Spain’s Socialists are under pressure in key regional elections

MADRID — Spain votes on Sunday in local and regional elections, seen as a bellwether for December’s national vote, with the conservative People’s Party making steady gains over the ruling Socialists in key regions.

Spain’s 17 regional governments and two autonomous cities have enormous power and budgetary discretion over education, health, housing and policing. Twelve of them and the two cities will compete on Sunday. Other key battles are the election of the mayors of the country’s two largest cities, Madrid and Barcelona.

According to surveys published on Monday by the Spanish CIS state research institute, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) is only 0.3 percentage points ahead of the People’s Party in the regional vote, compared to the difference of 5.14 points achieved in the last regional election. in 2019. The researchers surveyed 4,549 adults across Spain between May 16 and 18 with a margin of error of 1.5 points.

Politics professor Sandra León says the PSOE-led central government is struggling to convince voters of its economic prowess, even though record numbers of new jobs and policies mean Spain has the lowest inflation and energy prices in Europe. The People’s Party, i.e. the PP, is also gathering centrist votes from the weakening Citizens’ Party and is trying to curry favor with disillusioned far-right voters, he added.

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“Although these are regional and local elections, the current election campaign has a huge impact on national elections,” said León, of Madrid’s Carlos III University. “The People’s Party is gaining more and more influence.”

The election campaign was marred by isolated episodes of attempted mail-in ballot fraud in the cities of Melilla and Mojacar, as well as the decision by the Basque nationalist party EH Bildu to field candidates convicted of terrorism and murder.

EH Bildu later reversed the decision after outrage over the inclusion of seven members of the former Basque militant group ETA. This caused a headache for the PSOE, which relied on the cooperation of EH Bildu to pass legislation that would support its minority coalition with the far-left United We Can.

In Madrid, the hugely popular Isabel Díaz Ayuso is seeking re-election as regional president for a third term on a populist, libertarian platform that positions her as a direct opponent of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

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Ayuso’s provocative comments about racism, abortion and his rivals are nothing new. Earlier, Sánchez called his junior coalition partners United We Can “worse than the coronavirus” and said that feminists are “spoiled brats who want to get drunk and be alone” and that many health professionals “simply don’t want to work”. . This clashed with the leadership goals of PP leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo, who tried to appeal to a wider range of voters.

“Ayuso is trying to occupy the far-right space currently occupied by Vox. And this is also in view of the next general elections,” said Nagore Calvo Mendizabal, senior lecturer in Spanish and European studies at King’s College London, referring to Spain’s main far-right political movement. The PP relied on Vox to pass the legislation. Since 2019, in several Spanish regions, but he is trying to get an absolute majority in order to exclude him permanently in Madrid.

Spain’s second-largest city, Barcelona, ​​is an exception to the difficulties facing socialists across the country, said Ignacio Jurado, a political expert whose research focuses on Spanish elections.

“While the PSOE is losing support across the country, Catalonia seems to be where it is growing,” he said. “I think this is also a good indication of how the independence issue has lost its influence.”

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Until recently, politics in Barcelona centered around the question of Catalan independence, after the judges of the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled the referendum illegal on October 1, 2017. Since Sánchez extended the olive branch to secessionist parties in exchange for votes on key policies, the issue has waned.

Current mayor Ada Colau is running with the socialists and her coalition partners.

But across the country, the debates have focused on personalities, not policies, Jurado said.

“The more polarized the country is, the less people’s judgments depend on actual performance,” he said, referring to voters’ apparent disinterest in Spain’s positive post-pandemic economic performance compared to its neighbors.

With regions such as Aragon and the Balearic Islands very thinly contested, the 17.6% of voters who said they were undecided in the last poll will play an outsized role in deciding the outcome.

“The margins of victory look quite narrow in many places. Very few votes determine the results,” Jurado said.