MADRID: Spaniards voted today in local and regional polls seen as a barometer for a year-end general election which surveys suggest Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez will lose, heralding a return of the right.
The stakes are high for Sanchez, 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.
Voting opened at 9am with some 35.5 million people eligible for the local elections and 18.3 million for the regional elections. Balloting ends at 8pm.
With no exit polls, initial results are due out two hours later.
“Most of our citizens will vote positively… for what is important: for public healthcare, public education and housing policies for our young people,” said Sanchez as he cast his ballot in Madrid.
If the left “exceeds expectations and manages to retain control of most regional governments in play… this would suggest the national elections will be very closely fought, and bode well for the left’s chances of staying in power”, Eurasia Group analyst Federico Santi said this week.
But if surveys — which forecast a shift to the right — prove correct, success at a regional level will provide opposition leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo, head of the right-wing Popular Party (PP), with the “momentum” he needs to win the end-of-year election, he said.
After casting his ballot, Feijoo 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.
Sunday’s elections find Sanchez, who has been in office since 2018, facing several obstacles: voter fatigue with his left-wing government, soaring inflation — even though Spain’s rate is lower than other EU nations — and falling purchasing power.
Feijoo 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 Sanchez’s policies.
In his campaign closing remarks, Sanchez 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 Feijoo has won this first round — and whether his victory in the year-end general election is a foregone conclusion.
A far-right problem
But Feijoo 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, Feijoo 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 Sanchez, who has made good governance a priority in contrast to the corruption of various former right-wing governments.