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article imageIn move to right, Spain's conservatives pick Casado to lead party

By Alvaro VILLALOBOS (AFP)     Jul 21, 2018 in Politics

Spain's Popular Party (PP) on Saturday picked arch-conservative Pablo Casado to replace ousted prime minister Mariano Rajoy as leader, in a move seen as a lurch to the right.

The 37-year-old lawmaker inherits the helm of a party dogged by corruption allegations and that has seen its poll numbers plunge in recent years.

"A new era begins today," Casado told party members after the vote in Madrid. "We're going to try to reconquer the hearts of all Spaniards after the difficult weeks we've experienced."

The appointment of Casado, a known conservative who has promised "hope" with a generational revamp of the party, will be seen as a lurch to the right for the party.

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 Spain's legal response to the secession threat.

"Dialogue doesn't work with those who want to break the law," he said this week.

Spanish lawmaker Pablo Casado acknowledges delegates after being chosen as the next leader of Spain&...
Spanish lawmaker Pablo Casado acknowledges delegates after being chosen as the next leader of Spain's Popular Party (PP) at the end of a party meeting in Madrid on July 21, 2018
Pierre-Philippe MARCOU, AFP

Casado is also against decriminalising euthanasia as promoted by the Socialist government and wants to lower income and corporation 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.

Many have migrated to Ciudadanos, a centre-right party, angry over the series of corruption scandals that hit the PP in recent years.

Casado beat Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, who served as Rajoy's deputy, to become head of Spain's conservatives.

Rajoy's ousting in a no-confidence vote in June was partly seen as a censure for his handling of the Catalan independence crisis, and a perception that he was weak on rooting out graft.

Casado  pictured here with his wife  has promised "hope" with a generational revamp of the...
Casado, pictured here with his wife, has promised "hope" with a generational revamp of the party and a step further to the political right

After an acrimonious campaign that saw mystery videos released attacking both candidates, 3,082 delegates cast their ballot for the successor of Rajoy, who spoke for the last time as PP leader on Friday.

In a long, emotional speech, the 63-year-old who had bean a major figure of Spanish politics over the past 14 years asked PP members to "be responsible in carrying out your duties".

- Looming elections -

Rajoy, who has long been one of Spain's great political survivors -- he even walked away from a 2005 helicopter crash with just a broken finger -- oversaw the country's economic recovery, though unemployment has remained stubbornly high during his tenure.

Casado and his rival for the top PP job  Soraya Saenz de Santamaria
Casado and his rival for the top PP job, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria
Pierre-Philippe MARCOU, AFP/File

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 graft accusations, and Rajoy was gone a week later.

"We're an honest party, there's no room here for a single corrupt individual," Casado said after his election.

Santamaria, 47, emphasised her experience ahead of the vote, painting herself as the only candidate with sufficient gravitas to defeat current Socialist Prime Minister Pedro 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.

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