Spain's Elite Edges Away From Rajoy as Rallying Cry Unheard

(Bloomberg) -- Mariano Rajoy is rallying his troops for a political fightback. But his troops aren’t so sure.

The Spanish prime minister is encouraging some senior officials to run in regional elections next year as he looks to shore up his People’s Party’s power base, according to people familiar with his thinking who asked not to be named discussing party strategy. Yet loyalties to the 62-year-old Rajoy are starting to waver as ministers, key advisers and media allies all distance themselves from the wounded leader. A PP press officer a spokesman at the prime minister’s office both declined to comment.

Spain's Elite Edges Away From Rajoy as Rallying Cry Unheard

“Rajoy is fighting a widely held feeling that it’s time for a change,” said Miguel Marin, a founder of Analisis Economico Integral, who previously worked as an adviser to the PP.

The most immediate challenge to his authority comes from Catalonia, where parliamentary speaker Roger Torrent said Tuesday he won’t propose an alternative to Carles Puigdemont as regional president, despite Rajoy’s insistence that the separatist leader is disqualified because of his legal problems.

The Spanish leader has suffered potentially fatal blows before -- his party lost a third of its seats in the 2015 election -- and he’s proved himself the PP’s great survivor from a generation who emerged in the 1990s as ministers under Jose Maria Aznar.

But there is mounting evidence that Catalonia’s push for independence last year has changed something fundamental in Spanish politics. Support for Rajoy’s PP has slumped to the lowest level since 1989, and for the first time in two generations its voters have a viable alternative on the center-right in Ciudadanos, which has led in three out of five polls this month.

Torrent postponed a vote on Puigdemont’s nomination for a second term as regional president on Tuesday, bowing, at least for now, to a Constitutional Court ruling that the candidate can’t take office without attending the chamber. Puigdemont has been in self-imposed exile in Brussels since last year’s illegal declaration of independence and faces arrests if he returns to Spain. Torrent said he’s asked the parliament’s lawyers to prepare a legal challenge to the Constitutional Court.

Foundations of Power

The prime minister is aiming to steady the ship before municipal and regional votes in June next year, which will set the tone for the general election due in 2020. With more than 8,000 town halls and 13 of 17 regional governments up for grabs, the local and regional elections are crucial in the Spanish political fabric as party leaders look to secure jobs for their people and maintain the morale of the rank-and-file.

“Having institutional power at local and regional levels is key if you want to have options at the national level,” said Veronica Fumanal, a political marketing expert, who has advised both Ciudadanos and the Socialists.

Still, Rajoy’s efforts to fire up the campaign machine are meeting resistance.

Public Works Minister Inigo de la Serna said Monday he has no wish to return to the northern region of Cantabria to try to win back control for his party. When Rajoy called a public meeting of the party leadership on Jan. 15 to reclaim the political initiative, at least four regional leaders failed to show up.

Among those was Galicia’s president, Alberto Nunez Feijoo, 56, long-tipped as a potential successor to Rajoy. Feijoo gave a speech in Madrid Monday, attended by Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, in which he hinted that the prime minister should call early elections if he fails to pass a budget for this year.

Rajoy rejected that suggestion in an interview with the state broadcaster Television Espanola Tuesday.

“If there’s no budget, we have last year’s we can roll over and we’d have to approve
new measures by decree,” Rajoy said, adding that he aims to line up candidates for next year’s local elections before the summer.

Rajoy Embarrassed

National security adviser Alfonso de Senillosa announced last week he’s quitting the prime minister’s office to return to the private sector following the departure of his boss, chief of staff Jorge Moragas. Moragas, a career diplomat from Catalonia, resigned in December to become ambassador to the UN.

Rajoy’s support among the media is wobbling as well. The progressive daily El Pais, Spain’s biggest selling mainstream newspaper, has been a strong supporter of the prime minister in recent years. But after overseeing years of losses, Cebrian was pushed aside in November and the newspaper’s line has shifted. One editorial on Jan. 22 saw “signs of exhaustion” in Rajoy’s leadership, and three days later it said the prime minister should take responsibility for party corruption that took place on his watch. Rajoy denies any wrongdoing.

Even the State Council, an advisory body packed with establishment figures, is struggling to support the prime minister’s tactics on Catalonia. Last week the council said the government had no legal basis for its lawsuit to block Puigdemont’s nomination for president. The Constitutional Court on Saturday suspended the session anyway, though only after seven hours of deliberations and using a different legal argument from the one the government had proposed.

“The regional and city hall elections are probably the last chance Rajoy has to reverse the electoral trends,” Marin said. “They don’t look good at the moment.”

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