By Charlie Devereux
MADRID (Reuters) – Alberto Nunez Feijoo likes to cultivate a reputation for dullness – and it’s a personality trait that could help give him the upper hand this month in a tight contest to become Spain’s next leader.
“What for some may be boring, I think for the majority of citizens are qualities that a prime minister should have,” Feijoo told a Madrid forum of politicians and business and media figures on June 19.
He has never lost an election in his native Galicia, and opinion polls make his conservative People’s Party (PP) the favourites to win most seats in the snap national ballot that Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has called for July 23.
But the same surveys also predict that Feijoo would need to form a coalition with anti-Muslim, anti-feminist Vox to secure a parliamentary majority – thereby giving a far-right party a direct role in government for the first time since Francisco Franco’s dictatorship ended with his death in 1975.
To vote in a PP-Vox government, a boring but safe pair of hands may be the trade-off that Spaniards are looking for, said Manuel Arias Maldonado, a political science professor at Malaga University.
They may want to see a technocrat at the helm, he added, and Feijoo has been eager to demonstratethat he fits that bill.
“Don’t expect any song-and-dance or last-minute script changes from this candidate, but rather certainties, moderation and stability,” the 61-year-old told the same Madrid gathering.
In March 2022, he was plucked from relative obscurity as president of the region of Galicia in Spain’s northwest, replacing the more combative Pablo Casado as national leader.
Feijoo quickly steadied the ship. The PP’s approval rating has risen nearly 13 percentage points since then, reaching 36.8% in July, according to a GAD3 poll for ABC.
The same pollster has the PP winning 155 seats on July 23 and Vox 29, just enough to pass the 176-seat threshold needed for an absolute majority, with Sanchez’s Socialists (PSOE) trailing on 107 seats.
A near-contemporaneous poll by state-owned CIS put PSOE and the PP virtually neck-and-neck, though that pollster over-estimated Sanchez’s showing in May.
VOX A NEW CHALLENGE
Feijoo – who fathered a son, also called Alberto, with his partner Eva Cardenas in 2017 – was born to a maintenance worker father and housewife mother in a hamlet set amidst steep canyons and Romanesque monasteries.
He lived with his family above the shop run by his grandmother until he was sent to a boarding school on his 10th birthday. Birthdays ever since have been “bittersweet,” he said in an interview last year.
His ambition to become a judge was cut short when his father was laid off and he pivoted to the Galician civil service. He moved swiftly through the ranks and by 35 was heading up Spain’s national health service.
He entered politics as a minister in a PP government in Galicia and, since becoming regional president there, has won four straight elections while attracting a full spectrum of voters from the centre to the far right.
The PP is hoping Feijoo can scale that up to a national level, and the party has struck coalition deals with Vox in dozens of regions and municipalities since May’s local elections.
The PSOE performed badly in that ballot, triggering Sanchez’s snap election call.
Projections for the combined PP-Vox share of the vote on July 23 have been dented, some pollsters say, by awkward regional policy negotiations on social issues like gay rights, and Feijoo also has no experience of dealing with Vox, which had no presence in Galicia.
That may prove a hindrance, said Jose Pablo Ferrandiz, political forecaster at Ipsos in Spain. “The complication he has is precisely knowing how to engage or compete with Vox, because he hasn’t had to do it in Galicia,” Ferrandiz said.
What is characterised as steady and reliable for some may also seem slow or unprepared for others, and Feijoo appeared caught on the hop by Sanchez’s decision to bring forward the election, having to cancel plans to learn a language that the current premier already speaks very well.
“I literally had the English teacher from last Monday but then they went and called the election,” Feijoo said in an interview on June 1. “But… I can assure you that in international summits, which are usually done with translators, the important thing is they understand what I’m trying to say.”
Feijoo’s cautious approach has drawn comparisons with the last PP leader to serve as prime minister, Sanchez’s predecessor Mariano Rajoy, a fellow Galician.
“This is Rajoy redux but probably a bit more ideological because the criticism that was levelled against Rajoy was that he was too contemplative,” said Malaga University’s Arias Maldonado.
As Feijoo’s lead in polls has tightened with the Vox factor playing out in the background, he has doubled down on his moderate qualities.
“I do not personify the Doberman that some people try to make me seem,” he said in a speech on July 4. “I am running to be the serene alternative.”
(Reporting by Charlie Devereux; editing by John Stonestreet)
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