Spaniards began voting Sunday in local and regional polls which will be a barometer for a year-end general election that 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 9:00 am (0700 GMT) with some 35.5 million people eligible to cast ballots in the local elections and 18.3 million eligible to vote in the regional elections. Ballot boxes will close at 8:00 pm.
With no exit polls, initial results are due out two hours later.
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, Santi said.
Sunday’s vote finds Sanchez, in office since 2018, at several disadvantages.
He faces voter fatigue with his left-wing government at a time of soaring inflation — even though the rate is lower in Spain than other EU nations — and the resulting fall in purchasing power.
He has also struggled to contain the fallout from repeated crises that have shaken his left-wing coalition.
– Vulnerable –
Feijoo has pushed hard to turn the elections into a national referendum on Sanchez.
He has denounced the prime minister 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.
“I have come to ask for votes from the Spain that wants to overthrow ‘Sanchismo’ this coming Sunday,” Feijoo said closing his campaign on Friday night, using a derogatory term for Sanchez’s policies.
In his own closing remarks, Sanchez focused on his government’s record in bolstering the economy, fighting a drought and managing Spain’s water resources — an increasingly important issue as climate change gathers pace.
“Social democratic policies suit Spain a lot better than neoliberal 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 that 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 election as premier in a general vote expected in December 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 will not be voting on Sunday.
Aware that key to winning the general election is conquering the centre, Feijoo has sought to moderate the PP’s line since taking over as leader last year, while also keeping Vox at a distance.
A strong regional showing by Vox would put him on the back foot.
The election campaign, which ended on Friday, was marred in its final week by allegations of fraud involving postal votes, which have largely implicated individuals allied with the Socialists.
Although the impact remains hard to assess, the allegations pose yet another hurdle for Sanchez, who has made good governance a priority for his administration, in contrast with the corruption of various former right-wing governments.