Power struggle reveals fading right-left divide
The war of words between Aguirre and Rajoy has unveiled what seems to be an identity crisis for the PM’s government.MADRID - It is often said that the political right and left have become difficult to distinguish in Western Europe, but it is usually the left that is seen as having relinquished a part of its original beliefs.
In Spain, however, the right is struggling with an identity crisis following its second consecutive election defeat to Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialists in March.
Spaniards have been mesmerised by the power struggle raging within the main opposition conservative People's Party (PP), where colourless leader Mariano Rajoy, 52, has been challenged by a flamboyant woman, Madrid regional Prime Minister Esperanza Aguirre, 56.
One of the most unashamedly rightist politicians within the PP, Aguirre has called on the party to challenge the Socialists on the ideological terrain in order to oust them from power in the 2012 elections.
Most observers feel that former culture minister Aguirre, who was Spain's first female president of the senate and regional premier, is more interested in replacing Rajoy and in becoming the country's first woman prime minister, than in ideology.
At the same time, however, her attack on Rajoy has revealed, not only what many see as a deterioration of the formerly strict internal discipline within the PP, but also a certain difficulty in defining what it means to be a conservative.
Aguirre's criticism of Rajoy, a former interior minister whose position has been undermined by his two election defeats to Zapatero, has included indirectly describing him as being close to a Social Democratic ideology, while she defines herself as a "liberal".
Many were surprised by such an allegation against the PP leader, whom critics had accused of veering to the far right during the electoral campaign, when he toughened his discourse on traditional right-wing themes such as immigration and crime.
Traditionally, the Spanish centre-right has also had one of the clearest identities among such parties in Europe, after growing partly out of the legacy left by the 1939-75 right-wing dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.
Rajoy, however, responded to Aguirre's attacks by stressing the moderation of the PP, which believed in "the equality of rights and opportunities" and in public education, health and pensions, in an apparent reference to Aguirre, who has privatised hospitals and schools.
"If anyone wants to go to the liberal or conservative party, let them go," Rajoy fumed.
The two leaders later tried to patch up their differences, but Aguirre continues to maintain the uncertainty over whether she will seek the PP presidency at the party congress in June, and tension is still running high.
Aguirre, whose privatisation policies have made some describe her as a Spanish Margaret Thatcher, is also known for her bitter rivalry with Madrid mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, another candidate to succeed Rajoy.
"It is no longer universally true that the right unites over common interests while the left is divided by ideology," columnist Santiago Gonzalez observed.
In comparison with the PP, analysts said, Zapatero's Socialists appear to have a clearer ideological identity, which they define above all in social terms.
After the Socialists espoused liberal economics over the past decades, being a Socialist in Spain now means being socially progressive, and Zapatero has not hesitated to take on the Catholic Church over bold reforms such as homosexual marriage and fast divorce.
He also exhibited his feminism by appointing Spain's first female-dominated cabinet after the elections.
Some PP politicians have joined Catholic bishops in rallies against gay marriage, but the PP also shuns too close a relationship with such a highly conservative institution, and could hardly cancel a law on the basis of which thousands of gay couples have already got married.
With the economic policies of the right and left fairly similar, and with the PP unable to really challenge the Socialists on the social terrain, how can you be a Spanish conservative without evoking Franco's ghost?
Neither Aguirre nor Rajoy were up to the "debate of ideas" that the PP deserved, the left-leaning daily El Pais observed Wednesday.
[dpa / ANP / Expatica]