Two Women Head Race to Lead Spain's Main Conservative Party

(Bloomberg) -- The battle for control of Spain’s main conservative party is being fought out between two women who were leading ministers in the government ousted earlier this month.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, 47, and ex-Defense Minister Maria Dolores de Cospedal, 52, both declared their candidacies on Tuesday for the People’s Party’s first ever leadership election. Their main challenge may come from 37-year-old Pablo Casado, a rising star in the party, though he’s seen his hopes dented by a court probe into how he obtained a master’s degree.

The party is due to hold an extraordinary congress next month where rank-and-file members will participate in a first round of ballots. Candidates with more than 10 percent go through to a final vote where representatives of the group’s provincial chapters will decide on a successor to Mariano Rajoy. Rajoy is retiring from politics after losing his job as prime minister.

“If we run a good opposition we’ll be back in government immediately,” Saenz de Santamaria told reporters in Madrid on Tuesday.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez won widespread praise this month for making the majority of his ministers women.

The race promises to highlight the longstanding rivalry between the main candidates. While in government, Rajoy played the two state lawyers off against each other, with Saenz de Santamaria running day-to-day government business and Cospedal given control of the party. On May 2, the two politicians were photographed apparently ignoring each other at a parade in Madrid.

As no. 2 in the government, Saenz de Santamaria was head of the Spanish intelligence services from 2011 while Cospedal served as defense minister for the past two years.

Open Contest

The race was blown open this week when the favorite, Alberto Nunez Feijoo, who leads the regional government of Galicia, ruled himself out.

The front-runners will also face a challenge from at least three other candidates including 73-year-old former Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo. Garcia-Margallo, who clashed with Saenz de Santamaria when they were in government, said he decided to run after the former deputy premier signaled she would join the race. Cospedal on Tuesday denied that she was also motivated by the prospect of spoiling her rival’s chances.

“We’ve heard some apocryphal reasons for my candidacy,” Cospedal said in a televised speech from Toledo where she leads the party’s regional chapter. “This decision wasn’t taken against anyone. I am presenting a project to bring people together.”

The PP represents a broad swathe of right-wing voters in Spain, from Roman Catholic conservatives to free-marketeers, and has at times received tacit support from Spanish bishops.

When the party was buffeted by the corruption allegations that ultimately led to Rajoy’s downfall, Cospedal led the party’s defensive operations, regularly taking the job of rebutting reporters questions as far back as 2013. Saenz de Santamaria, the government’s main spokeswoman at the time, took a much less active role and stirred mutterings of complaint from within the ranks.

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