A respite for Rajoy

 

THE SPANISH prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has had a troubled first year in office, but one of last weekend’s two regional Spanish polls has given him badly needed comfort. Despite widespread public hostility to Rajoy’s repeated imposition of harsh cut-backs, the electorate of Galicia returned his Partido Popular (PP) to the northwestern region’s autonomous government with an increased absolute majority, taking 41 out of 75 seats. The main Spanish opposition, the Socialist Party (PSOE), demonstrated its failure to dispel memories of its disastrous recent years in power in Madrid, and lost almost a third of its representation.

The election is, on the face of it, a remarkable achievement for Rajoy, whose popularity has plummeted since his nationwide triumph in November last year. This victory also somewhat redeems Rajoy’s name for clumsy, even careless, leadership. This image was highlighted after this year’s previous autonomous elections, in Andalusia in the spring. He failed there, against all expectations, to eject the discredited PSOE from one of its last fiefdoms. That loss was all the more embarrassing because he had riled his EU partners by delaying a budget until after the Andalusian poll, apparently hoping to win by concealing his draconian economic intentions from voters.

Now he can hold his head high in Brussels, as a premier who has taken a series of very hard decisions and still has the solid support of voters. It will certainly strengthen his hand in the remarkable poker game he has been playing to gain the best possible conditions for a full Spanish bailout. This triumph, however, is not unqualified. Firstly, Galicia is Rajoy’s home base, but this was not perceived as a clear advantage by his party colleague and re-elected regional first minister, Alberto Núñez Feijóo. Indeed, he distanced himself as far as was possible from the prime minister and his policies during the campaign. The victory was really Feijóo’s and it confirms his position as a strong contender to succeed Rajoy, though no contest is likely in the short term.

Secondly, the weekend’s other autonomous election, in the Basque Country, brought Rajoy and the PP no comfort at all – except that it further demonstrated the PSOE’s decline. The Basque poll confirmed the apparently irresistible rise of the radical pro-independence coalition Bildu. The group is accused by the PP of links to the moribund terrorist group Eta, currently on “permanent” ceasefire. Yet Bildu took almost a quarter of the vote, second only to another Basque nationalist party, the PNV, less militantly separatist, but also increasingly inclined to demand Basque sovereignty. Between the two parties, Basque nationalists have a very comfortable majority in the autonomous parliament. At a moment when Spain’s other restive national minority, the Catalans, are making unprecedented moves towards independence, this is not a good scenario for a prime minister dedicated to the principle of a unitary Spanish state.

Rajoy is unlikely to have much time to enjoy his Galician respite.

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