Galicia regional elections will be the first test of Rajoy’s austerity measures

Galicia’s premier Alberto Núñez Feijóo on Monday announced that his province, too, would join the Basque Country in holding early regional elections on October 21, rather than waiting for his term to run out in March 2013.

In so doing, Feijóo (pictured above, right) who hails from the center-right Partido Popular de Galicia (PPdeG, the People’s Party of Galicia), the local version of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular (PP, People’s Party), has launched the first electoral test for Rajoy’s government, after just eight months in office.

Given Rajoy’s ties to Galicia and its status as a traditional PPdeG stronghold, it’s very much more fraught for Rajoy (pictured above, left) than the simultaneous Basque election, where two nationalist parties lead polls and where unique local and autonomy issues will figure nearly as much as national issues.

Rajoy’s party won the Spanish general election in November 2011, but his government is already facing mounting unpopularity as it’s made increasing cuts to the Spanish budget, notwithstanding an economy that’s back in recession — the economy has contracted by 0.7% so far this year and grew just 0.4% in 2011 — and an unemployment rate of 24.8%, as of June.

So far, Rajoy has pushed through at least four different austerity packages, designed to bring the Spanish deficit to just 6.3% of Spanish GDP, down from an 8.9% deficit in 2011.  Rajoy has raised the Spanish income tax rate, raised the Spanish value-added tax by 3% to 21%, eliminated tax breaks for home owners and reduced spending on education and health care — and that comes after two years of cuts implemented by the government of Rajoy’s predecessor, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

For all its efforts, Spain is still straining under yields on its sovereign debt that rose from 5% (on 10-year bonds) when Rajoy entered office to 6.5% now, down from a crisis-level high of around 7.5% in mid-July.  So notwithstanding the harsh austerity, it seems more likely than not that Spain will seek a bailout from the European Union, possibly later this year — earlier in June, the European Central Bank intervened to provide funds for ailing Spanish banks.  That, too, has caused Rajoy to lose credibility after promising that he would never seek a bailout during his campaign.

The austerity push has affected the regions, which are responsible for cutting their own budgets to a combined 1.5% of GDP, and Galicia has not been unaffected by cuts at the regional level.

Since the end of the Franco era, the PPdeG has been out of power for just four years.  As such, it will be somewhat of an embarrassment if Feijóo and the PPdeG cannot win reelection in a region that’s historically been a bastion of Spanish conservatism — Rajoy himself is from Galicia and who once himself served in the Parlamento de Galicia

Galicia, one of three ‘nations’ within Spain — along with the Basque Country and Catalunya — is located to the immediate north of Portugal.  With the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Bay of Biscay to the north, it’s fairly isolated from the rest of Spain.  Indeed, it’s the only region in Spain where a majority of the residents speak a local language rather than Spanish — in fact, nearly everyone speaks Galician, a regional dialect that is linguistically closer to Portuguese than Spanish, although Spanish is becoming more widely used among young and urban Galicians.

With 2.8 million people, Galicia is the fifth most populous region in Spain; with a gross regional product per capita of $26,283 (the richest region, the Basque Country, has a GRP per capita more like $40,000, and the Spanish average is around $30,000), it’s a bit poorer than the rest of Spain, with an economy tilted toward fishing, agriculture and tourism.

Feijóo will face two other parties in the election: the center-left Partido dos Socialistas de Galicia (PSdeG-PSOE, Socialist Party of Galicia), the local version of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) and the nationalist / leftist Bloque Nacionalista Galego (BNG, the Galician Nationalist Bloc).

The BNG features prominently in Galician politics, but it doesn’t dominate politics in the way that Basque of Catalan nationalists do in their respective regions. It is not nearly as strident in its nationalism as Basque or Catalan nationalists, and it does not command the same level of support among Galicians as its Basque and Catalan counterparts.  Ideologically more to the left, it has found common cause much more easily in the past with the PSdeG and, indeed, formed a governing coalition with the PSdeG from 2005 to 2009.

Meanwhile, the PSdeG is shuffling to choose its candidate to lead the party into the election by this Saturday — on such short notice, potential inter party rivals are conceding that the candidate is likely to be Pachi Vázquez, secretary-general of the PSdeG since 2009 and a member of the Galician parliament since 1983, save a stint as mayor of his hometown of Carballino from 1995 to 1999.  Vázquez served as minister of the environment and sustainable development from 2005 to 2009.

As noted above, in the history of Galician regional elections since the 1980s, the PPdeG has been out of power just once — during the 2005-09 PSdeG / BNG coalition government under leader Emilio Pérez Touriño.

In the 2005 election, although the PPdeG won 37 seats in the 75-seat parliament, the PSdeG won 25 seats and the BNG won 13 seats, giving their coalition 38 seats.  In the most recent 2009 election, however, the PPdeG won 38 seats to 25 seats for the PSdeG and just 12 seats for the BNG, allowing the PPdeG to return to power.

The leading party (or coalition) is thereupon entitled to form the Xunta de Galicia, the executive branch of the Galician government — the president of the Xunta de Galicia is thereupon technically appointed by Juan Carlos I, the King of Spain.

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