Spain’s new opposition leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo pledged to turn the page on confrontational politics and foster inclusive dialogue Saturday in his first speech after being overwhelmingly elected head of the Popular Party.
A calm, experienced moderate with a pragmatic outlook, he said he would fight to return the right-wing party to power and warned he would not be a pushover.
“Moderation is not about being lukewarm and dialogue is not submission,” he said after being elected leader with 98.3 percent of the votes at a two-day party congress in Seville.
After 13 years governing Galicia in northwestern Spain with an impressive track record of four absolute majorities, the party is hoping the 60-year-old will be able to translate his regional success to a national level.
“Enough of the heated debates and confronting each other, enough of creating problems, there are already so many… Let’s end these futile debates and face the real problems,” Feijoo told delegates.
“I’m not here to insult (Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez) but to beat him.”
European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, a guest at the congress, said he had full confidence in Feijoo.
“Alberto knows the path to victory very well because if there’s one thing he knows about, it’s winning elections,” he said in fluent Spanish.
The Spanish premier congratulated Feijoo on his appointment, tweeting: “In these complex times, working with unity and responsibility for the common good must be a priority for everyone.”
– Moving past a crisis –
The Galician leader was the only candidate running to take over from Pablo Casado, who was edged out following a bitter internal dispute with one of the party’s rising stars.
When Casado took over as PP chief in July 2018, he was a young hardliner who promised to breathe new life into a party snarled in corruption and bleeding votes.
But barely four years later, he was left fighting for his political life after a very public confrontation with Isabel Diaz Ayuso, whose success as Madrid regional leader threw his own lacklustre leadership into sharp relief.
In a parting address on Friday, Casado said he was stepping back from politics and giving up his parliamentary seat.
Former PP prime ministers Jose María Aznar (1996-2004) and Mariano Rajoy (2011-2018) urged the party to rally around Feijoo.
“His success will mean success for all of us and for Spain,” said Aznar, speaking by video link because he has Covid-19.
Feijoo is the only one of Spain’s regional leaders to govern with an absolute majority in a region where the Socialists pose no threat and the far-right Vox has made no headway despite growing popularity across Spain.
– Feijoo to face Socialists and Vox –
But at a national level the situation is the opposite and Feijoo will have to contend with a Socialist-led government, its hard-left partner Podemos and Vox in the ascendency.
During his long political career, Feijoo has steered clear of scandal, despite the emergence of photos from the mid-90s showing his friendship with a cigarette smuggler later jailed for drug trafficking.
While admitting they were friends at the time, Feijoo said he had no idea about the illegal activities.
General elections are due by the end of 2023 but Sanchez’s left-wing coalition already looks worn out by the pandemic, soaring inflation and social unrest over spiralling prices as well as the global uncertainty caused by the war in Ukraine.
The far-right has also been a headache for the PP, which has watched how Vox has, within eight years, managed to obtain 52 of the 350 seats in Spain’s parliament while its own showing has fallen from 186 to 88.
Even if the PP does succeed in next year’s election, recent polls suggest it could need the support of Vox to govern.
Alarm bells sounded last month when the PP made a coalition deal with Vox, letting the far-right faction into a regional government for the first time, raising fears it could be a blueprint for future power-sharing, both regionally and nationally.