Spain conservatives entrust Feijóo, the boring guy who wins every election by a landslide

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the conservative politician who polls suggest is poised to become Spain’s next prime minister, likes to recall that at heart, he is just a mild-mannered “village boy” from the country’s rural northwest. A humble, forthright, even boring guy, as he likes to describe himself.

The conservative Popular Party candidate for Sunday’s general election is mostly unknown outside Spain, but he has been the country’s most solid regional leader so far this century and has never lost an election. Feijóo was a political steamroller during the 13 years in which he governed Spain’s northwestern Galicia region, the homeland of 20th-century dictator Francisco Franco and former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who ran Spain from 2011-2018 as PP’s leader.

Feijóo took power as Galicia’s regional president in 2009 and accumulated four absolute majorities until 2022, when he resigned to head for Madrid with the mission to save his party from the biggest leadership crisis in its history.

Feijóo has forged his public image as a no-nonsense manager. In his view, he is the antithesis of Spain’s current Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, who Feijóo accuses of saying or doing anything to cling to office.

“Feijóo is a seasoned politician, a good manager, who does not draw attention to himself either for good or for bad, and that can even be positive,” said Miguel Anxo Bastos, professor of political science at University of Santiago de Compostela (USC). “He does not have a very marked ideological agenda, but he is more progressive than his party. He is a kind of conservative social democrat who defends the role of the state. He doesn’t want to revolutionize anything — just make services work.”

But his critics say that under his harmless veneer lies a ruthless campaigner, who come election time can sling mud like the best of them. Feijóo’s only motto since he was appointed as Spain’s conservative leader is “abolish Sanchismo,” a way of referring to Sánchez’s way of governing.

“By abolishing he means ending the style, not the substance (of Sanchez’s government). We shouldn’t expect a significant turnaround if Feijóo becomes prime minister. At most, he will bring a step back to some of Sanchez’s more controversial laws, such as the law of historic memory or transgender rights law for free gender determination,” said Xosé Luis Barreiro, a prominent Galician ex-politician and political scientist, author of a compendium of deeds and thoughts of the Popular Party candidate.

Barreiro says that Feijóo’s great virtue is his mastery of timing. After a successful career as a high-level civil servant in Galicia and Madrid, which included a stint as head of Spain’s postal service, he joined PP at age 41, and now he is running in a general election for the first time at 61. If he succeeds, he will be the oldest Spanish president to hold office for the first time.

Even in his private life, Feijóo is a man who bides his time. He met his current partner, Eva Cárdenas, former executive at Inditex’s Zara Home, in 2009, but they didn’t start a relationship until four years later. In 2017, when Feijóo was 55, the couple’s first child, Alberto Jr. was born. It was a joy for the candidate’s mother, Sira Feijóo, who in a 2009 election video lamented that her son “says he has married Galicia, but Galicia does not give me grandchildren.” A rather monastic statement that perfectly sums up Feijóo’s spirit. In the same video, Micaela, his sister, used the terms “distant” and “bookwormish” to describe the image that, she said, the conservative candidate transmits.

Feijóo has an unpleasant dilemma ahead of him if he wins the election — to form a coalition with far-right party Vox if he doesn’t obtain an absolute majority, something that the polls almost rule out. It would be the first time that the far right gets into Spain’s government since the end of Franco’s dictatorship. Feijóo has already admitted subtly that if he needs it, he will do it, as he blessed the entry of Vox into several regional governments after the municipal and regional elections last May.

Vox has campaigned hard on axing gender violence laws and rolling back regional government powers, positions that could bring it in conflict with Feijóó, especially given his background as a speaker of Galicia’s local dialect and Spain’s decentralized state. Compared with Vox’s candidate, Santiago Abascal, and even the Popular Party’s younger generation, Feijóo is a throwback conservative, more interested in balancing budgets than culture wars with Spain’s Left.

Feijóo is haunted by his relationship with Marcial Dorado back in the 1990s. Dorado was a businessman, who while providing services to Galician administration when Feijóo was No. 2 in its health department, was also running a notorious cigarette smuggling ring.

Feijóo and Dorado kept a close friendship for almost a decade. They shared summer getaways and Christmas holidays. In 2013, several photographs of their trips and boat rides in Galicia from 1995 came to light. One photograph in particular, showing Feijóo in a swimsuit and sunglasses posing on board a yacht with Dorado, has pursued him ever since. Dorado is currently serving 10 years in prison for drug trafficking and money laundering.

Feijóo said that once he knew about Dorado’s illegal business, he cut ties immediately. The Socialists are trying to air the hard-to-explain friendship in the final stretch of the campaign.

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