Spaniards want a new prime minister. That’s the conclusion to be drawn from the latest opinion poll carried out by Metroscopia for the Spanish daily El Pais, which revealed that 85 per cent of the electorate think someone else should have a go at leading the conservative Popular Party. Long-time supporters of the PP are deserting it too, with 62 per cent of respondents who have previously voted for the party saying Mariano Rajoy should go. Clearly the days when the Conservatives enjoyed a virtually-unchallenged hegemony in the national parliament are gone. Benefiting from Rajoy’s demise is the country’s new centre-right, in the form of Albert Rivera’s party Ciudadanos ('Citizens').
Rajoy’s slump in popularity is partly a result of his handling of the Catalan crisis, with his heavy-handed response to the independence referendum backfiring spectacularly. But while it earned him widespread criticism, it’s not for his handling of Catalonia that Rajoy should step down as prime minister. It’s for his inability to get a grip on corruption. Even by the lowly standards of Spanish politics, the PP has generated a remarkable run of scandals under his leadership. The latest suspects to be named as part of an investigation into corruption are Esperanza Aguirre and Cristina Cifuentes, respectively the former and current regional heads of the PP in Madrid, who are said to have been involved in securing illegal funding for the party.
Spaniards are weary and disgusted with such cases and the corruption of their politicians (it’s far from just the PP; the Socialists, too, have had more than their share of scandals). They have known for a long time that Rajoy will do nothing about this deep-set problem, so it was with jaded amusement that they watched him sign an anti-corruption pact with Ciudadanos in August 2016. It was signed as a condition for the support of Rivera’s party in congress – support that Rajoy’s minority government badly needs – and one of the conditions was that PP ministers under investigation for corruption would be removed from office. Since then, nothing’s changed and the scandals have kept emerging.
Unlike the PP, Ciudadanos did well out of the Catalonia saga. Its leader in the north-easterly region, Andalusian lawyer Inés Arrimada, won widespread support for her denunciation of the independence referendum. As a result, Ciudadanos gained the largest share of the vote in Catalonia’s regional elections last December and now has 37 seats in the Catalan parliament. Yet its popularity is not confined to the region in which it was founded in 2006: the Metroscopia poll shows that, if a general election were held today, the centrist newcomer would win, taking 28.3 per cent of the national vote and leading the PP by more than six percentage points. Significantly, a substantial 79 per cent of Ciudadanos supporters think the party has a clearly-defined plan for the future of Spain.
The next Spanish general election is not due until 2020, when Ciudadanos have a real chance of relegating the discredited PP to second place. In the meantime, it’s time for Rajoy to step down, and hand the enormous – and probably impossible - task of cleaning up the old right to someone else.