From 2011 to 2018, Spain has been led by Mariano Rajoy, a prime minister from the Popular Party (the right-wing one). Rajoy’s tenure has been considered by many successful in accomplishing some reform, particularly in the labor market, but Spanish classical liberals have been highly critical of him. Recently Juan Ramon Rallo, the intellectual leader of the Institudo Juan de Mariana, compared the Argentinian President Mauricio Macri to Rajoy – and that’s not meant to be a compliment.

My understanding of Spanish politics is limited but I see that Rajoy was considered by many as a step back from José Maria Aznar’s more pronounced free-market rhetoric. Rajoy was a quintessential political animal, who has been in politics basically forever (since the 1980s) and who was better at manoeuvring in the shadows than in taking a stand for bolder reforms. Rajoy was ousted by a non-confidence vote—after leading a coalition government—by Pedro Sanchez, a younger socialist who took his place. Mr. Rajoy could not recover his reputation after a new wave of corruption allegations submerged his own party. This in spite of having attempted to capitalize on the Catalonian crisis, which he faced deploying a stark nationalist rhetoric.
Now that the Popular Party is in opposition, and needs to recover from the blow to its reputation caused by the corruption scandal and by the loss of influence caused by Rajoy’s resignation, it actually did something brave. That it, it chose Rajoy’s successor by primary elections, something new for it.

Even more surprising is the successor chosen. Pablo Casado, age 37, won the second round of the primary election, overcoming than Rajoy’s right-hand woman Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría.

A brilliant Spanish journalist and think-tanker, Diego Sanchez de la Cruz, has a piece here explaining Casado’s proposals on taxes, that basically go in the direction of tax cuts across the board, including halving corporate taxation. Sure Casado’s agenda is wider, and includes following on Rajoy’s footsteps in aggressively responding to Catalans’ demand for independence, but, when it comes to economics, he seems committed to speaking with a free market voice.

Javier Fernández-Lasquetty, now Dean of the School of Political Studies and International Relations and Vice-President of the Universidad Francisco Marroquin (UFM) in Guatemala, has written a brilliant article on Casado and why he won.

According to Fernández-Lasquetty, the challenge between Casado and Sanchez was a true conflict of visions:

A way of doing politics that is not ideological and which is ideologically subordinated to the left, always avoiding political risk, has been defeated by an alternative that accentuates ideas, principles, and convictions, that is not afraid to risk being different. Pablo Casado has shown that with principles you can win if there are courage and joy to defend them.

Political parties tend to play safe, particularly when they have been comfortably in government for many years. But contingencies, like the need to recover after a serious reputational blow, can force them to be bold. Or it may happen that their perspective looks so bleak that nobody but an outsider can seriously consider running for their leadership. In a way, this is what happened to the Tories when Margaret Thatcher stepped in the run for the leadership, because she thought conservative dissenters and new-comers needed to have a voice (her mentor and friend, Keith Joseph, was her own first choice but proved to be not the right man for the job).

2018 Spain is not 1976 England and the likes of Margaret Thatcher seem to be in distinctly scarce supply, whatever the party, whatever the country. Still, based on what Sanchez de la Cruz and Fernández-Lasquetty write, I consider Casado’s election an interesting development. In Europe “conservative” parties tend, in these years, to avoid explicitly adopting free-market proposals. With “nationalist” parties on the rise, this may seem politically the reasonable thing to do. That in a major European country, like Spain, things are going in another direction is an interesting signal, all the more so as it comes from a 37 y.o. politician.