Spain rebuffs call to send the 'world a message'

Mon, Nov 21, 2011, 00:00

THE TWO leading candidates in Spain’s general elections, Mariano Rajoy and Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, agreed on only one thing yesterday – that at this moment of unprecedented crisis Spaniards should vote in great numbers.

Mr Rajoy, confident of the decisive victory that the exit polls confirmed last night for his right-wing Partido Popular (PP), said during the morning that a high turnout would “send a message of the first magnitude to the whole world”.

Mr Rubalcaba, painfully aware that his first outing as prime ministerial candidate for the governing Socialist Party (PSOE) was very likely to be disastrous, nonetheless reminded the electorate that Spain “finds itself at a historic crossroads, and your vote is more important than ever”.

And yet nowhere did great numbers of citizens heed their call – except in the rebel territory of the Basque Country, where the dramatic surge in support for a new pro-independence grouping cannot be to either of their likings.

The stakes became extraordinarily high in these elections, with Spain staring at the spectre of EU intervention after a week of sustained assault by the bond markets.

Yet voter participation was down about 3 per cent yesterday on the 61 per cent recorded in the rather dull elections of 2008, and nearly 20 per cent shy of the admittedly exceptional 77 per cent turnout in response to the Islamist terrorist bombings in Madrid in the March 2004 contest.

Some of yesterday’s apparent apathy can be attributed to the predictability of the outcome, with all opinion polls giving a commanding lead to the PP over the last two months. And some of it is due to the deep disenchantment among supporters of the governing PSOE, after its deeply unpopular austerity measures came too late to prevent Spain spiralling into the front rank of the EU’s disaster league.

Cándido Méndez, the leader of the UGT, the trade union closest to the PSOE, also appealed to these voters not to stay at home, but to show that “politics could impose itself on the speculators”. But the evidence is that many of the PSOE waverers who did vote switched their preference to the former communists of Izquierda Unida (United Left).

This group rose from a mere two deputies to low double figures. A good result, but not enough to represent any threat to the PP’s comfortable absolute majority, according to exit polls.

Much more serious for the PSOE, for Spanish politics in general, and the victorious PP in particular, is the number of people who adhered to one of the key slogans of the influential 15-M movement: “Don’t vote!”

This movement is an early example of the “Occupy” phenomenon that has since swept many of the world’s big cities. It came out of nowhere during Spain’s local elections last May, and briefly appeared poised to change the face of Spanish politics. Then it lost momentum, but it has not gone away, and very probably was the major influence on the low turnout. The movement may come into its own as a grassroots response to a PP government that will probably impose much more severe cutbacks than the PSOE has ever done, though its electoral programme has been tactically vague on details.

Assuming – and it is a very big assumption – that the PP’s harsh medicine can first calm the bond markets and prevent an EU intervention, and then quickly reduce the massive youth unemployment that fuels the 15-M, the Basque election results will give the new government another serious cause for concern.

The radical pro-independence Basque left, whose representatives have been repeatedly excluded from elections since Batasuna was made illegal in 2002, has done remarkably well in the first elections to be held free from the shadow of their former allies in the terrorist group Eta.

Early indications last night suggested that their latest incarnation, Amaiur, would replace the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) as the leading nationalist force, and might well emerge as the biggest single political entity in the region.

Rather as an unarmed Sinn Féin finally outstripped the SDLP, it now looks as if Eta’s ignominious exit from the Basque scene has brought a big dividend to its former supporters. This will not be an easy scenario for the deeply conservative and Spanish nationalist PP to engage with.

Such issues will hardly be visible, however, if the new government – and the whole EU – is incapable of coping with the global financial crisis. And given the exorbitant time it takes for a new Spanish government to take office (see panel), it does not look as if Mr Rajoy and his colleagues will be able to make their mark for several crucial weeks to come.


GIVEN THE gravity of the crisis in the euro zone, as well as the scale of the PP’s victory, one might expect a new Spanish government would be in place very soon indeed after yesterday’s elections.

Nevertheless, the calendar for the transfer of powers appears to be set in stone by the Spanish constitution and related laws and there seems to be no way Mariano Rajoy can become prime minister before December 20th.

In the meantime, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero will remain in charge of a “government in functions” that cannot take decisions affecting the national interest or introduce new legislation.

Unless some arcane formula can be found that might enable this process to be accelerated, December 13th is the first date on which the new parliament can meet.

Then the king must consult the leaders of all parliamentary groups, a process that will take a further week.

This long hiatus is yet another threat to the confidence demanded by the bond markets if Spain is to be spared EU intervention.

If circumstances indeed force such an intervention on the country, it is very hard to see how a toothless interim government will be in a position to respond
to it.