“A real politician…never betrays his country to an outsider. He betrays it to himself. He is the enemy within.” Guy Endore, ‘The Werewolf of Paris.’

Pablo Casado: belligerent and uncertain. Photo: PP

The seemingly never-ending stream of national opinion polls in the Spanish media suggest that Pablo Casado has a genuinely good chance of becoming the country’s next prime minister. His Partido Popular (PP) has made up ground on the Socialists in recent months and, with a surging Vox, the two main parties on the right would have more seats in parliament than the two leftist parties currently governing in coalition.

It should be cause for celebration for the conservative leader. And yet, all is not well.

On taking the reins of the PP in 2018 Casado was a new young broom, untarnished by the corruption of his elders in the party and a far cry from the meme-spawning equivocation of his bland predecessor, Mariano Rajoy. Juan Carlos Monedero, a co-founder of the left-wing Podemos, even described Casado as “one of the finest speakers in parliament”.

But now, just over three years on, he is something else: an angry yet unconvincing figure, not entirely sure of who he is.

Few except his closest allies would echo Monedero’s complimentary words right now. The early months of the pandemic, when Casado waged a fiercely unstatesmanlike campaign to destabilise the coalition government, are now far in the past. But more recently he has risked becoming a figure of fun, in great part due to his outré public utterances: attacking solar energy because the sun doesn’t shine at night, or recommending that vegans and other upstarts should “go out one day with a shepherd so he can show them how to eat healthily.”

Casado’s eccentric style then took a more aggressive line, as he asked Pedro Sánchez in congress: “What the f**k has to happen for you to accept some responsibility?” (a variation on a phrase Sánchez himself once used during the dog days of his own stint in opposition).

All of this compounds the notion of Casado as a man in a panic. There are two obvious reasons for him to be in this state and both, curiously, are on the right of the political spectrum. Isabel Díaz Ayuso, Madrid’s regional premier, has become his main nemesis having taken a very different journey over the last 18 months. Before the pandemic, she was rarely taken seriously, even by her own PP voters. Having been hand-picked by Casado himself, she was simply a holding figure who seemed out of her depth as she made odd gaffes of her own. The idea of her one day leading the national party, let alone the country, was a little like those fanciful celluloid imaginings in which a well-known face fills a position of great responsibility: Sergio Ramos as chairman of the Bank of Spain; Belén Esteban head coach of the national football team; Díaz Ayuso as prime minister…You get the idea.

And yet, a one-word slogan to counter the strictures of the pandemic – “Freedom” – has converted Díaz Ayuso into an electoral phenomenon and a national figure whose ambition and success torment Casado. To make things worse for him, she recently earned the ultimate accolade in Spain: a flattering article in a foreign newspaper.

Further right lies his other problem: Vox. The far-right party’s rise has coincided almost exactly with his own tenure as PP leader (you can’t help but wonder: how would Rajoy have dealt with that challenge?). And Casado’s confusion has been on display throughout, unsure whether to harvest the substantial moderate furrow to the right of the Socialists – which has grown since the dramatic decline of Ciudadanos – or rip off his shirt and go toe-to-toe with Vox’s Santiago Abascal over the far-right vote.

In late 2020, Casado performed what appeared to many to be a move to the centre by making a clean break with Vox. Denouncing their policies in what was a carefully prepared speech in congress, he called for tolerance for people, “whatever the colour of their skin, whichever god they pray to, whichever person they love, whatever language they speak.” All good centre-ground stuff. “We don’t like you,” he told Abascal, just to make sure.

And yet, it turned out to be just another temporary swing towards the middle. Here we are, a year later, with Casado swearing in congress, trolling solar power and generally looking as belligerent as he ever has, with his party showing no signs of having broken ties with Vox in any meaningful way. It is the latest stylistic U-turn by a werewolf-politician who is constantly shifting shape between moderate human and far-right beast.

The great irony of all this is that until now, internal bickering had been the speciality of the Spanish left, while the very broad church that was the right somehow managed to get along. Now, the left is just about managing to work together, against the odds, while an electorally resurgent right is looking about as united as a school parents’ association.

Casado’s curse, it seems, is that he still looks like an opposition leader rather than a prime minister-in-waiting. Sánchez had much the same problem until 2018 when, after getting into power through a parliamentary manoeuvre, his polls suddenly shot up purely on the strength of the fact that he now looked like a PM. The glass ceiling of public imagination had been shattered.

“If Casado ever gets into [PM’s residence] La Moncloa, those who are making fun of him and calling for him to be replaced might even say he is charismatic,” noted Pilar Gómez, of El Confidencial.

That may well be true. He’s got to get there first, though.

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