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Ladies and gentlemen, the next prime minister of Spain…?

María Dolores de Cospedal has tightened her grip on the Popular Party, and is the most likely person to succeed Mariano Rajoy if he doesn’t stand for a second term as prime minister in 2015.


María Dolores de Cospedal.

The shape of things to come: María Dolores de Cospedal has moved into pole position to succeed Rajoy – if she can survive the recent corruption scandal.

Should María Dolores de Cospedal weather the latest corruption allegations to hit the Popular Party (PP), there’s every likelihood she will progress from being its secretary general and premier of the regional government of Castilla-La Mancha to replacing Mariano Rajoy in the top post and go on to become Spain’s first female prime minister.

Cospedal’s rise has been rapid. Born in 1965, she grew up in Castilla-La Mancha, training as a government lawyer after finishing university, and joining the Labour Ministry in 1997 after José Maria Aznar ushered in the first PP administration the previous year.

During the PP’s two terms in office she moved up the ladder, making it to under-secretary at the Interior Ministry by March 2004, when the Socialists won the general election in the wake of the PP’s mishandling of the March 11 terrorist attacks in Madrid.

Esperanza Aguirre, then the premier of the regional government of Madrid — and whom Cospedal has described as a mentor — gave her a job as head of the capital’s transport and infrastructure department, a post she occupied until 2006, when she became a senator for Castilla-La Mancha and regional head of the PP there. A year later she stood for head of the regional government, losing and taking up a position as a deputy in the local parliament. Then, in regional elections that anticipated the landslide general election win of November 2011, she ended the Socialist Party’s three-decade rule in Castilla-La Mancha, taking over its government.

Cospedal’s ascent has been largely facilitated by Rajoy, who appointed her secretary general in 2008. The turning point in her fortunes came at the party conference in 2012. Rajoy removed Javier Arenas from his position as deputy secretary general, supposedly to allow him to focus on winning the regional elections in Andalusia, a task he failed to accomplish. Rajoy ignored appeals from other regional leaders to replace Arenas, leaving Cospedal a clear field for the leadership bid when the time comes.

Cospedal’s position was further strengthened at the conference by Rajoy’s decision to replace Health Minister Ana Mato as head of the party’s organization committee with Carlos Floriano.

Esteban González-Pons, a former member of the Valencia regional government, was in line to take over from Arenas but was sidelined and given the vaguely titled “head of studies and programs”.

Rajoy also decided to do away with the post of party spokesperson, a gap that Cospedal has filled. Her only other rivals for power, Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, or Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz, hold no positions of importance within the party power structure.

Shortly before she took up her role as head of the PP in Castilla-La Mancha, Cospedal, then unmarried, gave birth to a son conceived by in vitro fertilization. The move drew national attention and some criticism from conservative constituents.

Balancing the books, expanding the jobless queue

Three years later she married Ignacio López del Hierro, a friend of her father. Last year he was offered a post on the board of the partly state-owned Red Electrica national grid, a position critics charged was secured with his wife’s help. After a public outcry, he turned it down.

Immediately after taking over in Castilla-La Mancha in May 2011, Cospedal implemented deep budget cuts, signalling the austerity that was to come when her boss took over on a national level seven months later. Like Rajoy, her mantra is “balance the books”: Castilla-La Mancha’s public deficit is more than 7 percent of its annual economic output, more than twice the national average. Her goal is to bring the deficit down to 1.5 percent of output. Last year she cut spending by 20 percent.

In the meantime, unemployment has soared to more than 27 percent in the region, and growth has fallen through the floor, contracting by more than 5 percent last year. Aside from balancing the books by cutting health and education spending, her stated solution to Spain’s problems is for people to work harder and follow Germany’s example.

As de facto party spokeswoman, Cospedal has repeatedly denied the recent allegations that PP politicians, including herself, received from former party treasurer Luis Bárcenas monthly cash payments in brown envelopes from a slush fund financed by donations from construction companies for several years.

The Bárcenas accusations are related to the Gürtel kickbacks-for-contracts scandal. Police reports say that Health Minister Ana Mato, along with her husband Jesús Sepúlveda, the former mayor of the wealthy Madrid suburb of Pozuelo, received gifts from the Gürtel network of corrupt businessmen. Until recently, Sepúlveda had continued to receive a salary from the PP as “an advisor who works at home”.

Division in the PP

The allegations have sparked conflict within the PP. El País newspaper says that a closed-door meeting last week was reportedly dominated by “quarrels” and “confrontations”, according to party members present. Esperanza Aguirre, no longer the Madrid region’s premier but still a highly influential figure on the Spanish right, said she would have forced the resignation of Mato and sacked Sepúlveda. In the process, she openly criticised Cospedal for her handling of the Bárcenas scandal.

According to El País, “at least four people who witnessed Aguirre’s tirade said she ripped into Cospedal for not being more energetic” in dealing with the allegations.

After the conference Aguirre sought to distance herself from Rajoy’s handling of the crisis, saying: “I have separated from the party one councillor, three deputies and several mayors before they were named as targets of investigation, and I never had anything to do with them since. We have confronted cases where it was later determined there had been corruption”.

Cospedal, meanwhile, is taking the classic PP approach to the Bárcenas affair: deny everything and sit tight. After all, the PP is not the only party or institution embroiled in corruption allegations. Recently, the Socialists and Catalonia’s governing CiU have faced scandals of their own, and even the royal family has become embroiled in an embezzlement case.

As a result, the Spanish electorate has a very low opinion of its institutions, increasingly tending to see all politicians as self-serving. Cospedal’s hope now will be that the courts fail to find anything solid to accuse her or Rajoy of, and that between now and the general elections of 2015, no further scandals emerge within the PP.

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Published: Feb 18 2013
Category: Featured, Politics, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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3 Comments for “Ladies and gentlemen, the next prime minister of Spain…?”

  1. I don’t know. Maybe. Although at the moment she just looks like a fall guy.

  2. La Espe,as she is known,might not be premier in Madrid but she is still leader of Madrid PP.

  3. She’s been nicknamed since school-days “La Cospe”–as for being a “fall-guy”, it’s all still very much in flux, don’t count her out–attractive politics or not, she’s fast enough on her feet, and her hubby “Nacho” is a shrewdie himself. Do check out the castilian language website “Los Genoveses”, which grills the Spanish and other socially and politically “interesting” figures quite unmercifully and names names. Last time that I looked President Bill and Vernon Jordan were sharing space with these characters and Adnan Kashoggi as well. Look deep. Un saludo cordial.

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