Pablo Casado speaking in parliament
Pablo Casado believes Spain’s post Covid-19 landscape will bolster his chances of forming a government © A.Ortega.Pool/EUROPA PRESS/dpa

The leader of Spain’s resurgent centre-right opposition has said he wants to form a “government of national salvation” to carry out wide-ranging reforms including tax cuts within three months of taking office.

Pablo Casado, whose People’s party (PP) is riding high in opinion polls, told the Financial Times that if he won elections due by the end of 2023, he would enlist outside figures to push through the fiscal reforms as well as labour market changes and a simplification of Spain’s devolved system of governance.

In an interview in which he highlighted what he depicted as the PP’s bounceback from near death, he sought to minimise factors such as its past problems with corruption and possible future dependence on the hard-right Vox.

“When we take office, we need a government . . . practically of national salvation,” the 40-year-old said. Referring to the Italian administration formed by Mario Draghi this year, he added: “We need people with lots of experience, including internationally and with different political orientations; not just conservatives, liberals and Christian Democrats but also former Social Democrats . . . A government like Italy’s, but democratically chosen.”

Although Spain’s parliament has more than two years left of its mandate, prime minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist-radical left coalition lacks a majority and has been weakened by the PP’s crushing victory in Madrid’s regional elections this month. The centre-right party has led in national opinion polls ever since.

Some surveys suggest the PP and Vox would between them command a majority in the Spanish parliament after the next election — a big shift after three years in which Casado’s party consistently trailed the Socialists.

Casado argues Spain’s post Covid-19 landscape will bolster his chances: “Crises strengthen governments, even if they handle things badly,” he said. “The aftermath weakens them, even if they handle things well.” 

It is a dramatic turnround for a man who planned to leave politics when the PP was ejected from power in 2018 in the midst of a corruption scandal. Casado said he had interviewed for a job with a multinational in Paris, only to throw his hat in the ring when his party held a leadership election earlier than expected. Even after his unexpected victory over more experienced candidates, the party’s prospects looked poor.

“I had a dead party, it was third in all the polls,” he said. “It was slipping away.” 

His priority had initially been to prevent the centrist Ciudadanos party from overtaking the PP — he achieved this by just 218,000 votes in the country’s April 2019 election — and then to reunify the country’s fragmented right, he said. 

“Even my own party said: ‘Casado is obsessed, he should stop trying to unify the centre right and go after Sánchez’,” he said. “But I was clear that, with three [parties on the right] it was impossible to win.”

That task is partly complete, with Ciudadanos’s vote collapsing in recent elections. Casado said he was now focusing on presenting practical proposals to the Spanish electorate rather than arrangements with other parties.

“We have to arrive [in power] and approve all the reforms in three months,” he said, listing plans to cut income and corporate tax, abolish inheritance taxes, reform severance pay to improve labour market flexibility and adjust Spain’s system of regional government.

But polls show a PP government would need the support of Vox MPs to form an administration.

“My intention is to govern alone,” said Casado. “The PP is not part of a block with Vox . . . it can govern if it has just one more seat than Sánchez.” 

He did not answer yes or no when asked if Vox was a democratic party. The hard-right group has labelled Sánchez’s government the worst for 80 years, indicating its preference for the 1939-75 fascist regime of Francisco Franco. 

Casado said the corruption scandals that helped trigger the PP’s ejection from power three years ago were behind it. “If the party made me leader, it was to break with that past,” he said. 

But several court cases are still pending, including one probing whether PP interior ministry officials used police to illegally seize evidence of corruption. This year Casado put the party’s headquarters up for sale amid an ongoing corruption case focused on the funding for its refurbishment more than a decade ago. 

Asked whether he believed former PP prime minister Mariano Rajoy knew about “black accounts” operated by a former party treasurer, he said: “In the end, what we have decided is not to speak any more about this topic,” noting that the issue was before the courts.

Meanwhile, the allegations have faded into the political background. The PP may also draw dividends from a public backlash against the Sánchez government’s expected pardoning of jailed Catalan separatists. 

But Casado faces significant obstacles. Unless Sánchez calls early elections, it is unlikely that parliament will be dissolved before the 2023 end of its mandate.

Sánchez’s administration is hoping the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund — specifically €70bn in grants to Spain over the next three years — will help fuel economic recovery and boost its fortunes.

Carmen Calvo, Socialist deputy prime minister, has also said Casado is overshadowed by Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the outspoken regional PP leader who triumphed in the Madrid election, and would be unable to replicate her success.

Casado himself bristles at suggestions he owes his momentum to the Madrid result, which he contends was “not the cause but the consequence” of his party’s improved standing.

“There is a clear change in Spain’s political cycle and we are ready for government,” he said. “I don’t know if it will be in the next 12 months but I think it will be soon.”

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