Barely two weeks after a chastening defeat in national elections, Spain’s conservative People’s party unveiled a huge banner at its headquarters this week to try to rally its dwindling band of voters for the next electoral test. It read simply Hay Partido — “Game on”.
For Pablo Casado, the PP’s sports-loving leader who must take the party into European and local elections on May 26, there is still the chance of the type of comeback that saw Liverpool dump Barcelona out of the Champions League semi-final this month.
“When you go to the dressing room after losing the first half, you don’t talk about what you did poorly. You talk about how turn things around, how to play, how to fight back,” he said at the campaign launch in Madrid — a party heartland and the most important battleground in 10 days’ time.
Mr Casado’s party has a lot of ground to claw back. On April 28 it suffered the worst defeat in its 30-year history, winning a mere 16.7 per cent of the vote. The PP was crushed between an insurgent far-right Vox party, winning its first national parliamentary seats, and the liberal Ciudadanos party, which also tilted its campaign towards nationalist voters.
At stake is the PP’s continued claim to be the main conservative opposition to Pedro Sanchez’s socialist party. But its huge setback in April illustrates the broader predicament for Europe’s centre-right parties going into the European elections — struggling to decide whether to stand against more strident nationalist and far-right parties in an increasingly fragmented political landscape, or try to lure their voters.
Mr Casado’s choices show that dilemma — and if, as he suggests, it is merely half-time in Spain’s political match, he is resorting to different tactics for the second half.
After Vox burst on to the scene in December elections in Andalucía, Spain’s most populous region, Mr Casado attempted to shift right on issues such as immigration and abortion. But with April’s election suggesting that the move backfired, he has now tacked back to the centre, saying the PP was the “party made for everyone” and criticising Vox as the “extreme right”.
That move has pleased voters such as Antonia Jurado, 70, a life-long PP voter who attended the campaign launch. The brief turn right was “nothing”, she said: “I prefer the centre. The centre-centre”.
Not all right-leaning voters are convinced. “I’m not sure how the people will look at this new shift. It could be seen like he doesn’t have a very solid foundation,” said Abel Sánchez, 21, who has voted for the PP in the past but voted for Ciudadanos in April. “But it’s correct what they’re doing because the other direction they were taking was completely wrong.”
Polls are not encouraging: according to an FT poll of polls, the PP is expected to fall from 17 to nine European seats while Ciudadanos is on course to have 11 MEPs, gaining three seats. Across Europe, the European People’s party (EPP) to which the PP belongs is expected to win 166 seats, down from 217.
Madrid matters. The PP has governed the region around the capital since 1995 but trailed in third in the general election behind the Socialists and Ciudadanos. A further PP loss in the local elections could presage decline and organisational chaos in the party, said Astrid Barrio, professor of politics at the University of Valencia. She said the party’s “structure and incentive system” was based on its territorial power and that losses could lead PP members to switch their party allegiance to Vox or Ciudadanos.
Ignacio Molina, senior analyst at Madrid’s Elcano Institute think-tank, said it was “absolutely necessary” for the PP to beat Ciudadanos in Madrid — and believes it can do so despite its disastrous performance in April.
“Many Vox voters will return to the PP,” said Mr Molina. “After the last elections they saw that the chance of Vox to become the reference on the right were very small. And they don’t want the left to govern.”
Unsurprisingly, Vox leaders disagree, arguing that the PP’s return to the centre has left a large pool of unsatisfied voters. “The PP should be very fearful at this moment of losing a flood of voters when, after a campaign in which they imitated Vox, they have made a cowardly turn to the centre and opened an enormous space for us,” said Hermann Tertsch, a Vox candidate for the European Parliament.
Mr Casado is at least talking of a much improved second half. “We are going to show that we’re a winning party, the biggest party in Spain, the biggest party in Europe,” he said in Madrid. “We will again show that when Spaniards need us, we are there.”