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Spain PM's party in hot water over Catalonia, fresh scandal

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Madrid (AFP)

With key elections looming next year, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative party is in hot water as it is criticised for its handling of the Catalan crisis and a fresh scandal tarnishes its image.

Bruised, the Popular Party (PP) has over the months lost ground to Ciudadanos, with opinion polls finding the newer, centre-right grouping whose leader is an admirer of France's Emmanuel Macron would get more votes if general elections were held.

At the weekend, the PP held a convention meant to kick off its campaign for municipal and regional elections in May 2019.

In so doing, the party also hoped to close ranks and address the rise of Ciudadanos, Catalonia's drawn-out separatist crisis and the 2018 budget which Rajoy's minority government is not managing to get approved for lack of parliamentary support.

To outsiders, however, the gathering was overshadowed by a scandal involving the PP's regional president in Madrid Cristina Cifuentes -- accused of getting a master's degree fraudulently -- and Rajoy's handling of the Catalan crisis.

"A lost opportunity for the PP," headlined the El Mundo daily Monday. "A bitter convention," said El Pais.

- Catalonia setback -

The prime minister's strategy for Catalonia has largely been to let Spain's judiciary handle the crisis, ignoring calls for negotiations.

During that time, the Supreme Court has charged 13 separatists including former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont with rebellion, which carries up to 30 years in jail.

Last month, Puigdemont -- in self-exile in Belgium since a failed secession bid last October -- was arrested on a trip to Germany after Spain issued a warrant for his arrest.

But a German court on Friday rejected extraditing him on the charge of rebellion, which it argued wasn't justified.

It still has to decide whether to hand Puigdemont over on the lesser charge of misuse of public funds, but the decision still dealt Rajoy a severe blow.

"That was a big setback for Rajoy, because the only thing that appeared to be working failed," said Fernando Vallespin, politics professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid.

- Fake degree? -

The PP has also found itself engulfed in the scandal involving Cifuentes.

Seen as a moderniser of the PP in Madrid after a series of corruption scandals, Cifuentes is accused of having illegally obtained her master's degree in regional law from Madrid's King Juan Carlos University.

The opposition wants her to resign and prosecutors are probing the case after the university rector himself admitted the document attesting she had passed it was a "re-construction" of the original.

Cifuentes maintains she passed the degree fair and square.

At the convention, she was given a standing ovation of over a minute and Rajoy stayed quiet on the case.

"A textbook mistake," according to Vallespin, who believes the scandal will hurt the PP in Madrid as "people will remember when they go to vote."

- Rise of Ciudadanos -

Just as the PP is struggling, Ciudadanos -- currently only the fourth biggest party in Spain's national parliament -- is soaring in opinion polls.

On Sunday, a poll by the Metroscopia institute revealed 28 percent of Spaniards would vote for Ciudadanos if general elections were held now -- overtaking the PP by far, as well as the opposition Socialists and far-left Podemos.

In Catalan regional elections in December, Ciudadanos -- which originated in Catalonia and opposes independence -- came first, even if it did not manage to beat the three separatist parties combined.

The PP, meanwhile, dropped to last position along with the far-left separatist CUP party.

At the convention, Rajoy slammed Ciudadanos as a party of "inexperienced smooth-talkers."

Antonio Barroso, deputy research director for political risk advisory firm Teneo Intelligence, said attacks on Ciudadanos would likely be the focus of the PP's campaign in the coming months.

But "as long as people talk about Catalonia, Ciudadanos will have an important platform," he said.

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