Spain’s electionsRajoy’s rout May 23rd 2011, 15:11 by G.T. | MADRID
A RESOUNDING victory for the opposition conservative People’s Party (PP) in regional and municipal elections across Spain yesterday confirms that the party is on track to take office in a general election that must be held by next March. Its leader, Mariano Rajoy (pictured), looks set to replace José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero as prime minister.
If, in a general election, the PP can repeat the 10% lead over the governing Socialists it won yesterday, Mr Rajoy should enjoy both an absolute parliamentary majority and a clear mandate for reform. Moreover, with yesterday’s success, he not only has a clear sight on Madrid’s Moncloa Palace, he has finally shaken off opposition to his leadership from within his own party.
The PP is now set to govern nine of Spain’s 17 regional governments, and to have a say in the running of several more. As its mayors will also be in charge of 36 of Spain’s 50 provincial capital cities, the party will be faced with one of Spain’s thorniest problems—overspending in city halls and regional capitals. It has a model to follow in the PP-controlled Madrid regional government, which boasts the lowest deficit of all (although Madrid’s PP-controlled city hall has one of the highest debts). With elections out of the way, the full size of the regional overspend should now become apparent.
The most dramatic event in yesterday’s elections was the collapse in the Socialist vote. Mr Zapatero’s party saw its support nationwide fall by 19% compared to local elections four years ago, against a PP rise of 7%. The Socialists lost control of traditional strongholds like the town halls of Barcelona and Seville, and the regional governments of Castilla La Mancha and Aragon.
After this clamorous rebuke, the Socialists must now set about the business of choosing a candidate to replace the unpopular Mr Zapatero, who announced in April that he would not lead his party into the general election. Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the deputy prime minister, and Carme Chacón, the defence minister, are the front-runners to replace him, although both are Zapatero loyalists and neither represents anything new in policy terms.
An extra dimension in yesterday’s vote was an explosion of support in the northern Basque country for a new radical separatist party, Bildu, which won 25% of the vote. Many people outside the Basque country see Bildu as the successor to Batasuna—a prohibited front party for Basque terrorist group ETA—although it formally disavows ETA’s violence. (Bildu was banned from running in the local elections by the supreme court on May 1st, but the decision was overturned by the constitutional court.)
Optimists say Bildu’s success will make it easier to persuade ETA, currently on what it calls a “permanent” ceasefire, to give up its arms and renounce violence for good. Pessimists, especially hawks in the PP, think the vote could encourage a buoyant ETA to harden its line. Either way, the task of finessing ETA’s end may now fall to Mr Rajoy.
What of the spontaneous protests against establishment politics that have spread across Spanish city-centre squares over the past week? Some protestors had called for voters to stay away from the ballot box yesterday. But in the event turnout rose, slightly, to 66%. Still, the number of spoiled ballots jumped to 4%, becoming the fourth most popular option, suggesting a rising mood of disenchantment among some Spanish voters. The two main parties saw their overall share of the vote drop from 70% to 65%, compared to 2007.
The protests should continue, with camp-outs set to last for at least six more days. The demonstrators are by no means solely left-wing utopians, although these groups sometimes appear to be in control. A cumbersome system of open assemblies, committees, sub-committees and working groups means the process of producing a coherent set of demands is proving painfully slow.
Electoral reform to a system that favours the two big parties, as well as nationalists in Catalonia and the Basque country, appears to be one of the major demands. It is also the one least likely to be conceded. A freedom-of-information law and measures to tackle corruption and politicians’ privileges may prove more realistic ambitions.