At crossroads, Spain’s ousted conservatives pick new leader

Spain’s conservative party, cast into opposition in June after six years in government, will map out its political direction for the foreseeable future on Saturday when it picks either a centrist or a right-winger as its new leader.

Riddled by a corruption scandal and carrying the messy legacy of a sovereignty crisis in Catalonia, the People Party (PP) is seeking to re-establish its identity after its previous leader Mariano Rajoy was ousted in a no-confidence vote.

That defeat brought the Socialists into office, and one of the first decisions the new PP leader will face is whether to give parliamentary support to Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez – who, like Rajoy before him, heads a minority government.

In a vote that could lay bare divisions within the party, PP lawmakers and other senior members will choose between previous deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, 47, and Pablo Casado, a 37-year-old lawmaker from Avila northwest of Madrid.

Both are considered fiscally conservative but Saenz de Santamaria, the public face of the PP during much of Rajoy’s term of office, is considered socially moderate while Casado, who opposes abortion, sits further to the right.

“They are debating the future of Spain,” PP member and vote organizer Luis de Grande said on Friday.

He played down speculation that the race had bitterly split the party, fueled by a decision by the PP to drop plans for a debate between the candidates because it would create an image of division.

“The (race) hasn’t been all roses, but it’s not Game of Thrones either,” de Grande said.

In comments to reporters before a two-day party meeting begins, Saenz de Santamaria added: “We are electing not just the president of our party but also the future candidate for Spanish prime minister.”

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