It would be foolish to read this weekend’s local elections in Galicia and the Basque country, in Spain, as an endorsement of Mariano Rajoy’s self-perpetuating austerity policies. But instead, the strongest message was the confirmation of the Spaniards’ enduring distrust of the socialists.
The party that ruled Spain for almost eight years during the build-up of its ruinous bank debt fuelled real-estate bubble, saw its share of the vote fall sharply, dropping from 25 seats to 18 in Galicia, and from 25 to 16 in the Basque Country.
The results, amounting to a loss of 330,000 votes, were greeted by calls from some senior figures in the socialist party for a moment of ‘catharsis’ and some demanded the head of leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba.
For the ruling Popular Party (PP) things went rather better.
In the north western region of Galicia it increased its absolute majority by three seats to 41 of the 75 in the region’s parliament. Galicia has been controlled by the PP for 24 of the 30 years since Spain’s system of post-dictatorship autonomous regional governments was established and the region is closely linked to Mr Rajoy’s party, with its founder, the former Franco minister Manuel Fraga, having been its president for 15 years.
However, Rajoy was clearly seen as a liability in the election and the local PP leader Núñez Feijóo has remained popular in the region despite austerity measures possibly because of his efforts to distance himself from the prime minister.
In contrast, in the Basque Country the PP lost 3 seats to take 10 out of 75. Bildu, a separatist party previously banned from running by Spain’s constitutional court for its association with the armed separatist group Eta, won 21 seats. The more moderate Basque Nationalist party (PNV) won the greatest number of seats, taking 27 and giving both Basque nationalist parties an absolute majority should they choose to form a coalition.
Despite the relief felt by Rajoy and his ministers at the Galician vote, and the humiliation of the socialists in both elections, the result was certainly not a green light for their policies of austerity. Even in Galicia, they lost 140,000 votes. Furthermore, there was a fall in turn-out of 6.8% in Galicia and 1.2% in the Basque Country.
As well as indicating a growing disaffection with the political system in general, the results show that there is no serious national political opposition to Rajoy. And in the ‘autonomous’ regions, this is feeding through to advances for nationalist parties.
The socialists had hoped that the win in March in Andalucia, where the Left held onto power, indicated things were turning around after it was thrashed in general elections polls by the right wing Popular Party last November. Instead the weekend elections confirm opinion polls indicating that at a national level both the Popular Party and the socialists remain unpopular.
The socialists, who were among the first governments in Europe to take the disastrous turn towards austerity, have been lacklustre in opposition since losing power 11 months ago. Even after the elections this weekend criticisms from within the party were thin on political substance, despite the obvious popularity of coming out fighting against the policies of austerity for the majority and huge bail outs for the banks that are so clearly failing. The party just doesn’t sound ready or able for the ‘catharsis’ demanded by former socialist housing minister María Antonia Trujillo Monday.
Yet the next electoral test – and likely humiliation – for the socialists is imminent. Catalonia, which it ruled together with other parties to its left between 2003 and 2010, is holding elections next month and polls show it garnering just 3% of the vote, down from 18% in 2010.
The right-wing nationalists of Artur Mas are promising a referendum on “self determination” and on the back of a campaign that brought 1.5 million onto the streets in September the former PP ally – who shares Rajoy’s enthusiasm for brutal austerity that has slashed health and education budgets – is expected to be returned to power.
And what of the radical left, which has been up the polls at 11-12% for several months?
United Left’s surge in Andalucia earlier this year was the real factor behind the victory for the Left in the poor but populous southern region: the socialists lost seats but United Left’s 11% share of the vote gained it enough strength in the regional parliament to form coalition with the socialists to deprive the PP of power.
And in these elections too, United Left found some reason for some cheer. In the Galician parliament, with 200,000 votes or a 14% share, communist-led United Left and its six week old new coalition with the (Equo and Ecosocialistas) greens and many from a party (BNG) demanding more autonomy for Galicia won 9 seats and became the third largest force. BNG garnered 10.1% percent in 2010.
The radical formation hopes the success of its Galician Alternative Left (AGE) – based on a strategy of forming links with political parties with similar social justice and green agendas, including forces from the nationalist camp – may be a model for future battles. This includes Catalonia, where it is set to finish ahead of the socialists.
As for Rajoy, nervousness about these elections meant he has held back a decision on a Troika bail out, which will come, as elsewhere, with more brutal austerity strings attached. He would be badly mistaken though if he thinks this weekend’s polls represent backing for more pain in Spain.