Conservative figurehead quits role as honorary president of Popular Party

José María Aznar, who led Spain's right back to power, was highly critical of new party leadership

Natalia Junquera

José María Aznar, the man who led the Popular Party (PP) to power in 1996, going on to win another term before handing party control to his successor Mariano Rajoy in 2004, has resigned as his party’s honorary president following a long-standing and very public disagreement over policies and strategies.

Former Spanish PM José María Aznar.
Former Spanish PM José María Aznar.Jaime Villanueva

Aznar sent Rajoy a letter on Tuesday in which he formally stepped down from the post and said he will not be attending the PP’s national convention in February. Sources in the PP spoke of a sense of “relief” following many years of criticism from their former leader.

The PP’s deputy communications secretary, Pablo Casado, who is close to Aznar, said: “I am very grateful for all he has done for the PP and Spain.”

Sources in the PP spoke of a sense of “relief” after years of criticism from Aznar

In his letter, the former prime minister gives few reasons for his decision to step down, saying he wishes to retain his “independence”. He had few words to say to Rajoy in the missive, other than wishing him “success at this important and difficult juncture.”

Since taking over the post of honorary president 12 years ago, Aznar has used the FAES think tank, which has long-standing ties to the PP, to criticize the party’s leadership. In October, FAES formally announced it was severing its relationship with the PP.

A week ago, FAES published a highly critical “analysis” portraying the party as lacking self-confidence and having embraced “its opponents’ version of events.”

The report held that the PP is now trying to “make amends” for its supposed sins of the past, when the party took a confrontational stance against separatists in Catalonia and the Basque Country. This prompted an outpouring of support for Rajoy and Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, who has been tasked with building bridges with Catalonia.

Aznar fell out with the PP’s leadership soon after the party lost the 2004 elections to the Socialist Party (PSOE), and since then he has used every opportunity to distance himself from Rajoy, calling on several occasions for “new leaders” and for greater internal discipline.

The former prime minister has given few reasons for his decision to step down

After the death of party veteran Rita Barberá last month, he criticized the PP for having “excluded” the former mayor of Valencia, who was being investigated over corruption allegations. Barberá had been expelled from the party in September.

A number of court cases are underway in Spain involving senior figures within the PP from the Aznar years.

Aznar, who took over the PP in 1990, did not take part in the last two election campaigns. After the PP lost 3.6 million votes in December 2015, he criticized the party, calling for a convention presumably in the hopes of finding a challenger to Rajoy.

Sources say that Aznar is unlikely to start his own party, and he himself states in his letter to Rajoy that he will remain a member of the PP. This has prompted many senior officials to express fears that he will continue to use FAES to step up his criticism of the leadership.

In his 2012 memoir, Aznar said he only appointed Rajoy leader after Rodrigo Rato, a former economy minister who went on to head the IMF, and whom he described as his “natural successor,” turned the job down twice.

Ironically, the last vestige of Aznar’s legacy in the party is now Mariano Rajoy, who in February will be reelected party leader unopposed at the PP’s annual convention.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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