commission on the sale.
Ayuso admitted on Friday that her brother did, but she insisted she hadn’t been involved in hiring him and that her behavior throughout the COVID-19 crisis had been “exemplary”.
Casado disagreed. “It is incomprehensible that when thousands of people are dying, you take the opportunity to hire your brother,” he told an interviewer.
They also dispute the size of Tomás’ commission. Ayuso said it was €55,850, Casado suggested it could be €286,000.
Ayuso has been a thorn in Casado’s side since she refused to close down Madrid’s businesses and schools to prevent the spread of coronavirus. But her Trumpian style of right-wing populism didn’t come out of nowhere. It was Casado who shifted the People’s Party to the right in a so far unsuccessful attempt to outflank the far right. Ayuso is a product of that strategy.
The whole thing will sound familiar to analysts of right-wing politics in the United States.
Republicans spent years telling Americans the normal frustrations of politics were the result of “weak” leaders betraying the conservative “grassroots”. Eventually voters believed it — and started to unseat politicians who deviated from the party line. Members of Congress who compromised with Democrats were branded “Republicans in name only” and challenged in primaries. What began as a purity test that felled even stalwart conservatives morphed into a leadership cult that brooked no criticism of Donald Trump.
In a two-party system like America’s, extremists can win elections by taking over a major political party. That’s more difficult in the multiparty democracies of Europe. If a party leans too far in one direction, it will lose voters to another.
In the case of Spain, Casado’s lurch to the right has benefited the ruling Socialists. Between the two, moderate voters prefer the center-left over the hard right.
Worse, Casado’s weak imitation of the far right hasn’t brought back voters from Vox (Voice) either.
After defeating the establishment-backed Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría in the 2018 leadership election, Casado rewrote the People’s Party’s platform on abortion, Catalan autonomy, Gibraltar and immigration — and presided over its worst election result ever, when it got just 17 percent support in 2019.
Casado then U-turned, attacking Vox as “ultra-right” and meeting with Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, whom he had previously accused of “treason”, to discuss a common strategy for Catalonia.
When this didn’t help the People’s Party in the polls, Casado U-turned again. He returned to accusing Sánchez of treason for pardoning Catalan separatists and allowed regional government coalitions with Vox.
Moderates balked at the terms, which included revoking protections for sexual minorities and rewriting historical memory laws. (Vox believes teachers are too negative about the former dictatorship.) Casado pushed the deals through anyway.
The People’s Party now polls at 21 to 27 percent, and Vox at 16 to 21 percent. The Socialists remain in first place.
One step further
The problem with Casado’s strategy — and I pointed this out in 2019 — is that Vox, like all far-right parties, is always willing to go one step further.
When Casado proposed to limit access to abortion, Vox said it would cut public funding for abortions altogether.
When Casado suggested taking advantage of Brexit to negotiate joint Anglo-Spanish sovereignty of Gibraltar, Vox argued for taking back the peninsula outright (after 300 years of British rule).
Casado warned that Spain could not absorb an infinite number of African immigrants. Vox wants to close the border.
Casado would suspend Catalan home rule. Vox wants to revoke all autonomies and recentralize power in Madrid.
The obvious lesson is for the People’s Party to stop running after Vox and stand by its own convictions. As Markus Blume, a leader of Bavaria’s conservative party, memorably put it when they realized they could not outbid the far-right Alternative for Germany, “You can never outstink a skunk.”
Ayuso and her supporters think they can. They believe Casado has just not been forceful enough, and the reason the People’s Party is still down in the polls is that “weak” leaders like him obfuscate and trade away their principles for power.
They’re not completely wrong. Casado is an opportunist. He thought he could control the far right. Like center-right leaders who made that mistake before him, it will more likely destroy him.