Halfway through its term and just months away from the next electoral test, the Spanish government is scrambling to contain its most serious political threat to date – and it’s coming from within.
Despite holding both houses of the Spanish parliament, the ruling Popular Party (PP) is coming under increasing internal stress as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy attempts to appease both the party's restive conservative wing and its center-right majority.
That divide was evident during the PP's annual convention this past weekend, which was supposed to reinvigorate its constituency and to serve as an ideal platform to present its candidates for May elections for the European Parliament. Instead it was notable for the absences of several conservative party leaders, fueling rumors of a break in the party.
Jaime Mayor Oreja, the current leader of the PP's delegation in the European Parliament and a conservative former minister, was among those absent. Days before the convention he rocked the party when he declined to once again lead the PP’s candidate list in May, or to even represent the party.
Also absent was former Prime Minister José María Aznar, Mr. Rajoy’s predecessor as party leader and for many the ultimate leader of the conservative revolt. He had previous engagements abroad, he said – an excuse which analysts and the media interpreted as a rebuke to Rajoy.
The snubs come less than a month after the PP's first real fissure, when a small group representing the extreme right within the party splintered to form its own party, Vox. While the new party is too radical to cater to most PP voters, it’s the first time since 1989 that the PP right is not united under one tent.
The PP is not crumbling, analysts warn, but the internal tensions are showing signs of decay within the PP's decades-old, monolithic right-voting bloc – and which could be exacerbated by upcoming elections.
“This is only the beginning of internal divisions ahead of EU parliamentary elections,” says Jaime Pastor, a political science professor at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED) and an expert of public opinion. The EU vote will be followed by regional and municipal elections in May 2015 and general elections by the end of 2015
For the last two years, the government has used its overarching powers to push through unpopular economic reforms without any serious political erosion of its constituency. But its political cushion is wearing thin.
For months, leaders representing the conservative block – analogous to the Tea Party in the US – have been distancing themselves from Rajoy over his perceived weakness in handling Catalonian and Basque nationalism, as well as his response to court investigations over alleged party-sanctioned corruption incriminating the top PP leaders.
“Conservatives are pressing Rajoy to radicalize his policies, more than actually offering an alternative to Rajoy,” says Pastor.
But at the same time, the PP's center-right voters have grown impatient over the corruption scandals, the party's rightward swing, and frustrations over the economic crisis, which bottomed out in the second half of 2013 but without signs of noticeable improvement on the streets.
The strain between the two groups is weakening the prime minister, Dr. Pastor explains. “Rajoy will try to correct things before May, but the PP is nervous because the abortion issue just fueled the impression the government is radicalizing and its shedding voters from the center,” Pastor says.
Prospects in Europe
The internal friction raises the stakes for the PP in the upcoming European elections. Though abstention for EU elections is traditionally high, a poor showing by the PP will put Rajoy under intense pressure and could even spur a challenge to his leadership of the party.
The conservative hawks of the party “are distancing themselves from the current leadership because they anticipate setbacks in EU elections," Pastor says, which could create a vicious circle by undermining PP supporters' confidence in the party, thereby contributing to further voter drain.
Ultimately, the PP's success in the EU elections will depend on how big that voter drain is, and where those voters go.
“There is a small fissure in the PP, and it would be risky to assume it’s important,” warns Felix Ortega, a sociology professor in Universidad Complutense de Madrid and specialist in voter trends. But "Voter abstention will increase a lot, and that would hurt. [But] voter drain to other political parties ... would hurt more.”
According to a poll published this week published by the government-aligned daily La Razon, the PP slightly leads its closest rivals, the Socialist Party, in voter intention for May EU elections, with smaller left and center-right formations seeing more than three-fold gains.
For the PP though, such a result would entail a loss of more than 10 percentage points, dropping it to around 30 percent.