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Spain’s local elections set to put PM on the back foot

Spain's right-wing opposition has framed the vote as a referendum on Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez
Spain's right-wing opposition has framed the vote as a referendum on Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez - Copyright AFP/File JAVIER SORIANO
Spain's right-wing opposition has framed the vote as a referendum on Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez - Copyright AFP/File JAVIER SORIANO
Christian CHAISE

Spain votes Sunday in local and regional polls which will be a barometer for a year-end general election that surveys suggest Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez will lose, heralding a return of the right.

The stakes are high for Sanchez, whose Socialist party governs the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy in coalition with the far-left Podemos.

Voters will cast their ballots for mayors in 8,131 municipalities across the country while also electing leaders and assemblies in 12 of Spain’s 17 regions — 10 of which are currently run by the Socialists.

Voting opens at 9:00 am (0700 GMT) and closes at 8:00 pm with some 35.5 million voters eligible to cast ballots in the local elections and 18.3 million eligible to vote in the regional elections.

Spain does not issue exit polls, with the initial results due out around 10:00 pm.

If the left “exceeds expectations and manages to retain control of most regional governments in play… this would suggest the national elections will be very closely fought, and bode well for the left’s chances of staying in power”, Eurasia Group analyst Federico Santi said this week.

But if the polls — which forecast a shift to the right — are correct, success at a regional level will provide opposition leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo, head of the right-wing Popular Party (PP), with the “momentum” he needs to win the end-of-year election, Santi said.

Sunday’s vote finds Sanchez, in office since 2018, at several disadvantages. 

He faces voter fatigue with his left-wing government, soaring inflation — even though the rate is lower in Spain than other EU nations — and the resulting fall in purchasing power. 

He has also struggled to contain the fallout from the repeated crises that have shaken his left-wing coalition. 

– Vulnerable –

Feijoo has done everything in his power to turn these elections into a national referendum on Sanchez. 

In campaigning he has denounced the prime minister as not only pandering to the far left, but also to the Basque and Catalan separatist parties on which his minority government has relied for parliamentary support to push its reforms through. 

“I have come to ask for the votes from the Spain that wants to overthrow ‘Sanchismo’ this coming Sunday,” Feijoo said closing his campaign on Friday night, using a derogatory term for Sanchez’s policies.

In his own closing remarks, Sanchez focused on his government’s record in bolstering the economy, fighting a drought and managing Spain’s water resources — an increasingly important issue as climate change gathers pace.

“Social democratic policies suit Spain a lot better than neoliberal policies, because we manage the economy a lot better,” he said. 

Of the 12 regions where new leaders will be elected, 10 are currently run by the Socialists, either alone or in coalition.

The number of regions that the PP manages to wrest from the Socialists will be important in determining the public perception of whether Feijoo has won this first round — and whether his election as premier at the year’s end is a foregone conclusion. 

– A far-right problem –

But Feijoo has his own problems — namely the far-right Vox, the third-largest party in parliament, which hopes to become an indispensable partner for the PP. 

Since last year, the two parties have governed together in just one region, Castilla y Leon, which will not be voting on Sunday.

Aware that key to winning the general election is conquering the centre, Feijoo has sought to moderate the PP’s line since taking over as leader last year, while also keeping Vox at a distance.

A strong regional showing by Vox would put him on the back foot. 

The election campaign, which ended on Friday, was marred in its final week by allegations of fraud involving postal votes, which have largely implicated individuals allied with the Socialists. 

Although the impact remains hard to assess, the allegations pose yet another hurdle for Sanchez, who has made good governance a priority for his administration, in contrast with the corruption of various former right-wing governments.

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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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