Spain’s Socialists seek to retain southern stronghold

Key Andalusia vote opens electoral cycle and may set tone for other poll outcomes

 

If any Spanish political party could be said to have an electoral stronghold, then it is the Socialists in the south.

“Why do the Socialists always win in Andalusia?” Susana Díaz, president of the region, asked supporters during a party rally in Marbella this week.

“The easy answer is because people want us to win, because they vote for us,” she said. “But there’s a second reason: because people know that they can trust us.”

Many of her political opponents would contest that explanation but not the fact that no other party has had such uninterrupted control of a single region.

Ever since the creation of Spain’s modern-day regional autonomy system in 1982, the Socialists have governed in Andalusia. They have won every election there, except in 2012 when they narrowly lost to the Popular Party (PP) yet still managed to remain in government.

On Sunday, the Socialists are expected to win there once again, albeit without a majority. Polls show them well ahead of their three main adversaries: the leftist Adelante Andalucía coalition, and the PP and Ciudadanos on the right.

The frustration of the challengers to the Socialist dominance in Andalusia has occasionally been voiced during the campaign. Adelante Andalucía’s candidate, Teresa Rodríguez, described the current administration as a “regime” built on a personality cult surrounding Díaz. Ciudadanos’s candidate, Juan Marín, said the last four decades of Socialist rule were “a biblical curse”.

Such critics point to Andalusia’s jobless rate, the worst of any Spanish region at 23 per cent, or its high rate of poverty. Its economy, which relies heavily on tourism and agriculture, tends to lag behind more technology-based regions such as the Basque Country or Catalonia and Madrid.

Precarious labour

In recent years, a local scandal involving the awarding of fraudulent early retirement packages, company subsidies and commissions worth €136 million has given the opposition further ammunition with which to attack the Socialists. Two former presidents of Andalusia, Manuel Chaves and José Antonio Griñán, are currently on trial for their alleged role in it.

Yet the Socialists keep on winning. The reasons why are varied, but sociologist Josep Lobera, of Madrid’s Autónoma University, points to Andalusia’s unusual economic structure which ensures the precarious labour market is still deeply linked to a land ownership system that has echoes of feudalism. With their longstanding emphasis on the welfare state, the Socialists present themselves as a safety net in such an environment.

“There is this idea that the state looks after and protects people and that if it weren’t for the state they would be in the hands of the big landowners,” Lobera says. “So for lots of people in Andalusia it’s either Susana Díaz or the landowners.”

That phenomenon has been particularly galling for the conservative PP, which struggles in Andalusia despite having governed across most of the rest of the country.

“In Andalusia, the landowners were cruel and the folk memory of the labourers there is crucial,” Ángeles Isac, leader of the PP in the southern town of Linares, told El País newspaper. “Locals say to me: ‘My father was a miner, how could I vote for the PP?’ It’s very difficult to break down that mental barrier.”

Healthcare pledges

The Socialists themselves point to concrete achievements in the region, such as having among the lowest university fees in Spain, and they have made ambitious pledges in areas such as healthcare, promising to build 15 new hospitals.

However, as in 2015, the Socialists are well short of a majority in the 109-seat regional parliament. After that election, they were able to form a government with the support of Ciudadanos, who now seem more intent on negotiating with the PP. Together, those two might require the support of Vox, a hardline right-wing party promising to clamp down on immigration and to “make Spain great again”.

However, it is possible that neither the Socialists nor the parties on the right will be able to form a government, meaning a repeat of the election next year.

This Andalusia vote opens a key electoral season in Spain. In May, European and further regional elections will be held. There is also the possibility of a general election in the spring if the fragile central government of Socialist Pedro Sánchez is unable to approve the 2019 budget.

“The result in Andalusia will have a big effect on what happens in the other upcoming elections in terms of who is seen as a winner and who is seen as a loser,” said Lobera.

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