Rajoy survives election season in Spain’s most separatist regions

It’s not exactly accurate to say that Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has ‘won’ in the aftermath of three regional elections in the past two months in Galicia, Euskadi (i.e., the Basque Country) and Catalunya.

But it’s fair to say that, compared to the worst-case result in each region, Rajoy’s government is likely relieved at the results of each of the three elections, especially last weekend’s Catalan elections, which threatened not only to undermine Rajoy’s federal authority, but to undermine the stability of Spain as a nation-state.

Rajoy (pictured above, right, with Catalan president Artur Mas) has had an incredibly difficult first year since taking office in December 2011 — he’s  continued Spanish austerity policies in the face of continued recession and amid the highest unemployment within the eurozone (over 25%).  With Spanish voters disillusioned about the economy and with Catalan voters, in particular, agitating for greater autonomy — if not full independence from Spain’s federal union — Rajoy and his center-right Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party), together with the PP’s various local, regional iterations, were playing defense, at best, in each region.

In each election, however, there are reasons for Rajoy to take heart.

It’s obvious that the autumn’s regional elections could have been much worse: Rajoy’s party could have lost power in Galicia, the former radical leftist ETA sympathizers could have won control of the Basque government, and an outright majority win by Mas and the CiU in Catalunya would have likely caused an immediate political and, indeed, constitutional crisis — and, given the bond market’s jitters, likely a financial crisis as well.

  • In Galicia on October 21, Rajoy’s home region and a longtime stronghold of the PP, the Partido Popular de Galicia (PPdeG, People’s Party of Galicia), under the leadership of Galician president Alberto Núñez Feijóo not only held onto its majority in the 75-seat Galician parliament, but gained three seats for a total of 41 seats.  That, in large part due to the fragmentation of the opposition among the center-left Partido dos Socialistas de Galicia (PSdeG-PSOE, Socialist Party of Galicia), the centrist Galician nationalist Bloque Nacionalista Galego (BNG, the Galician Nationalist Bloc) and the more leftist, nationalist Alternativa Galega de Esquerda (AGE, Left Galician Alternative), led by former BNG leader Xosé Manuel Beiras.  Although Galician nationalism has never been particularly strong, and Galician nationalists have been more of the autonomist than of the separatist variety, a loss in Galicia would have been hugely embarrassing for Rajoy and his party.
  • In Euskadi, also on October 21, voters kicked out a federalist coalition government, led by the Partido Socialista de Euskadi – Euskadiko Ezkerra (the PSE-EE, or the Socialist Party of the Basque Country) and the People’s Party under PSE-EE leader and lehendakari (the Basque president) since 2009, Patxi López.  The coalition’s loss wasn’t unexpected, however, and the longtime ruling Partido Nacionalista Vasco (the Basque Nationalist Party or the EAJ-PNV — in Basque, the Euzko Alderdi Jeltzalea) returned to power, in front of the second-place winner, a coalition of the ezker abertzalea (‘patriotic left’) formed earlier year, the Euskal Herria Bildu (EHB).  Although Rajoy could not have hoped that his party would continue to remain in government, there were two reasons for hope.  First, the Basque Nationalists under incoming lehendakari Iñigo Urkullu remain much more moderate, both in terms of separatist fervor and ideological centrism, than the abertzale.  Second, the presence of the abertzale in electoral politics represents a victory of the normalization of Basque politics — radical leftist nationalists are now competing within a political framework, and not through armed struggled against the state.  Indeed, the election took place on the one-year anniversary of the ceasefire of the armed separatist group, the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna).
  • Most importantly, however, in Catalunya, Rajoy surely watched with glee as Catalan regional president Artur Mas not only failed to achieve a majority last Sunday, but saw his center-right Catalan nationalist party, Convergència i Unió (CiU, Convergence and Union), lose 12 seats.  Although Mas will likely continue as president — probably in coalition with the more leftist separatist party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalunya), it seemed at times as if Mas were running more against Rajoy and the concept of a federal Spain than against any other Catalan party.

Alone among the regional presidents, Mas railed against Rajoy and the concept that Spain’s national parliament should have the prerogative to permit any future referendum on Catalan independence, and Mas called the elections after Rajoy refused to cede to Catalunya full control of the revenues raised in the region.

A wide majority of the 135-member Catalan parliament still supports a referendum on Catalan independence within the next four years, which means that Rajoy still has a Catalan problem.  But after Sunday’s result, he no longer has much of an Artur Mas problem.

In the meanwhile, Rajoy has successfully avoided accepting a bailout from the European Union, the European Central Bank or the International Monetary Fund.  A bailout seemed practically inevitable earlier this spring, but Rajoy has held out against pressure for the bailout, which looks increasingly like it would be offered on favorable terms for Spain with respect to future requirements for further austerity.  If Rajoy ultimately does seek a bailout, however, his delay strategy will have succeeded in ameliorating the relatively harsher terms of previous EU bailouts for Portugal and Greece.

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