In mid-March, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, who has just been elected leader of Spain’s conservative People’s Party (PP), gave a speech at a theater in the northern city of Oviedo.
The event was going to plan until half an hour, when a young man interrupted from the podium, haranguing the speaker for not acknowledging the achievements of recently ousted party leader Pablo Casado. The heckler was booed and kicked out of the room.
The incident was in line with recent party dramas, which saw an ugly civil war erupt in February, exposing bitter rivalries and toppling Casado. This weekend, at an extraordinary party conference in Seville, Spain’s biggest right-wing political force named 60-year-old Núñez Feijóo, billed as a moderate, as its new leader while trying to put the pieces back together.
“We need to move Spanish politics away from confrontation and permanent hyperbole,” he told the party. “My project is that of understanding.”
The PP has been, together with the Socialist Party, a political pillar of modern Spanish democracy. Founded by former members of the Franco regime after the dictatorship as the Popular Alliance, it governed Spain under José María Aznar and then Mariano Rajoy, who was deposed by a motion of censure motivated by corruption scandals in 2018.
Casado, who took the helm that year, was an erratic figure who wavered between center-right and far-right while leading the party to a series of electoral humiliations. When it became public knowledge that Casado was investigating allegations of corruption in the purchase of face masks by Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the powerful president of the PP in the Madrid region, his support within the party imploded and he was forced to resign.
“We experienced something that we had never experienced before,” admitted Díaz Ayuso. “We have always been an organized, presidential-style party. . . We are now at a stage where we are still healing the wounds.
“We have to restart.” said a senior PP official. “It’s like when a computer freezes – our party is frozen.”
But the misfortunes of the PP go beyond internal squabbles. Although it has sought to put the systemic corruption of the past behind it, the investigation into the Díaz Ayuso face mask case is a reminder of that tainted legacy. Meanwhile, he is struggling to attract younger voters, with half of his voter base over the age of 65.
But the most pressing problem for the Tories is the threat from their right flank, in the form of the radical Vox party. The third force in parliament, Vox continues to gain electoral ground with its aggressively nationalist rhetoric. More recently, he made gains in a regional election in Castile and León, which led him to become the junior partner in a coalition with the PP.
It was the first time the far-right had officially entered a democratic-era government, drawing criticism of the PP from across Spain’s left as well as some fellow conservative Europeans, such as former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk.
“Vox will be a problem and a priority for [Núñez Feijóo]no doubt, like Casado,” said Lluís Orriols, a political scientist at Carlos III University in Madrid.
“We don’t know if we are going to see a more traditionally conservative Feijóo, who is tough on the far right, or a Feijóo who continues the PP’s policy so far of normalizing Vox and seeing it as a party with which it can do business,” he added.
Núñez Feijóo was the undisputed candidate to be the new leader based on his record in Galicia, where he won four consecutive elections, each time with a majority, making him and the northwestern region political outliers. in a fragmented Spain.
Vox’s presence in Galicia remains minimal and as its president Núñez Feijóo, who speaks the local Galego language, has managed to avoid being seen as hostile to the region’s identity, unlike many of his conservative colleagues in Catalonia or in the Basque Country.
So far, he has given few clues as to how he will rise to the challenge posed by the far right. However, in mid-March he was forced to back down after insisting that in cases where a father kills a child to hurt the mother, the crime should not be considered ‘gender-based violence’. “. Such debates are Vox’s stomping ground and his initial comment was seen as the latest example of that party dragging the PP further to the right.
“Lately we have been stuck in the semantic arena of Vox,” admitted the senior PP official.
“It’s one thing to be moderate when you are president of Galicia where, for example, Vox is not very present, the PP has always been the dominant party and there is practically no opposition” , said Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist in Barcelona. Autonoma University. “But it’s quite another thing in Madrid, where the atmosphere is much tougher and more antagonistic.”
He added: “The question is whether he can forge his own line or will he be a prisoner of the dominant party forces in Madrid, which are very radical.”
With several elections and a general election slated for 2023 approaching, the PP must decide whether it will continue to forge coalitions with the far right – a strategy that may be its only route back into government.
For now, Núñez Feijóo has hinted that he will be a more political figure than his predecessor, Casado, whose tenure was characterized by a refusal to support the government in almost all major policy areas and vicious attacks on the Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.
“I’m not here to insult the prime minister,” Núñez Feijóo told the party over the weekend. “I am here, like all of you, to defeat him.”
However, its past is not free from flaws. In 2013, photographs appeared in the media of a young Núñez Feijóo vacationing in the 1990s with Marcial Dorado, a drug trafficker who served a long prison sentence. The politician managed to ignore friendship, which failed to shake his electoral appeal in Galicia.
But having survived this particular storm in his home region, a much tougher ordeal awaits him in Madrid.