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Spain: Conservative party rift grows into all-out battle

The figures at the center of the fracture were former friends who rose to top positions at the end of 2018 when their party tried to make a fresh start following a wave of corruption scandals.

MADRID (AP) — Months of simmering tensions within Spain's conservative main opposition party came to a head Friday, amid fresh allegations that Popular Party members tried to launch a smear campaign against a rising star from the party's ranks.

Party members were accused of trying to hire detectives to investigate a facemask-supplying contract brokered during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic by a relative of Madrid's regional president, Isabel Díaz Ayuso.

Díaz Ayuso, whose meteoric political rise has threatened to overshadow Popular Party leader Pablo Casado, has acknowledged that her brother was paid for brokering the contract. But she denied any wrongdoing and painted the investigation as a political vendetta.

“I find it demeaning to have to clarify my brother’s business relations with a company due to suspicions based on information that no one explains where it came from,” Díaz Ayuso said Friday in a statement. She conceded that her brother had received 55,850 euros ($63,000 dollars) for securing shipments of facemasks from China to the region's health services.

Casado, who as PP's national president has vowed a zero-tolerance approach to corruption, said during a radio interview Friday that the party had confirmed that “a commission of 286,000 euros ($324,000 dollars)” was paid for the 1.5-million-euro contract.

“Beyond being illegal or not, the question is whether it is understandable that on April 1, 2020, when 700 people died (of Covid-19) in Spain, you can sign a deal with your sister and receive 300,000 euros for selling masks,” Casado told Cadena COPE radio.

“I would not allow my brother to charge 300,000 euros for a contract decided in a ministers’ Cabinet meeting,” said Casado, who denied allegations by Díaz Ayuso that the party had secretly contacted private detectives to build “a file” against her.

The scandal comes as the Popular Party is struggling to hold back the rise of a far-right party founded by some of its former members. That party, Vox, has become the third political force in the country's fragmented national parliament.

Vox made significant strides in last week's snap election in the Castilla y León region of northwestern Spain. Regional PP authorities had hoped to repeat Díaz Ayuso's success in a Madrid vote last year and allow it to form a regional government on its own.

PP came first in Castilla y León, but failed to gain a majority of regional assembly seats. The party is now weighing its options to hold on to power, including seeking out help from its historical rivals — the center-left Socialists who lead the national ruling coalition. The move could be perceived as a weakness, but the alternative of a partnership with Vox would embolden the far-right and open PP to criticism both domestically and in Europe.

Ayuso and Casado were former friends who rose to top positions at the end of 2018 when PP tried to make a fresh start, following a wave of corruption scandals that cost the conservatives the nation's leadership.

But their relationship eroded as Casado tried to battle the national left-to-center coalition and Ayuso emerged as an ardent critic of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his administration's handling of the pandemic.

During a regular briefing on Friday, government spokeswoman Isabel Rodríguez said the opposition party was providing a “show” that harmed the “democratic quality” of the country.

She also said the scandal shouldn’t cast a shadow on the way Spaniards had faced the pandemic.

“A shady issue in the context of an internal party war cannot put in question the exemplary attitude of many in the hard times that we have experienced,” Rodríguez said.

The Socialists and other opposition parties have put in requests for prosecutors to probe the contract.

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By ARITZ PARRA Associated Press

Categories / Government, International, Politics

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