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Viewing cable 06MADRID934, SPAIN'S OPPOSITION POPULAR PARTY: LOSING THE

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
06MADRID934 2006-04-17 17:05 2010-12-03 12:12 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Madrid
VZCZCXRO5491
RR RUEHFL RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHROV RUEHSR
DE RUEHMD #0934/01 1071726
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 171726Z APR 06
FM AMEMBASSY MADRID
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 9444
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 MADRID 000934

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

FOR EUR/WE CLEMENTS AND HALL

E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/16/2016
TAGS: PGOV SP
SUBJECT: SPAIN'S OPPOSITION POPULAR PARTY: LOSING THE
BATTLE WITH THE GOVERNMENT

REF: A. MADRID 765
B. MADRID 783

Classified By: Ambassador Eduardo Aguirre for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (U) Summary. Two years after it lost in the dramatic
elections of March 14, 2004 -- three days after the March 11
terrorist attacks -- Spain's main opposition party, the
Partido Popular (PP) finds itself outmaneuvered and either
isolated with radical nationalists or forced to collaborate
with the Socialist government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero
on the most important issues of Spanish domestic politics.
Even when the governing PSOE (Socialist) party was losing
ground in opinion polls, the statistics did not reflect any
increase in popularity for the PP, only a fall in the
government approval rating because of uncertainty about
regional questions in Catalonia and the Basque Country. The
recent ceasefire announcement by the Basque terrorist group
ETA has raised the government's poll ratings significantly,
and marks a monumental inflection point for the PP in its
search for the critical swing votes at the center of the
political spectrum. A combination of leadership and message
problems has kept the PP from capturing the imagination of
the Spanish electorate, along with a consistent
underestimation of the political skill of the Zapatero
government. It may take an internal revolution in the party
or a significant recalibration of strategy for the PP to come
back in the immediate future. End summary.

----------------
No to Everything
----------------

2. (C) Since losing the March 2004 elections, the Partido
Popular, led by Mariano Rajoy and his team of veterans from
the government of Jose Maria Aznar, has struggled to make
headway against the ruling Socialist Party (PSOE) and the
government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Blaming the PP
loss on the March 11 train bombings and the evil machinations
of the Socialists, Embassy PP contacts have consistently
seemed to think that their election loss was really a
mistake, a massive "misunderstanding" on the part of the
electorate, ignoring the very real issues voters disagreed
with them on: the war in Iraq -- which 90% of Spaniards
opposed -- and, importantly, the Aznar government's handling
of the March 11 attacks. The party has spent the last two
years trying to win support by harassing the Zapatero
government on everything it does (including when it is
cooperating with the USG).

3. (C) PP contacts have told us that their party strategy has
been to attack the government at every turn. These attacks
made ideological sense when the PP criticized the government
on issues such as gay marriage, education reform (reducing
the influence of the Catholic Church) or even in opposing GOS
policy on Cuba and Venezuela. However, the PP also chose to
take the government to task over Spanish military presence in
Afghanistan and the participation of the Spanish frigate
Alvaro Basan in the US Theodore Roosevelt battle group in the
Persian Gulf, policies of this government which support US
goals. The PP's attacks on these policies were therefore
inconsistent with their own stated aims.

--------
The Hook
--------

4. (U) According to numerous public opinion polls, the PP
made little or no dent (beyond its own base) in the
government's popularity with its attack strategy, until a
truly divisive issue came about: the reform of the Catalan
Autonomy Statute ("Estatut" in the Catalan language). As the
Catalans tried to declare in the legal document defining
their relations with Madrid that they constitute a "nation,"
many Spaniards wanted to know why the government seemed to be
letting them pull out of the Spanish nation they supposedly
already belonged to. In addition, the new Estatut was to give
Catalonia broad fiscal independence, beyond what any other
region of Spain had ever been granted. While the issue of the
Estatut did not worry all Spaniards, enough were concerned
that government approval ratings began to fall. This was
exacerbated last autumn by floods of Sub-Saharan would-be
immigrants charging Spanish borders at Ceuta and Melilla, as
well as by speculation that the Socialist government was
holding talks with Basque terrorist group ETA.

5. (U) The Estatut, immigration and terrorism concerns gave
the PP the hook it needed to be able to craft a message that
might help it benefit from the government's falling
popularity. Rajoy, Catalan PP leader Josep Pique, and

MADRID 00000934 002 OF 004


national leaders such as PP Secretary General Angel Acebes
and Parliamentary Spokesman Eduardo Zaplana began speaking of
national unity, equality for all Spaniards (in other words,
no special privileges for Catalans and Basques), and joining
together to put forth a strong face internationally
(harkening back to the Aznar days, when the PP says Spain had
more prestige both within the European Union as well as on
the wider international stage). Nonetheless, while government
popularity continued to fall, the PP did not pick up any
support for itself with this message. And now, the ETA
ceasefire has diminished public concerns about negotiating
with the Basque group, and raised Zapatero's poll numbers
substantially, by as much as eight percentage points in one
poll.

6. (C) Interestingly, PP leaders do not seem persuaded of the
need to change the message, influence the poll numbers or
attract more swing voters. Zaplana told the Ambassador on
March 29 that the PP base would likely carry the party in any
future elections (once again reflecting the PP belief that
the 2004 loss was a one-off fluke), and that it was important
to take care of that base. In a meeting with the Ambassador,
Acebes explained that the PP's platform was one of Spanish
unity, stable public administration, and a solid economic
plan. The PP claims repeatedly that this platform is one of
principle, whose correctness will be recognized in time by
the electorate. Meanwhile, it continues to paint a picture of
gloom and doom for the country under the Zapatero, with Aznar
claiming that the "Balkanization of Spain" is near, with an
independent Catalonia and Basque Country. It is true that the
message and apocalyptic image rally the PP base Zaplana spoke
of, a base that is somewhat larger than PSOE's, and most
non-PP Spaniards certainly do not want to see the break up of
Spain. Nevertheless, the Socialists' poll numbers rise.

----------
Leadership
----------

7. (C) A key reason the PP was not able to capitalize on the
PSOE poll decline is its top leadership, with personalities
ranging from lackluster to radioactive. The principal leaders
of the PP were all close to former President Jose Maria
Aznar, and are closely associated with the Aznar era. During
the 2004 elections, before the March 11 attacks, association
with Aznar was a positive, given the President's popularity.
His former Vice President Mariano Rajoy was expected to sweep
to victory as leader of the party. But since the attacks, the
team has been tainted by the Aznar government's handling of
the aftermath of the March 11 bombings, when it claimed that
Basque terrorist group ETA was responsible and appeared to
keep information on Islamist involvement from the public.

10. (C) Rajoy is generally considered a competent and
intelligent leader, but not especially charismatic. Acebes,
who was Interior Minister in March 2004, is viewed in a
particularly negative light because of his direct involvement
in the handling of the attacks. Zaplana is also closely
identified with the Aznar legacy, and is often criticized for
his very conservative stance on most issues (he recently
commented in a congressional debate on Vice President Maria
Teresa Fernandez de la Vega's wardrobe choices, to feminist
indignation). (See reftel A for more on Acebes and Zaplana.)

9. (C) And then there is the ever-present former president,
Jose Maria Aznar, who carries only a ceremonial title in the
Partido Popular, but who casts his large shadow over
everything the party does (see reftel B). After an extremely
successful eight years in office, during which the Spanish
economy flourished and Spain's standing in the world
increased substantially, Aznar stepped down as party leader
and appointed Mariano Rajoy his successor. Because of his
success, he is still enormously admired within the party.
When Aznar enters a room full of PP activists, a hush falls
over the crowd. When Aznar walked into a book presentation
for PP Parliamentarian (and self-proclaimed "shadow Foreign
Minister") Gustavo de Aristegui's latest book, "Jihad in
Spain," Aristegui gave a spontaneous speech on how Aznar had
been his inspiration. In his first meeting with Ambassador
Aguirre on December 15, 2005, Aznar claimed that he and his
think tank FAES were careful not to interfere in national
political battles; yet, in reality, at every opportunity,
Aznar leverages his past influence (including his access to
high-level USG officials) to affect current political
discourse. And because of his cult status within the party
ranks, the current leadership of the party has difficulty
setting the course.

-------------------------
Underestimating the Enemy

MADRID 00000934 003 OF 004


-------------------------

10. (C) All of the leaders of the PP machine -- Rajoy,
Acebes, and Zaplana -- as well as former President Aznar
speak of President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero with scorn
and condescension. Zaplana told the Ambassador that Zapatero
is full of himself and has too much confidence in his ability
to maneuver politically, particularly in an election
campaign. Aznar called him "weak and vacillating" (reftel B).

11. (C) In reality, while the question of whether Zapatero's
policies are intelligent or correct is certainly open for
discussion, it is clear that the government has outmaneuvered
the opposition on the two most controversial issues of this
parliamentary session: the Catalan Statute and the future of
ETA. Zapatero united at the last moment with the centrist
Catalan nationalist party Convergencia i Unio, working all
night with party leader Artur Mas to hammer out an accord
agreeable to both sides and passable in Parliament. The PP
opposed the agreement, leaving it isolated in Parliament with
the ultra-nationalist Catalan party ERC, the only two parties
to vote against the text.

12. (C) After the PP spent months accusing the government of
"negotiating with terrorists" by talking to ETA, the group
announced a ceasefire, using some of the least demanding
language ever seen in its communiques. Polls indicate that
swing voters are turning toward the government, and around
64% of Spaniards say the government should look into the
possibility of peace negotiations and the PP should join in
that effort. The PP has found itself obligated to cooperate
with Zapatero in pursuit of peace, with little hope of
political gain. If the ceasefire turns out to be permanent,
the Zapatero government will get the credit for peace. Yet if
ETA begins demanding too much in negotiations and the PP
turns against the process, it could be blamed for the
failure. This supposedly weak president has managed
completely to isolate the more politically experienced
opposition on both issues. And if, as post suspects, Zapatero
manages to keep negotiations with ETA going until after the
general elections expected in early 2008 (or if he succeeds
outright in bringing peace through negotiation), he will be
difficult to defeat, given the continued strength of the
economy and the prospect of the end of ETA after almost 50
years of existence.

-----------
Revolution?
-----------

13. (C) Given the rigid structure of political parties in
Spain, barring internal party revolution, it is nearly
impossible for politicians to come to leadership in a party
without working their way through the ranks and spending
years paying homage to their elders. An internal PP
revolution is not impossible, however: if the party continues
to underestimate the governing party and fails to put forth a
strategy to win votes, future election losses -- perhaps in
2008 -- will force radical change in the leadership. In such
a case, certainly Acebes and Zaplana would have to depart
center stage, and probably most of the former ministers from
the Aznar government.

14. (C) There are several PP personalities who would be
well-positioned in the event of such a revolution. They are
slightly more centrist on social issues, solidly conservative
on economic issues, with wide cross-over appeal to PSOE
voters. All have extensive and successful experience in
public administration.

--Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon: Consistently one of the most
popular politicians in Spain, according to opinion polls, the
mayor of Madrid has nonetheless not been in the inner circle
within his own party, and is despised by the far right wing
of the PP. He has challenged party orthodoxy on several
occasions, supporting non-consensus candidates for leadership
positions and criticizing his party's time in government.
After Madrid lost its bid to host the Olympic Games in 2012,
when several PP politicians outrageously blamed the loss on
the PSOE government's deteriorated relationship with the
United States, Gallardon -- who had spearheaded the bid --
commented, "If anyone is to blame, it is me. Don't let anyone
place the responsibility anywhere else; I assume it all." In
his speech at the PP national convention in March 2006, he
proposed that his party look at the possibility of
"neutralizing the radical discourse... that is taking over,
and to reinvent it using a moderating message to reassure the
citizens... We need to fight for the things we need to fight
for, but we cannot let dogmatic attitudes carry us away to
dogmatism. Our place is with the people, with their real

MADRID 00000934 004 OF 004


concerns..." With statements such as these, Gallardon comes
across to swing voters (and to many Socialists) as
principled, rather than partisan. After eight years as
President of the Madrid Region and now three years as mayor,
he has extensive political and administrative experience. His
controversial urban renewal plan for Madrid, which has caused
great upheaval on the highways and in the subways of the
city, is still a wildcard, as many Madrilenos (and Embassy
employees) spend hours in traffic jams around construction
sites all over the city. If the work comes out well, however,
the renewal of Madrid could be a strong positive for
Gallardon's political ambitions.

--Francisco Camps: Camps, anointed by Eduardo Zaplana,
followed in his footsteps to become President of the
Generalitat Valenciana (Valencia Region) and regional PP
president. Since he was elected in 2003, he has fallen out
with his former mentor and worked hard to forge his own
political identity, both within the Generalitat and
nationally. After he worked across parties to agree on a the
reform of the Valencia Regional Statute in 2005, he has
become the PP poster child for bipartisan cooperation, the
party's proof on the national stage that it really can work
with the opposition party. Though still relatively young, his
national stature has grown substantially, and he seems a good
candidate to move into the PP national leadership in the
event of a major shake-up.

--Esperanza Aguirre: President of the Madrid Region as well
as regional PP president, Aguirre has been very close to the
current PP inner circle (and a sworn enemy of Gallardon),
serving as Aznar's Education Minister during his first term,
and President of the Senate during his second. Nonetheless,
she retains a wider base and, because of her regional
experience, a certain distance that would likely allow her to
take on a leadership role in the party in a time of change,
despite her ties to the old guard. She describes herself as a
"neoliberal," but has advocated a certain pragmatism on
social issues when dealing with the Zapatero government, for
example describing the PP leadership's insistence in taking
the new gay marriage law to the constitutional court as
"politically inopportune." Because of her extensive political
experience and national stature, she could be good transition
leader in a redirected Partido Popular.

15. (C) All three of these politicians are expected to re-win
their positions in regional and municipal elections coming up
in 2007, consolidating Madrid and Valencia as PP strongholds.
The current PP leadership hopes these elections will give the
party the push it needs nationally to win national elections
in 2008. In the two years left before the elections, there
may yet be surprises that would give the PP a real advantage:
if ETA negotiations break down, or if the strong Spanish
economy falters, the PP could find its chance to take votes
away from Zapatero. With peace on the horizon and a strong
enconomy, however, on their current trajectory Zapatero and
PSOE look well-placed to win again, perhaps even with an
increased majority. At that point, the PP would have to start
looking at these regional leaders to take it in a new
direction nationally.
AGUIRRE