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

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 Sánchez will lose, heralding a return of the right.

Spain's local elections set to put PM on the back foot
Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez takes part in the closing rally of Socialist Party (PSOE)'s electoral campaign in Barcelona on May 26, 2023. Photo: Pau BARRENA/AFP.

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

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

In an update at 2:00 pm (1200 GMT), five hours into voting, participation in the local elections stood at 36.54 percent, or 1.59 percentage points higher than in the 2019 polls, official figures showed. 

Some 35.5 million people are voting in the local elections while 18.3 million are eligible to cast ballots in the regional polls. 

Balloting ends at 8:00 pm, with initial results due out two hours later. 

Sánchez has been in office since 2018, and Sunday’s elections find him facing several obstacles: voter fatigue with his left-wing government, soaring inflation and falling purchasing power. 

“I do think it’s an important test (ahead of the year-end elections). It’s the only way we have of expressing our opinion about all these years they’ve been in government,” 61-year-old doctor Maria Alonso told AFPTV after voting in Madrid, without saying who earnt her vote. 

Microbiologist Irene Diaz said the local and regional polls “were as important” as the upcoming general election. 

“At the end of the day, these are elections in your city which involve laws and legislation that will end up impacting your day-to-day life,” the 30-year-old said. 

Right-wing targets ‘Sanchismo’

Sánchez expressed confidence that voters would cast their ballots responsibly.

“Most of our citizens will vote positively… for what is important: for public healthcare, public education and housing policies for our young people,” he said after voting in Madrid. 

Opposition leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo, head of the right-wing Popular Party (PP), urged people “to vote massively” and ensure the next government was a strong one.  

“We have difficult years ahead of us but… the stronger the government, the stronger our democracy will be and the faster we will get out of the economic, institutional and social problems we have in our country,” he said.

Feijóo has denounced Sanchez 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.

He has positioned Sunday’s vote as a referendum on “Sanchismo”, a derogatory term for Sánchez’s policies.

In his campaign closing remarks, Sánchez focused on his government’s record in bolstering the economy, fighting drought and managing Spain’s increasingly sparse water resources.

“Social democratic policies suit Spain a lot better than neo-liberal 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 Socialists, either alone or in coalition.

The number of regions the PP manages to wrest from the Socialists will be important in determining public perceptions of whether Feijóo has won this first round — and whether his victory in the year-end general election is a foregone conclusion.

A far-right problem

But Feijóo has his own problems, in particular 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 was not voting on Sunday.
Aware that the key to winning the general election is conquering the centre, Feijóo has sought to moderate the PP’s line since taking over last year, while also keeping Vox at a distance. A strong regional showing by Vox would put him on the back foot.
The campaign, which ended Friday, was marred in the final week by allegations of fraud involving postal votes, largely implicating individuals allied with the Socialists. The allegations pose yet another hurdle for Sánchez, who has made good governance a priority in contrast to the corruption of various former right-wing governments.

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Spain’s Feijóo, the opposition leader who missed his moment

Once the runaway favourite to be Spain's next prime minister, Alberto Núñez Feijóo has become the man who missed his moment after failing to find parliamentary support to be confirmed as premier.

Spain's Feijóo, the opposition leader who missed his moment

After months of riding high in the polls, the 62-year-old leader of the right-wing Popular Party long appeared confident he would replace Socialist Pedro Sánchez as prime minister.

Despite winning July’s election, it was a Pyrrhic victory with the PP falling well short of the 176 seats for a working majority, even with the support of the far-right Vox.

Since then Feijóo has seen his fortunes falter, only winning the support of 172 deputies and failing in this week’s two parliamentary votes, cutting short his dream of becoming “the first prime minister from rural Spain”.

“Today I won’t be able to give you a government but we have been able to give you hope that there’s a political force that will defend all Spaniards, initially in opposition but sooner or later from government,” he said on Friday.

Acknowledging his imminent defeat earlier this week, Feijóo lashed out at Sánchez over his plans to retain the premiership through a deal with a hardline Catalan separatist party.

“No end, not even becoming prime minister, justifies the means,” he thundered, referring to plans to offer an amnesty to those facing legal action over the failed 2017 Catalan separatist bid.

Boxed in by Vox

A progressive moderate from the rural northwestern region of Galicia, Feijóo had hoped his moderate stance and dull-but-dependable brand would be enough to end Sánchez’s reign.

READ ALSO: Feijóo is out of Spain’s presidential race: What will Sánchez do now?

Elected four times as Galicia’s leader with an absolute majority, Feijóo had prided himself on being able to contain the resurgence of the far right, with Vox never winning a single seat in the regional parliament.

But despite his moderate image and his desire to turn the PP into a centre-right party, Feijóo quickly realised he couldn’t become premier without Vox.

That alliance cost him support at the ballot box and left him with precious few parliamentary allies.

He also made mistakes in the final week of the campaign, stumbling over pensions in a TV interview and boycotting a televised debate between candidates, leaving the field open to his opponents.

Even so, observers said it was too early to write him off, saying it was likely he would remain at the helm of the party.

“Although it seemed like that on election night — that Feijóo had missed his chance and was going to be ousted from the leadership… I don’t think the PP is going to do that because he still has a chance,” said Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at Barcelona’s Autonomous University.

And that second chance could come very soon if Sánchez also fails to pass a vote to be inaugurated as prime minister in the coming weeks, meaning Spain will be forced to hold repeat elections, most likely in January.

Village boy

Born on September 10, 1961, in the village of Os Peares, Feijóo grew up in a working-class family to a father who worked in construction and a mother who ran a grocery shop.

He read law in Santiago de Compostela, hoping to become a judge but became a civil servant in 1985 when his father was suddenly left jobless.

He got his foot on the political ladder in 1991 joining Galicia’s agriculture ministry with a politician who went on to become health minister and took Feijóo with him to Madrid in 1996.

There he ran the Insalud national health service, then headed the Correos postal service before returning to Galicia where in 2006, he became the PP’s regional leader.

Ahead of July’s election, questions resurfaced about his ties with notorious tobacco smuggler and money launderer Marcial Dorado, who was later convicted for drug trafficking.

In 2013, El Pais published photos of the pair of them in the mid-90s on Dorado’s boat and on holiday together.

Feijóo insisted he “knew nothing” about Dorado’s activities but fellow Galician Yolanda Diaz of the radical-left Sumar wondered how he could claim ignorance “when all of Spain knew who he was”.

Despite being fiercely guarded about his private life, Feijóo told El Mundo’s women’s magazine that becoming a father in his mid-50s with his partner Eva Cardenas was the “best gift life has given me”.

And he also admitted that he rings his mum if he’s had “a bad day” — which may well be the case on Friday.