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Spain’s conservatives ask PM for more action to stop rise of Ciudadanos

Regional Popular Party leaders are worried following protest party’s strong show at Catalan elections

Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy in Córdoba on Sunday.
Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy in Córdoba on Sunday. EFE

With local and regional elections coming up in mid-2019, the Popular Party (PP) is hoping that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will make Cabinet changes to appoint members with a higher political profile.

Its minority position in Congress means the PP cannot pass any hallmark legislation, and leaders feel that the government needs new members who will be more readily recognized by the public, rather than technocrats who carry out their duties anonymously.

We are dealing with two portfolios, we are running two governments

Spanish government minister

The warning is coming from regional leaders, who worry about the rise in votes and popularity of Ciudadanos, especially after its victory at the Catalan elections.

Ciudadanos, a protest party that was born in Catalonia but made the jump to national politics on the back of the economic crisis, has been eroding the voter base of both traditional parties, the PP and the Spanish Socialists (PSOE), but most especially the PP.

The pro-unity party put in a strong performance at the Catalan elections of December 21, when it became the most voted party in the region – even if separatist forces together secured more seats. But this victory came largely at the expense of the Catalan PP, whose supporters cast a tactical vote.

There has been no internal debate within the conservative party to discuss the stinging defeat, but that does not mean that party leaders are not worried. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has noted that the government did what it had to do in Catalonia and “did it well,” but that the party has “done things badly, and this needs to be studied.”

Albert Rivera with Inés Arrimadas, head of the Catalan branch of Ciudadanos.
Albert Rivera with Inés Arrimadas, head of the Catalan branch of Ciudadanos. Reuters

Despite the official silence that has followed these words – a result of intense discipline according to some, and self-containment according to others – the general opinion at regional headquarters is that the party is in emergency mode, and that the central government is the one that should make some moves.

Because it lacks a majority in Congress, the PP cannot push through any major law that might serve to showcase its achievements. But while there is no getting around the numbers, some party leaders believe the government could take some steps to help.

“There is a pretty generalized opinion that Rajoy should take advantage of Luis De Guindos’ departure [if the current economy minister is appointed vice-president of the European Central Bank] to make some adjustments,” said an advisor to the PM. “The party believes that a push is required, within the government and in the choice of candidates to the municipal and regional elections.”

“We need ministers who do not end their work on Friday after the Cabinet meeting, people with a more political background and who will show greater solidarity to one another,” says another top-ranking official.

When one reshuffles the cabinet, they talk about it the day after. You don’t go around announcing it ahead of time

PM Mariano Rajoy

“Ministers should do more to defend the government’s actions, even if there aren’t a lot of laws, and they should certainly defend the party’s proposals,” said another party leader. “We need to show that we have the initiative, and not leave an open field to Ciudadanos.”

Rajoy has repeatedly denied any plans to foment a government crisis. But those who have known him for decades took good note of his recent statement on the radio station Onda Cero: “When one reshuffles the Cabinet, they talk about it the day after. You don’t go around announcing it ahead of time.”

Although some PP leaders feel it would be dangerous to make this type of change so soon after the defeat at the Catalan polls, others say that there may be little choice because of the voting calendar.

There is a generalized feeling that the government is looking passive. Most of Madrid’s attention has been focused on Catalonia, and it will remain there until Article 155 of the Constitution is lifted and the region regains its self-rule. Until then, the central government is also in charge of running Catalan government agencies.

“We are dealing with two portfolios, we are running two governments,” said a minister. In practice, each minister is now in charge of his or her national ministry and also of the corresponding Catalan government department.

Whatever the changes that Rajoy may or may not be mulling, it is clear that he has gone on the offensive against Ciudadanos. At every one of his public appearances, including the one in Córdoba this past Sunday, the PM has attacked its leader Albert Rivera, accusing him of being “opportunistic” and lacking solid convictions.

English version by Susana Urra.

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