San Gil confirms plans to quit

23rd May 2008, Comments 0 comments

Rajoy's hold on the party appears shakier as the conservative party’s leader confirms plans to step down Thursday.

23 May 2008

MADRID - She had originally given him a 40-day ultimatum, but it took her just seven to make up her mind. A week after telling Mariano Rajoy that she had lost faith in him as president of the Popular Party, María San Gil, the conservative party's widely admired leader in the Basque Country, confirmed Thursday that she plans to step down.

"My decision is irreversible," San Gil told fellow members of the PP's Basque wing in a meeting yesterday.

She confirmed that she will not seek re-election as leader at a regional PP assembly in July and will cease to represent the PP in the Basque parliament. However, she did not disclose whether she plans to leave the party or politics entirely.

San Gil's decision, a week after she stormed out of a key policy committee over "fundamental differences" with Rajoy's appointees, represents the latest in a series of body blows Rajoy has suffered since failing to win the general election on 9 March - his second consecutive defeat to Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

In refusing to step down, Rajoy has found himself increasingly lonely at the top as he tries to assert his control by embarking on a search for the "political centre."

In doing so, he has ostracised hardliners as well as much of the PP's grassroots, who during the last legislature left the PP isolated in Congress as it refused to deal with nationalist parties and opposed the Socialist government at every turn.

Apparent efforts by Rajoy to go softer on nationalist parties and to wholeheartedly support the government in countering Basque terrorist group ETA, are thought to be two of the reasons behind San Gil's departure and a string of other recent walkouts, from former Congress spokesman Eduardo Zaplana to former Secretary General Ángel Acebes.

In the meantime, Rajoy has surrounded himself with trusted moderates, among them Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón and lesser-known names who advocate a "return to the centre" in order, they argue, to improve the party's chances of winning the election in 2012. After all, there are few Spanish voters to the right of the PP, whereas there are plenty in the centre who could swing either way.

However, in trying to come up with a winning formula, Rajoy, who will seek to retain the PP leadership at a national convention next month, has left himself open to criticism that he is abandoning the party's conservative principles.  Former PP Prime Minister José María Aznar, who picked Rajoy as his successor in 2004, has accused him of as much, as has Esperanza Aguirre, the premier of the Madrid region who has yet to rule out mounting a challenge for the party leadership at the convention.

With the exception of a few prominent figures - Gallardón and Manuel Fraga, the PP's octogenarian founder, among them - Rajoy now seems to have more detractors than supporters.

"Rajoy is managing the crisis badly," Gustavo de Arístegui, the PP's foreign affairs spokesman, said yesterday.

So far, San Gil may be the biggest loss.

As someone who has fought heroically to free the Basque Country from ETA - her former boss, PP councillor Gregorio Ordóñez, was shot in the head in front of her in a San Sebastián restaurant in 1995 - San Gil came to embody much of what the PP stands for, becoming something of a symbol not just in the Basque Country but nationwide.

The worry now for Rajoy and his dwindling band of supporters is that she - or someone close to her - may either challenge him for the national leadership next month or leave the party and follow her own path. She is known, for example, to be a close friend of Rosa Diez, a Socialist turncoat who helped found Union for Progress and Democracy (UPD) ahead of the last general election. Joining with her would split not only the right, but also the political centre.

[El Pais / A. Eatwell / Expatica]

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