REGIONAL ELECTIONS

Galicia win gives Rajoy breathing space

Prime minister gets few months of calm as he looks ahead to a possible bailout Regional premier Feijóo’s victory puts him first in line as next PP leader

PP leader and prime minister, Mariano Rajoy (l), congratulates Galician premier Alberto Núñez Feijóo after the latter's re-election.
PP leader and prime minister, Mariano Rajoy (l), congratulates Galician premier Alberto Núñez Feijóo after the latter's re-election. TAREK (EFE)

Sunday’s election result in Galicia, where the Popular Party (PP) increased its absolute majority in the regional parliament from 38 to 41 seats, marks a clear strategic victory for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Strategic decisions condition everything in politics. Almost all analysts agree that the former Socialist premier of Galicia, Emilio Pérez Touriño, got it wrong three years ago when he ignored then-party number two José Blanco’s advice to bring forward regional elections. He pushed them back instead, and lost to the PP, dragged down by the economic crisis.

By contrast, Sunday’s result confirmed that incumbent Galician leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo did well to listen to Rajoy over the summer and bring forward the vote. Feijóo had initially been reluctant to do so but the prime minister convinced him with one idea: with a second bailout looming, even worse times were on the horizon.

By doing so, the PP managed to get the elections in ahead of the bailout and a more-than-likely adjustment to pensions (Galicia has one of the oldest populations of all of Spain’s regions). They also caught the Socialists by surprise, thus achieving something even more difficult: despite all the spending cuts introduced by Rajoy, the PP avoided suffering any losses. The Feijóo-headed list of candidates won 45.7 percent of the vote to extend its majority in the 75-member Xunta to 41 seats. In 2009, the PP had won 38 seats.

Instead it was the opposition Socialist Party (PSOE) that received a thumping, one that was even worse than expected. It won just 18 regional parliament seats, seven down on its 2009 result, collecting 20.5 percent of the vote — over 10 percentage points lower than in 2009.

Núñez Feijóo did well to listen to Rajoy over the summer and bring forward the vote

The resounding victory is a dream result for Rajoy, and unleashed euphoria on the seventh floor of party headquarters in Madrid’s Génova street on Sunday night. PP Secretary General María Dolores de Cospedal called the Galicia triumph a “vote of confidence for the PP’s policies in all of Spain.” It also served to mask the PP’s poor showing in Sunday’s Basque Country elections, where it picked up 10 seats, down from 13 in 2009, with 11.7 percent of the vote. The pro-independence Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and the newly legalized EH Bildu coalition were the best-supported groupings, winning 27 seats from 34.6 percent of the vote and 21 seats from 25 percent of the vote, respectively. Outgoing regional premier Patxi López’s PSE-EE Socialist Party picked up just 16 seats, down from 25 in 2009, seeing its share of the vote plummet from 30.7 percent to just 19.1 percent.

It’s a result that, when added to the predicted re-election of the CiU Catalan nationalist bloc in the Catalonia regional elections on November 25, points to a clash between central government and the two most significant regions in historical terms.

A lot was hanging on the Galicia result for the PP — not so much on the Basque vote, where it had much less at stake — and it will have many repercussions, both at home and abroad, both for Rajoy and for Feijóo.

If CiU retains Catalonia, there will be a clash between central government and the two most significant regions

If the Galicia premier was a future contender for the party leadership before, his enormous success has catapulted him first in line. Should Rajoy’s management of the crisis leave him so bruised that he is unable to continue as leader, Feijóo is there, ready to take over.

The crisis of confidence over the prime minister, who is plummeting in the polls, is not going away, say some party leaders — too many people think he isn’t the right person for a crisis of this scale. But what he has achieved with this result is to calm concerns in his own party and, above all, send a clear message about what matters most right now: Europe. For the EU states, with whom he has to negotiate a bailout, he is now a politician who has managed to win on his home turf of Galicia — Rajoy comes from Pontevedra — and above all avoid internal questions over his abilities. What worries the prime minister most — more than a general strike or pressure from the street — is the PP, which is the only thing that can topple him.

Abroad, Rajoy sells himself as a leader with an absolute majority, who is able to pass any kind of austerity measure. Unlike other European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who governs in a coalition and is already on the campaign trail, he doesn’t have to negotiate with anybody, and he can deliver everything he promises in private. After the Catalan elections, where the PP hopes to do well thanks to the head-on collision with nationalism, Rajoy has a couple of years of calm, free of elections, to be able to make the cuts that will come after the bailout. In fact, several leaders agree that the independence debate will help the PP, as it will push the cuts to one side. Another question, however, is the enormous political problem that Rajoy will face in the Basque Country and, above all, in Catalonia.

Whatever Rajoy does, nobody in the PP is going to worry that the Socialists will return to power

What’s more, other party leaders say, the prime minister now has one more trump card in the eyes of party members and European leaders: the opposition is growing weaker and weaker. The defeat of the PSOE was such in Galicia and the Basque Country — and is also forecast in Catalonia — that whatever Rajoy does, nobody in the PP is going to worry that Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba’s Socialists will be able to return to power. They are offering no real alternative.

“That is the great cushion that Rajoy and, above all, the PP, have, and it is strong enough to calm any internal tensions,” says one party leader.

The Galicia result proves that the left is more and more fragmented, while the right remains united, something much prized by electoral law: in fact, the PP won three more seats in Galicia with a lower percentage of the vote than in 2009.

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