Spain’s conservative People’s Party (PP) has picked Pablo Casado to replace Mariano Rajoy as its leader after the former prime minister was removed in a no-confidence vote in June and stepped down as head of the party.
Casado on Saturday beat challenger Soraya Saenz de Santamaria by 1,701 to 1,250 votes in a ballot of legislators and other senior PP members.
The appointment of 37-year-old Casado, who has promised a generational revamp of the opposition party, will be seen as a lurch to the right for the PP.
He has taken a hardline stance on the Catalan independence crisis, calling for the addition of offences such as illegally calling a referendum to the criminal code to boost Madrid’s legal response to the secession threat.
“Spanish democratic parties should not be able to include illegal goals in their statutes,” Casado said in reference to the Catalan pro-independence parties on July 11, according to Catalan News Agency.
“Dialogue doesn’t work with those who want to break the law,” he said earlier this week.
Casado is also against decriminalising euthanasia as promoted by the current Socialist government and wants to lower income and corporate taxes.
He will have to breathe life into a party which lost three million voters between the 2011 general elections – when Rajoy won an absolute majority – and the last polls in 2016.
“You can not aspire to lead a party if you are not proud of its past,” Casado said.
“I am proud of Jose Maria Aznar, Mariano Rajoy and Manuel Fraga,” he said in his speech before the delegates, after defending conservative policies on “life and family”.
“The PP has returned,” he said later when he took the stage as the winner. “I want us to return to our towns and cities and reconnect with the people … The PP will again try to win back the hearts of all Spaniards,” he added.
Signalling likely tensions ahead over fiscal issues, Casado criticised plans by the Socialists to raise taxes, saying he would push for lower income and corporate taxes to increase competitiveness.
The 2019 budget plan, which includes the largest rise in the spending ceiling since 2014 and increases in budget deficit targets, is expected to be submitted to parliament next week.
Casado has also pledged to strengthen the country’s role at the heart of Europe, adding: “If there is isolationism, if there is protectionism, Spain must again return be a central part of the European Union.”
No vamos a gastar ni un minuto más en hablar de nosotros, estamos dispuestos a liderar esta sociedad y lo vamos a hacer unidos. España nos necesita más que nunca #ElFuturoDeEspaña pic.twitter.com/qF6wVXEEHK
— Pablo Casado Blanco (@pablocasado_) July 21, 2018
Translation: We are not going to spend more time talking about us, we are willing to lead this society and we will do it together. Spain needs us more than ever.
In May, a court announced it had sentenced former PP officials, businessmen and their spouses to a total of 351 years in jail for their role in a vast bribery scheme known as the Gurtel case.
It proved to be one corruption scandal too many for the PP, which has been hit by a series of corruption accusations.
A week later, Rajoy – who oversaw the country’s economic recovery, although unemployment remained stubbornly high during his tenure – was gone, with Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez becoming prime minister.
Santamaria, 47, who served for six years as Rajoy’s deputy, emphasised her experience ahead of the vote, painting herself as the only candidate with sufficient gravitas to defeat Sanchez in 2020 elections.
The PP, which still holds the most seats in parliament even if it lost its absolute majority, will have to rapidly prepare for municipal, regional and European elections in May 2019.