Pablo Casado Was Meant to Save Spain’s Center-Right. He Destroyed It.

Spain’s conservatives lost more than half their seats in parliament by trying to outbid the far-right.

Spanish conservative People's Party leader  Pablo Casado (C), secretary general Teodoro García Egea (L), and the party's number two candidate Adolfo Suárez Illana (R) attend an election night gathering in Madrid after Spain held general elections on Apr. 28.
Spanish conservative People's Party leader Pablo Casado (C), secretary general Teodoro García Egea (L), and the party's number two candidate Adolfo Suárez Illana (R) attend an election night gathering in Madrid after Spain held general elections on Apr. 28. (GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

MADRID—Before Sunday’s election in Spain, the People’s Party (PP) leader Pablo Casado toured the country to galvanize his conservative voters, traveling some 9,000 miles in April alone. Almost every day, the young PP leader presided over a town hall meeting. During meet-and-greet visits, he flashed his big smile along assembly lines, while driving a tractor or as he tasted cherry tomatoes grown in one of the greenhouses of southern Spain. 

But on the day of the vote, Casado, 38, led his party into free fall. The PP had its worst-ever election result, winning only 66 of the 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies, less than half the number of seats it won in the last general election in 2016. 

This resounding defeat now raises the possibility that Casado will also be one of the shortest-lived party leaders in the modern history of Spain, having been elected only last July, a month after an abrupt change in government. While Casado dismissed the idea of resigning after what he described as a “very bad” result, another potential debacle awaits on May 26—when Spain holds municipal, regional, and European Parliament elections.

Another poor showing could force his ouster. “Casado should survive the coming four weeks, but he’s in a very difficult position beyond that,” predicted Pablo Simón, a professor of politics at Carlos III University in Madrid. “His ultraconservatism has made him lose voters in the center, and they are going to be hard to recover.” 

The most common explanation for the debacle of April 28 is that Casado misjudged and mistimed his decision to take his party further to the right, to stop getting outflanked by the emergence of the ultranationalist Vox party, which got its breakthrough in a regional election in Andalusia in December. The PP entered the election campaign as the largest political group in parliament, but Casado struggled to find the right wavelength with his potential coalition partners—Ciudadanos and Vox—even after they formed an alliance to unseat the Socialists and govern in Andalusia. 

In his eleventh-hour fight to attract more hard-line voters, Casado “swung the party further to the right, but too late, because that space was by then already occupied by Vox,” said José Ignacio Torreblanca, who runs the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “He also made some mistakes … which opened up the field on his left and made him more vulnerable to Ciudadanos,” a center-right party, whose name means “Citizens,” that came third in the election with 57 seats, not far behind the PP. 

During his campaign, Casado hurled insults that sounded out of place for the leader of an establishment party that has been in power for most of the past two decades. He accused Pedro Sánchez, the Socialist prime minister, of being a traitor and a felon for his attempt to negotiate with the governing separatist politicians in Catalonia. In the run-up to the vote, he also accused Sánchez of “crossing the real red line” by “preferring the hands tainted with blood” of radical Basque lawmakers, as part of an attack on their past linkage to terrorists from the Basque separatist group ETA. 

Such vitriolic attacks were not welcomed even by some politicians within Casado’s own party. One of the Basque candidates representing his own PP, Íñigo Arcauz, described Casado’s bloody hands comment as “unfortunate.” On April 28, the PP failed for the first time to win a single seat in the Basque region, which also prompted the firing of Casado’s Basque campaign manager, Javier Maroto.

Casado also stumbled on some policy issues, including when he attacked the Socialist government for raising Spain’s minimum wage. Casado said during an interview that he would cut back the guaranteed wage if elected, but he then corrected himself after news sparked a wave of protests on social media platforms. The correction only came after Casado first tried to claim the social media exchanges were based on “fake news.” 

Casado was only recently elected as PP leader to replace Mariano Rajoy, who was unexpectedly ousted as prime minister last June in a parliamentary vote of no confidence orchestrated by Sánchez and his Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, on the back of a court case in which the PP was found guilty of running a slush fund. The corruption scandal helped make Rajoy the first Spanish leader in modern history to be removed in a parliamentary revolt.

Once Rajoy decided to abandon politics, the PP held a primary election to find a replacement. Casado was at the time the party’s spokesman, having earlier in his career served as chief of staff to former Prime Minister José María Aznar, who also acted as his political mentor, after Aznar left office. But Casado’s selection as leader was far from a foregone conclusion, as he competed against two women who had been ministers in Rajoy’s government, including the deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría. He eventually defeated her in a runoff vote. After taking charge, Casado sought to transform his party and distance it from the corruption scandals that plagued the final years of Rajoy’s mandate. He pushed aside several heavyweight politicians, including Sáenz de Santamaría.

The changing of the guard accelerated once Sánchez called a snap election in February, after parliament rejected his national budget plan. Casado replaced about 80 percent of the party’s previous list of candidates for the election, also bringing into the political arena some celebrities that included bullfighters and television journalists. 

Some appointments immediately backfired. One of Casado’s star picks, Adolfo Suárez Illana, is the son of the former prime minister (also called Adolfo Suárez) who led Spain in the critical stages of its return to democracy, after Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. But Suárez Illana threw his party into an unwanted controversy over abortion. He was eventually forced to apologize after comparing the practice of abortion to the treatment of children by Neanderthals and falsely claiming that a law in New York allowed abortions to take place after birth. “Casado conducted a purge of the party that left him pretty much alone,” said Torreblanca, the political analyst. “He seemed to forget that having some experienced and recognized politicians on board can also act as a magnet for voters.” 

In late March, Casado said that he would offer Albert Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos, the job of foreign minister in their future coalition government. The proposal didn’t go down well with Ciudadanos, ahead of an election in which it was hoping to leapfrog the PP. (It almost succeeded.) In a sarcastic response, Rivera said that he was considering giving Casado the job of “minister of universities” instead—a reference to the fact that Casado was embroiled last year in a scandal over the awarding of fake university degrees to politicians. A day later, Casado was forced to explain that his foreign ministry job offer had been a joke and that his relationship with Rivera remained good. 

In February, Casado called on Vox not to field its own candidates in thinly populated provinces, to avoid fragmenting the right-wing vote and risking handing over more parliamentary seats to the Socialists, under Spain’s system of proportional representation. Vox treated the idea as an affront and instead renewed its efforts to tap into the discontent of the dwindling and aging population of Spain’s rural heartland. After the election, the sparring continued: Casado and Santiago Abascal, the leader of Vox, immediately started blaming each other for failing to unseat Sánchez, with Abascal repeatedly describing the main conservative party as the “cowardly little right.” 

Such a label, however, is what some PP politicians are now asking Casado to wear almost as a badge of honor, in a bid to welcome back more moderate voters before the May elections. Two days after the election debacle, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the party’s powerful and longstanding leader in the northwestern region of Galicia, stayed away from an emergency party meeting convened in Madrid by Casado. But from his Galician fiefdom, Núñez Feijóo, who has himself long been viewed as a possible party leader, issued a clear demand to Casado to return the party to the center rather than drift further to the right. 

“The time has come to broaden the party,” Feijóo declared, because “when we have broadened, we have won, and when we have limited it, well, we sadly haven’t won.” 

Raphael Minder is the Spain and Portugal correspondent for the New York Times and the author of the book, The Struggle for Catalonia: Rebel Politics in Spain.  Twitter: @RaphaelMinder