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Spain’s People’s Party Hasn’t Turned the Page

Alberto Núñez Feijóo promised moderation. Moderates are still waiting.

Alberto Núñez Feijóo
Spanish People’s Party leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo attends the European People’s Party congress in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, May 30 (PP)

Alberto Núñez Feijóo took over Spain’s conservative People’s Party two months ago. The hope was that the relatively moderate Feijóo would put an end to fruitless purity contests and return the once-dominant Christian democratic party to the center-right.

He may have achieved the first, but he seems less interested in the second.

Where Feijóo is coming from

The former president of Galicia, who now represents the Atlantic region in the Senate, emerged as party leader from a squabble between his right-wing predecessor, Pablo Casado, and the even more right-wing president of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso.

Casado had defeated the more mainstream Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría in a leadership poll in 2018. He then led the conservatives through two electoral defeats.

Ayuso, who refused to lock down Madrid during COVID-19, did lead the People’s Party to victory in the capital region, where it has governed since 1995.

But moderates were wary of Ayuso’s Trump-like rhetoric and worried (rightly, I think) that, if promoted to party leader, she would lose more voters to the center-left than she could gain from the far right.

Feijóo, a relative outsider, was acceptable to moderates as well as populists.

Competition on the right

The main issue that has pushed the People’s Party to the right is Catalan separatism.

The region’s attempts to wrestle away from Spain, including calling an unsanctioned independence referendum in 2017, hardened right-wing nationalism. A new party, Vox (Voice), took 3.6 million votes — 15 percent — from the mainstream right in 2019. Support for the People’s Party fell to a record low of 17 percent.

Vox now polls at 16 to 23 percent and the People’s Party at 22 to 28 percent.

Casado tried to win voters back from Vox by imitating Vox. I thought this was a mistake: every time Casado moved closer to Vox, Vox moved farther to the right.

When Casado suggested restricting access to abortion, Vox called for ending public funding of abortions altogether.

When Casado proposed to suspend Catalan autonomy, Vox argued for abolishing all autonomies and recentralizing power in Madrid.

When Casado argued Brexit was an opportunity to share control of Gibraltar with the British, Vox simply demanded the peninsula back.

Views on Catalans

Catalan nationalism did not cause Vox. Like far-right parties elsewhere, it is a reaction against cosmopolitan liberalism in general. But Catalan nationalism is a totemic issue for Spanish reactionaries.

Vox is not a working-class rebellion, like Donald Trump’s or Marine Le Pen’s. An American would describe its economic platform as libertarian. Vox supporters tend to be comfortably middle class, but they think the country is going in the wrong direction. They are more likely to be churchgoing and less likely to be university-educated than the people they see in Pedro Sánchez’ left-wing government or on TV.

This also describes opponents of Catalan nationalism. Views on Catalan self-determination predict where Spaniards stand on the political spectrum. Far-left voters are the most sympathetic, far-right voters the least.

So if Feijóo, who backed Sáenz de Santamaría in 2018 and who criticized Casado’s Vox-lite strategy, wanted to de-Vox-ify his party, a good place to start would be revising its plank on Catalan autonomy.

He hasn’t.

Neither anti-autonomy, nor for it

Feijóo claims his party has “never been anti-autonomist.” Yet it has resisted Catalan autonomy at every turn.

It opposed the 2006 Autonomy Statute that formalized Catalan home rule. It didn’t just vote against it in Congress; it asked the Constitutional Court to overrule it. The judges, most of whom had been appointed by the People’s Party, rewrote several of the statute’s articles, including one that recognized Catalonia as a nation.

When the People’s Party was last in power, it delayed infrastructure investments in Catalonia and forced the region to cut social-security benefits (which are funded by Catalan taxes). When the region defied the Constitutional Court to vote on independence in 2017, it was a People’s Party government that suspended Catalan autonomy, deposed the regional leadership, and arrested and prosecuted its cabinet for sedition and rebellion against Spain.

If this isn’t “anti-autonomy,” what is?

At least now the People’s Party will “defend” the “autonomies,” Feijóo insists.

But he also insists Spain is “not a plurinational state” and his will not become a “confederal” party, suggesting that more self-government for Catalonia, ideally within a federal Spain — which I believe is the only way out of the impasse — is nonnegotiable for him.

Aping Casado

Casado (absurdly) compared bilingual education in Catalonia to racial segregation in the United States. Feijóo, whose Galicia speaks its own language too, says he wants to lead a “party of cordial bilingualism.”

Yet — aping Casado’s rhetoric — he has accused Catalan schools of instituting a policy of “linguistic apartheid” against “children who are not able to have knowledge of the Spanish language in the classroom.”

The reason is that Catalan education is predominantly in Catalan, and nonnative speakers get extra language courses.

Warming to Vox

Most ominously, Feijóo appears to be changing his mind about Vox, a party that wants to criminalize Basque and Catalan separatism; recriminalize euthanasia; lift the ban on “conversion therapy” that claims to “cure” homosexuality; and “reconquer” Spain from Muslims.

In 2019, Feijóo balked at the terms of a coalition with Vox in Andalusia, which included revoking protections for sexual minorities and rewriting historical memory laws. (Vox believes teachers are too negative about the former dictatorship.)

As party leader, he has approved a similar coalition in Castilla y León that gives Vox the regional vice presidency, three ministries and the speakership of the regional parliament.

If the People’s Party and Vox remain stable in the polls, neither would be able to form a national government without the other.