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Spaniards are voting in regional and municipal polls that will serve as a gauge of the political mood ahead of December’s general election, and which come after a bitter and fractious campaign marred by a row over the defunct terrorist organisation Eta and allegations of electoral fraud.
Sunday’s elections, in which 12 regional governments and 8,000 municipal councils are up for grabs, are likely to be a closely fought race between the governing Spanish Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) and the opposition conservative People’s party (PP).
The results are expected to signal a return to the two-party system that dominated Spanish politics before the eruption of the far-left, anti-austerity Podemos and the now moribund centre-right Citizens party.
At 2pm local time, turnout was at 36.7% – 1.6 percentage points up on the 2019 elections. In the Madrid region, where the rightwing, populist regional president, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, is hoping to secure an absolute majority for the PP, turnout was at 29.2%, 2.6 percentage points higher than in the last regional election two years ago, and 4.9 points up on 2019.
The PP has sought to use the elections as a referendum on the prime minister Pedro Sánchez, and his style of government, which it calls sanchismo and depicts as incompetent, over-reaching and hellbent on remaining in office.
“These aren’t just elections to choose a mayor or a regional government,” the PP leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, said during an end-of-campaign rally on Friday.
“Sanchismo has stained everything and I’m afraid to have to say, respectfully but sadly, that the prime minister of my country has no limits. His party has been unable to stop him and so we must do so together as Spaniards.”
Sánchez struck a less combative note after casting his vote on Sunday morning, urging people to ignore the rows of recent days and to vote calmly.
“It’s very important that we all go and vote and that we do so in a positive way, forgetting this intolerance, this noise, this depreciation and these tensions that a minority are trying to stoke,” he said. “I’m convinced that the majority of citizens will vote positively, respectfully and thoughtfully.”
Sánchez began the campaign hoping to stress his coalition government’s economic record, housing reforms and schemes to help young people.
But the first week of the campaign descended into rancorous fights over the past, after it emerged that the Basque nationalist party, EH Bildu – on whose support the minority government relies in Congress – was fielding 44 convicted Eta members, including seven people found guilty of violent crimes, as candidates.
Sánchez criticised Bildu’s decision – describing it as legal but “obviously indecent” – and the Basque party later announced that the seven candidates convicted for violence would not take up their seats, but the PP seized on the issue as further proof of the government’s hunger to remain in power.
Feijóo attacked Sánchez for his reliance on Bildu and Catalan pro-independence parties – and for the bungled sexual offences legislation, introduced by his junior coalition partners in Podemos, that has allowed more than 1,000 convicted sex offenders to have their sentences cut and more than 100 to win early release.
“You’re the great electoral hope for rapists and pederasts, for mutineers, squatters, corrupt people and now for those who used to go about in balaclavas with pistols,” he told Sánchez. “And I will never be that.”
Sánchez said the PP’s tired reliance on the spectre of a vanished terrorist group was proof of its lack of electoral initiatives. “What’s your proposal on housing?” he asked the party. “Eta. In other words, nothing. On education? Eta. In other words, nothing. On the climate emergency? Eta. In other words, nothing.
“When Eta is nothing in Spain, it is still everything to you. Because, in your desperation, Eta is all you have, even though it doesn’t exist.”
Spats over Eta were followed by fears of electoral fraud after police in Spain’s north African enclave of Melilla arrested 10 people suspected of participating in an alleged postal vote-buying fraud. Seven others were detained on suspicion of vote-buying in the Andalucían town of Mojácar, while police were also investigating possible fraud in the Canary Islands and the Murcia region.
The PP could capitalise on the rows of recent days and fatigue with the coalition government, which has been in office since 2019, but polls suggest it is likely to have to rely on the far-fight Vox party’s support in forming new regional governments in all of the contested regions except Madrid.
However, entering into coalitions with Vox – as it already has in the Castilla and León region – would allow the left to paint the PP as a party that is prepared to abandon the centre ground and make deals with the far right for the sake of winning power.
“Vox is growing in all regions and is going to win more power and be in more regional parliaments and in more councils than in 2019,” said Pablo Simón, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III university.
“All the surveys show that the PP will need Vox to govern in every region except in Madrid. That means that Vox, which is running a very discreet campaign and is trying not to make any mistakes, will be seeking to enter into coalition governments.”