On July 21, Spain’s conservative Popular Party (PP) elected 37-year-old Pablo Casado as their new leader. Casado, who previously served as chief of staff to former Prime Minister José María Aznar and as the party’s communications vice-secretary, takes over from Mariano Rajoy. The former prime minister’s government fell after a corruption scandal precipitated a no confidence vote in May. This is a critical time for the PP as it seeks to heal the rift between its top leadership and reconnect with voters ahead of a series of elections next year.
The PP has been the main conservative voice in Spain since the country began the transition to democracy more than four decades ago. Originally known as the Popular Alliance, the party reconstituted itself as the Popular Party in 1989. From 1996 to 2004, Spain’s PP government oversaw a period of remarkable economic expansion. It eventually returned to government in 2011 under the leadership of Mariano Rajoy.
The competition proved especially fierce this round for Casado, the young politician who was up against prominent party figures such as the former Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría.
Following the initial ballot, Santamaría garnered only 1,500 more votes than Casado, thereby necessitating a run-off vote. In the end, party delegates decided to go with the relatively less experienced Casado over the party veteran, despite the fact that Santamaría had several high-profile backers including Javier Arenas, who is the regional party leader in Andalusia and has twice served as a government minister. One of Casado’s most pressing tasks in this new role will be to heal the split within the party as a result of this close vote.
Reinvigorating a party besmirched by one of Spain’s largest corruption scandals is sure to be another challenge for the rookie party leader. This task won’t be made any easier due to some disputed representations he made about his credentials, some of which are still being investigated.
These concerns aside, top of mind for PP’s new leader must be the fact that Spain heads to the polls to vote in municipal, regional, and European elections next spring. Consequently, Casado will need to move quickly and decisively to unify the party. One way he hopes to achieve this is by aligning the party with a more conservative platform. In his victory speech on Saturday, Casado stated that the PP was the party “that defends life and family”. He has previously attacked the Socialist government’s plans to legalise euthanasia and called for more stringent abortion laws. On the economic front, Casado favours lower taxes and policies that underpin productivity growth.
However, his ambitions extend beyond the realm of policy making. He’s talked about amending Spain’s political system so that the party with the largest share of the vote is allocated additional seats. This would minimise the need for complicated horse-trading amongst coalition partners and make it easier to enact legislation. Additionally, he’d like to outlaw pro-independence parties.
Many are wondering how successful will Casado be in shifting the PP further to the right. In order to shore up support, he has suggested convening a special party congress to review the party’s platform.
While the most recent election highlighted the divisions in the party, the PP is also aware of the fact that there is another conservative party nipping at their heels – the Citizens Party (Ciudadanos). At risk of being overtaken by this new political force, it seems likely that the PP will back Casado’s vision for the party, and possibly, for the future of Spain.