If you can't beat them, join them! This seems to be the new guiding philosophy of Spain's opposition center-right Popular Party (PP), which has undergone an extreme makeover to the political center following its second consecutive election defeat to the ruling Socialist Workers Party (PSOE).
After losing the national elections on 9 March, most conservatives had expected the beleaguered opposition leader Mariano Rajoy to retire and quietly fade away. Instead, Rajoy, 53, has tenaciously held onto his position, insisting that he is the only individual who can unify the PP and unseat Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero at the next national poll, which is set for 2012. Rajoy has been the party's leader since 2004, when he was hand-picked for the job by former PP Prime Minister José María Aznar.
Given the notoriously undemocratic nominating processes within Spanish political parties, no rival candidate has emerged to challenge Rajoy for his job. So at their annual national party congress, which was held in the Mediterranean city of Valencia on 20-22 June, PP regional delegates (also known as party 'barons' for their secretive backroom shenanigans) voted overwhelmingly to allow the unopposed Rajoy to continue as leader of the opposition.
But the cost to the party has been very high. Rajoy has subjected the PP to a political facelift so audacious that critics say there is now not much difference between it and the PSOE. Moreover, the PP has been left fractured between supporters of Rajoy who want to anchor the party in the political center, and conservatives who want to maintain a tough line on questions of public morality as well as the fight against ETA terrorists.
Pragmatism versus Principle
There are three main theories as to why Rajoy was unable to unseat Zapatero (who by almost anyone's definition was a weak and politically vulnerable incumbent) in the recent elections. One hypothesis posits that the bearded and bespectacled Rajoy was a charisma-less candidate who failed to inspire voters. Another premise is that the PP, by clinging to its conservative values, alienated the majority of Spanish voters. A third theory, closely related to the second one, is that the PP, by insisting on Spanish national unity, pushed otherwise centrist voters in separatist regions like Catalonia and the Basque Country into the arms of the post-nationalist PSOE, which has been far more generous than the PP in its offers for increased provincial autonomy.
Rajoy, who like most politicians believes that everyone adores him, is a disciple of theories two and three. As such, he has concluded that in order for him to finally win the political lottery in 2012, he must steer the PP to the radical center so as to woo new voters. But by doing so, Rajoy has unleashed a bevy of existential soul-searching about the future of Spanish conservatism not seen since the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975.
Rajoy signaled just how far left he wants to take the PP when on 25 June he granted his first media interview since being re-elected as party chief to the leftwing Cadena Ser, a rabidly anti-PP radio station that is key part of the Spanish Socialist mass media propaganda apparatus. Rajoy told his listeners that his new political philosophy consists of four words: "centrism, women, dialogue and future." Any observer of Spanish politics would immediately recognize these politically-correct buzzwords as coming straight out of Zapatero's post-modern playbook.
Rajoy told the party congress in Valencia: "We need to widen our pool of votes. It's possible. The PP wants to be the meeting place for the majority of Spanish society. We want an open party, not an exclusive club."
Rajoy seems to be taking some of his ideological cues from the editor of the center-right El Mundo newspaper, Pedro J Ramírez, who has been leading a media push for the PP to abandon its relentless opposition to Zapatero's liberal social reforms such as fast-track divorce and homosexual marriage. Ramírez, who is also opposed to Rajoy staying on as party leader, says the PP's defense of its principles have given the party a hard-line image that hurts it at the polls.
In an editorial published before the March elections, Ramírez called for four fundamental changes to the PP platform: a) Stop opposing gay marriage; b) Start supporting human embryo research; c) Start supporting government-mandated civics classes; and d) Stop opposing Zapatero's desire to negotiate with ETA, the Basque terrorist group.
Never mind that such an about-face would, in effect, endorse the social policies that marked Zapatero's first four years in power. According to one analyst: "If the Popular Party fails to criticize the conversion of gay couples into marriages [a project designed to undermine the voice of religion in the public square]; if it accepts as inevitable research using human beings as guinea pigs; if it places the good of its children under state control and agrees to the substitution of Christianity with a civil religion; if it chooses to present its candidacy to the 2008 elections without supporting ETA's victims and without condemning the pacts with terrorists reached by PSOE, it might be able to win the elections, as Ramírez indicates. Nevertheless, the party will not do it in name of [classical] liberalism [which in Spain is an ideological current of conservatism], nor will it be able to lay claim to liberalism as such."
Critics have warned Rajoy to stay true to party principles. Party conservatives are especially worried about Rajoy's new openness to dialogue with nationalists who run the Basque region. They are planning a referendum on Basque independence in October, which many observers say is a veiled step toward breaking away from Spain.
Indeed, Rajoy got an earful from Aznar, his political mentor, at the party congress in Valencia. After having had his own speaking slot moved back in order to minimize the chances of upstaging Rajoy, Aznar arrived two hours late, forcing the conference proceedings to be delayed as he basked in applause from supporters.
After warmly greeting a number of outgoing hardliners, Aznar addressed the 3,000 delegates: "I have never understood, and I still do not understand, this idea of the center as the final destination of an interminable journey. We need to create an alternative to the Socialist Party, not to ourselves," he said, adding that the PP has "solid moral references which we must never lose." He then decided not to stay for Rajoy's speech.
Conservatism Equals Socialism?
But Rajoy views much of the talk about conservative moral values as bunk. He has, for example, appointed the career politician María Dolores de Cospedal to replace the conservative Ángel Acebes as the party's deputy leader. The 42-year-old De Cospedal is the divorced mother of a child conceived through in-vitro fertilization and who supports the controversial fast-track divorce and gay marriage laws introduced by Zapatero. Rajoy's choice of the left-leaning De Cospedal has roiled the conservative elements of the PP, as well as Spain's Catholic Church.
Rajoy has also named 36-year-old Soraya Sáenz de Santamaria as the PP spokeswoman in parliament. Shortly after her appointment, Santamaria declared that the PP now stood for the "defence of public health and education and an indispensable social coverage." To most observers, that formulation sounds a lot more like socialism than it does conservatism.
Another big surprise was the appointment of Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón to the party's executive committee. Rajoy, who has been an enthusiastic supporter of gay marriage, has said: "Today, I don't know but in 2012, if we succeed in doing good work many PSOE voters will vote for the PP because the center is the only political space."
It still remains to be seen if Rajoy will survive until 2012. Rajoy will be in big trouble if he does not lead the PP to victory in regional elections in the northern province of Galicia, a conservative bastion and his own birthplace, in 2009. The second major test will be at the national party convention in 2011, when the PP will choose a leader via a US-style primary election for the first time every, a major change in a country where candidates are hand-picked without regard to the rank-and-file.
Meanwhile, socialists will almost certainly interpret Rajoy's de-ideologicalization of Spanish conservatism as a sign of weakness. Indeed, Rajoy's belief that the PP must be "more open than ever to all of Spanish society…we must be the party that pleases the majority of Spaniards…" will probably prove to be far more beneficial to the socialist than to the conservative agenda.
And just in time for the latest innovation in Zapatero's social policies. While Spanish Socialists have been busy reducing individual freedoms, disdaining life and attacking the family, the Spanish parliament on 25 June voted to extend human rights to apes. In yet another indication of the death of common sense in post-modern Spain, the new resolutions have cross-party majority support and are expected to become law within a year. The only remaining questions are: Will monkeys be allowed to vote in the 2012 general elections? And if so, will they vote for Zapatero or for Rajoy?