28 May and Local Elections in Spain: A test for left-wing ruling coalition

Juan Rodríguez Teruel

6 mins - 24 de Mayo de 2023, 07:05

On 28 May, Spain will hold local and regional elections. It will be a relevant vote for several reasons. Despite not being a pure federal system, both levels of government spend around 50 % of the public budget, and have strong political autonomy to rule citizens’ ordinary lives. 

Moreover, this subnational political setting gives regional and local political forces an important role in the political system, which make them strategic actors to determine the balance of powers also at the national level, especially when there is not a clear majority in the Spanish parliament. It is no wonder Spain is the European democracy with the highest number of non-state wide political parties, and where these forces are more decisive to negotiate territorial payoffs for their constituencies in exchange of parliamentary and institutional support to national parties.

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More particularly, this election will have an important meaning because it will be the first statewide vote in Spain since 2019. Since then, only six regions have had their own regional election separately, although they were essentially framed by regional topics, and very much conditioned by the exceptional context of the Covid-19 pandemics. Although this regional and local electoral event in May will deal also with specific local agendas, the simultaneous vote in all 8.131 municipalities, and 12 Autonomous Communities (all but Catalonia, Basque Country, Castilla-Leon, Andalusia and Galicia, which had already held their vote along these years) will provide the voters’ first national test for the developments of Spanish politics in the last four years. 

The period 2019-2023 has been particularly challenging for governments around the world because of the many extraordinary events, like the coronavirus pandemics (intensively painful in Spain), the Ukrainian war and its economic consequences, or natural disasters (in the Fall of 2021, a volcanic eruption destroyed part of the Canarian Island of La Palma). In Spain all this happened under the first national coalition executive since the Second Republic (1931-39), formed by the PSOE and the radical left-wing coalition Unidas Podemos. This novelty has been surrounded by a nasty political environment, with increasing polarization amid left and right, and new forms of adversary politics. The 28th local election might become a thermometer of this landscape, and therefore, many politicians and analysts consider it as a sort of first round for the upcoming general election, expected to be held next December.

Local and regional electoral campaigns are not a simple reflect of national politics, because voters make their decisions according to local leaderships and governments’ performance. However, this electoral contest will also revolve around three national issues.

First, the election will be a test for the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, and his government agenda. He has become the symbol of the last decade of deep political transformation in Spain. His resiliency and his alliance with the radical left and several regionalist forces, promoting Keynesian economics, feminism and pragmatism, has probably saved the Spanish social democracy from the path of decline that this political family has followed in other European countries. Today the PSOE is one of the strongest socialdemocrat parties in the EU. But the prize has been an increasing perception of affective polarization among left and right, contributing to a harsh political environment in Spain. In spite of the many signs of economic recovery after the pandemics and the reduction of poverty and unemployment, Sánchez’s support remains bounded to the left-wing electorate, unable to expand towards more moderate voters on the center. 

In 28th May, the PSOE will defend the incumbent position in ten governments, and a few relevant cities, an institutional predominance that reflects the recovery of the party in the previous election of 2019, when the right-wing candidacies run deeply divided. The prospects in many of these regions is that the next executives may depend of very tight multi-party majorities, which may anticipate the difficulties to build majorities at the national parliament in the upcoming general election, and will depend on the electoral standing of the PSOE’s allies.

In this respect, the election will also be a test for the Spanish radical leftwing Podemos. The party runs in this election under different coalitions, and in some important cities, like Madrid, it is split in different competing candidacies. The sum of those votes will show the level of commitment of its electorate after recent internal controversies. It will also define the balance of power between the different radical left-wing candidacies to negotiate afterwards to build a new electoral alliance (Sumar, which will be led by the deputy prime minister, Yolanda Díez, appointed by Pablo Iglesias as his successor as a the electoral leader of Podemos, but now opposed to him) for the general elections in December.

Finally, the election will be a test for the new leader of the main conservative party, the PP. Elected as new party chairman one year ago, Albert Núñez Feijoo has improved the score of the party in the opinion polls because of his moderate profile and his long experience as a regional prime minister of Galicia. However, he is still challenged by two obstacles in his own electorate. On the one hand, the unlikely achievement of majorities (at any electoral level) and the lack of other potential allies at the center (after the downfall of the liberal Ciudadanos) or among regionalist parties will force the PP to build executive coalitions with the far-rightwing Vox. This scenario might demobilize his moderate supporters and fuel the mobilization of the left in the future. The only exit for Núñez Feijoo is to win the largest proportion of the conservative electorate in order to reduce Vox’ blackmail potential in regions and municipalities.

Nevertheless, Núñez Feijoo has its main political opponent within the party: Isabel Díaz Ayuso, regional leader of the Community of Madrid, is representing the antagonistic view against Sánchez, and has become a clear contender to replace Feijóo if he does not look able to defeat the PSOE in the following months. Ayuso is expecting to gain a sharp majority in the Madrid’s assembly, a result that would increase pressure over Feijoo in the future. This pressure will be heavier if Feijoo does not perform well in achieving important successes on the 28th May. In this sense, the local and regional elections may become a boost for the PP’s chances, as well as a bury for its current leader if results do not fulfill the expectations.

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