Regional elections hold mixed results for Rajoy

Mon, Oct 22, 2012, 01:00

EXIT POLLS showed that the Popular Party (PP) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy managed to hold on to power in a key regional election in Galicia yesterday, providing a desperately needed boost for the beleaguered Spanish government.

However, in elections also held yesterday in the Basque Country, the PP lost ground as nationalist parties dominated, bringing the issue of independence to the fore.

The Galician vote in particular was seen as a gauge of Spaniards’ reaction to the government’s handling of the economic crisis and exit polls showed the PP retaining its majority in the northwestern region.

Spain’s economy has been at the heart of the euro zone crisis in recent months, with a jobless rate of 25 per cent and increasing speculation that Madrid will request a sovereign bailout in order to ease pressure on the country’s borrowing costs. Since taking power at the end of 2011, Mr Rajoy has raised income tax and VAT and slashed spending on areas such as health and education as he attempts to meet deficit targets set by Brussels.

Galicia has suffered more than most regions, with its unemployment rate soaring from 12 per cent to 21 per cent over the last three years. The region is seen as one of Spain’s staunchest conservative strongholds, and the PP feared that a loss would have reflected a more widespread anger at the austerity drive of the Galicia-born Mr Rajoy. With the prime minister’s approval rating sliding in recent months, there was concern that PP voters were starting to turn their back on the party.

Fears about being associated too closely with the Rajoy administration seemed to encourage the Galician premier Alberto Nunez Feijoo to keep his distance from the prime minister during the election campaign, focusing instead on his own strict handling of the region’s finances.

Many observers believe one reason the Spanish government has not yet requested a sovereign bailout is because doing so would have hurt its performance in these regional elections, a suggestion Mr Rajoy has denied.

But if that was indeed his strategy, it seems to have paid off, at least in Galicia. Speculation regarding the rescue is likely to intensify now that yesterday’s highly anticipated votes are out of the way.

In the Basque Country, the economy was also a major issue during the election campaign, but so too was the notion of independence from Spain.

Saturday marked a year to the day since Eta formally ended its use of violence to reach its separatist goal and this was the first election in the region without the terrorist group’s threat as backdrop.

The Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) had been widely expected to win and exit polls suggested it had done so. However, it was closely followed by Bildu, a relatively new, radical coalition that also favours independence and which had to battle to be legalised last year due to its alleged links to Eta.

Other parties have criticised Bildu for failing to condemn the violence of Eta and have even claimed it is a mouthpiece for the group, which has still not disbanded. But despite the controversy surrounding it, Bildu’s strong performance in yesterday’s election confirms its arrival as a major force in Basque politics.

As expected, Mr Rajoy’s PP and the Socialist Party, which until recently were governing in partnership in the Basque Country, both suffered losses.

Whether or not, as some forecast, Bildu teams up with the socially more conservative PNV in order to form a governing alliance, pro-independence parties now dominate the Basque legislature. This will be a major worry for the central government in Madrid, which is currently struggling to rein in separatist fervour in nearby Catalonia.

That region’s leaders are planning a referendum on independence despite avowed resistance on the part of the central government. Early elections have been called in Catalonia for November 25th, posing the next major political challenge for Mr Rajoy.

One of the few incidents registered during yesterday’s voting took place when nationalists demanding better conditions for Eta prisoners barracked Basque regional premier Patxi López, a Socialist, as he was casting his vote.