Spain’s ‘rehearsal election’ spells trouble for big two parties

With less than four months to go until polling day, Spain’s political parties seem to have adopted a strange sort of ‘holding pattern’ as far as the European Parliament election is concerned.

Neither of the main parties – the centre-right People’s Party (PP) of the current Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, or the centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) – has revealed its candidates for the election.

Together, these two parties hold 45 of Spain’s 54 seats in the European Parliament, but both have their own troubles that may see smaller parties increase their share of representation in Brussels and Strasbourg.

The PP – which launched its European Parliament election manifesto on 2 February – promises to defend Spanish interests in Europe. High on this agenda is a promise to defend the territorial integrity of Spain and other member states – crucially in a year when Catalonia may (and Scotland will) vote on independence, and support for Flemish separatists is likely to grow in Belgium’s European, federal and regional elections.

However, the PP is troubled by corruption allegations at its party headquarters – something that is being met with official silence for the moment.

In addition, the political right is fragmenting – a new phenomenon in Spanish politics, where various shades of conservatism have always coalesced around the PP.

Alejo VIDAL-QUADRASVox, a new conservative party, was launched in January. Alejo Vidal-Quadras (pictured right) – a vice-president of the European Parliament – has quit the PP to join this new formation. He will probably lead Vox in the European Parliament election.

The new party – which is populated by many former PP members, and is financed by a former banker, Mario Conde – was created by José Antonio Ortega Lara, who was kidnapped and held for more than a year by Eta, the Basque terrorist group. Vox was created partly in protest as the government’s perceived appeasement of Eta. The party is set to be more economically liberal than the PP and is sure to try to woo other members of the governing party.

The PP has also been hit by the decision of Jaime Mayor Oreja MEP – who led the PP list at the last two European elections – to step down.

Miguel Arias Canete at the ECThe race to replace Mayor Oreja at the head of the PP list is on, and the current Minister of Agriculture, Food and Environment, Miguel Arias Cañete (pictured left), seems to be the favourite. A former MEP who chaired two committees during his time in the European Parliament, he is hotly-tipped to become Spain’s next nominee to the European Commission.

The outgoing President of the Region of Murcia, Ramón Luis Valcárcel, will be on the PP list and is even a contender to lead it. This highlights another characteristic of the main Spanish parties’ approach to European elections: rewarding politicians for long service (Valcárcel has headed his region for nearly two decades) or rescuing those whose career has reached an impasse.

Despite the PP’s troubles, PSOE is ill-equipped to fill the breach. The Socialists’ leader, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, has said that he will not lead the party into the next Spanish elections in 2015. As a result, various candidates are positioning themselves for the national (as well as municipal and regional) elections next year, and putting little focus on the European poll.

Among the potential candidates for PSOE in the European elections is Juan Fernando López Aguilar MEP, who headed the PSOE list in 2009 and chairs the Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs. He is a contender to lead the list once again. Former MEP and current Deputy Secretary-General of PSOE Elena Valenciano and former minister Ramón Jáuregui are also among the possible top names.

Joaquin Almunia and Michel Barnier press conferenceAn outsider to lead the list is the current Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for Competition, Joaquín Almunia (pictured right). He will not be nominated for a third term in the Commission but if he stands and is elected, he could be a contender for the presidency of the European Parliament.

PSOE has also tried to involve the wider public in its choice of candidates: an open consultation is being held until 22 February, with all Spanish citizens having the chance to choose between three candidates for a place on the Socialists’ list.

The polls in Spain are tight: the PP has been ahead in most surveys, but a poll last week in centre-left newspaper El País forecast a win for PSOE by a margin of two points. However, outside the top two, other parties are seeing a surge in support – perhaps a sign that voters are tiring of the two-party system that has dominated Spanish politics since the restoration of democracy.

The United Left (Izquierda Unida, IU), which sits in the United European Left / Nordic Green Left Group (GUE/NGL) in the European Parliament, is set to win between ten and 15 per cent of the vote. The party, which hosted the Party of the European Left congress in December 2013, is now in a process of dialogue with many organisations and social movements to write a united manifesto (‘social and political block’) for the European elections.

The IU currently has only one MEP, as does Union, Progress and Democracy (UPyD), a social liberal party, which stands at around eight to ten per cent in the opinion polls.

Francisco SOSA WAGNERUPyD’s current MEP, Francisco Sosa Wagner (pictured left), will be the party’s lead candidate. He was chosen following a process of primary elections in which both party members and registered supporters participated.

Sosa Wagner currently sits among the non-attached MEPs. However, if his party (which is in favour of a federal system in Spain and Europe) wins more seats, it may well join a political group – probably the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).

Other parties are also using open primaries to choose their candidates, including EQUO, an ecologist party. Meanwhile, separatist and regionalist parties are also selecting candidates, with many of them planning to run in this ‘national’ election as a bloc, sharing the term in the European Parliament.

The Citizens party (C’s), created by Albert Rivera, a 34-year old lawyer from Barcelona, is also winning support. Rivera is touring Spain raising awareness of the need to create a more democratic and citizen-based party with open lists or primaries.

The biggest problem facing all parties is abstentionism. The general public is sceptical about how the European Parliament election can help to improve the political and social situation, and around 50 to 60 per cent of Spaniards will not vote.

For the Spanish political parties, the elections in May will be a test for the next municipal and regional elections, as well as a gauge of government popularity ahead of the general election next year.

Yolanda Vega – Burson-Marsteller Spain, Madrid
with David Martin Ruiz and Olalla Michelena, Burson-Marsteller Brussels

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