Spanish Regional Elections: Test for the First Coalition Government

In 2019, Spain saw elections at the local, European and national level, the latter triggered by the fragility of the standing government and the inability to form a new one during the summer. At the same time, the majority of regions (Autonomous Communities) went to the polls and opted for continuity in most cases. The centre-right People’s Party (PP-EPP) held its stronghold Madrid, while the centre-left coalition led by the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE-S&D) followed suit in València, even increasing its support. The most remarkable vote swings were achieved by PSOE, gaining the presidency in Navarra for the first time since 1996 and overturning regionalist Canarian Coalition’s (CC-RE) hegemony in the Canary Islands.

The first coalition government in Spain since 1978 has been sworn in, constituted by the centre-left PSOE and the left-wing Unidos Podemos (UP-GUE/NGL). The attention of political spectators has now moved to the upcoming regional elections in 2020, postponed from April to July due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Regional presidents in the Basque Country, Iñigo Urkullu of the regionalist Basque Nationalist Party (PNV-RE), and Galicia, Alberto Núñez Feijóo (PP), both originally set the election date for April 5, shortening parliamentary four-year terms by a few months.

Among the two regions with a confirmed election date, three elements of salience are worth mentioning. First, in both the Basque Country and Galicia, two parties with abnormally large support by Spanish standards have dominated the party system for decades. In Galicia, the Núñez Feijóo-led centre-right PP achieved 48% of the vote in Galicia in 2016, while the regionalist PNV gained the support of 37% of voters in the Basque Country, which required a coalition with the centre-left Socialist Party of the Basque Country-Basque Country Left (PSE/EE-S&D).

Second, PP and liberal Citizens (Cs-RE) have explored the possibility of running under a single candidate, which would benefit the makeshift alliance in these two largely majoritarian electoral systems. In the end, the PP+Cs coalition will run under a single candidate in the Basque Country but not in Galicia, where the bargaining power shown by the main actors at stake differs substantially.

Third, both elections will test the support for the parties making up the central government: PSOE and UP. Neither are expected to come out on top as most voted parties, but a potential centre-left coalition in Galicia would be a major setback for PP and give a confidence boost to the progressive coalition in the central government.

Galicia: everyone against PP

In 2016, Núñez Feijóo-led PP gained the largest support in a Galician regional election since 2001 with 47.6% of the vote, and consolidated the regional power of the centre-right formation. PP has led cabinets in Galicia for 31 of the last 38 years, and has equally won all recent national parliament elections in the region with the exception of April 2019. Núñez Feijóo’s 41 seats grant him an absolute majority in the current regional parliament, while his opponents only amassed 34 seats together: 14 for the left-wing and UP-participated En Marea, 14 for PSdeG-PSOE and 6 for the left-wing pro-independence BNG.

The prospect of a coalition with Cs had raised concerns within the powerful Galician regional branch of PP, and the opposition voiced by the Núñez Feijóo leadership has blocked an agreement. In this regard, two arguments can be identified to shed light onto the utility of a single candidacy. On the one hand, the Galician electoral system features an unusually high 5% threshold for parties to enter parliament. Cs only achieved 3.4% of vote in 2016, but having added it to Núñez Feijóo’s 48% would have ensured an evernlarger majority. Such a boost could prove crucial in an election where nothing can be taken for granted by the centre-right bloc.

On the other hand, PP’s regional branch in Galicia is much closer to a classic regionalist, centre-right party, which acknowledges particular cultural and linguistic features and showcases an impressive level of transversality. As Lluís Orriols laid out in a recent article, PP is the party with most support among voters that identify themselves only as Galician, even above pro-independence Galician National Bloc (BNG-G/EFA), and Núñez Feijóo fares very well in opinion polls of Galician leaders. Cs, conversely, has a lesser appeal among regionalist voters due to its opposition to greater decentralisation of power, and thus such a candidacy would lose to those that do not feel comfortable in a one-size-fits-all coalition that might make sense in other regions.

The only viable alternative to another PP cabinet in Galicia will require, if results allow, a three-party agreement between the Socialists’ Party of Galicia (PSdeG-S&D), left-wing Galicia en Común (GUE/NGL) and BNG. This could take the shape of external support by pro-independence BNG and potentially Galicia en Común (GeC-GUE/NGL), should the latter not join a PSdeG-led cabinet. There are numerous examples of similar arrangements in the regions of València or the Balearic Islands, and PSdeG-PSOE already experimented with a coalition with BNG to obtain the regional presidency between 2005 and 2009. The performance of PSdeG has, nonetheless, been on the decline since 2009, and the centre-left formation even lost the second place in the 2016 election to En Marea.

En Marea, for its part, has split into two different lists ahead of this election. Galicia en Común brings together UP, United Left (GUE/NGL) and Anova (GUE/NGL), as well as other civil society platforms. Conversely, Marea Atlántica (RE|G/EFA) includes small liberal and regionalist parties. Most polls point at a big decline in support for GeC vis-à-vis the 2016 election, mostly in favour of pro-independence BNG, whereas Marea Atlántica is not set to gain any regional MPs. With regard to BNG, this pro-independence party will be led once again by Ana Pontón, and aims at improving their 2016 showing after regaining representation in the national parliament in the November 10 election.

Polls give Núñez Feijóo a head start in the April election, but an alternative majority is not out of the picture. The latest Sociométrica poll, with a fieldwork up until 5 July, gives Núñez Feijóo between 41 and 43 seats, well above the absolute majority set at 38. VOX (ECR) is not likely to reach the 5% threshold and will likely remain, like Cs, without representation in the regional parliament. On the left bloc, PSOE could gain between 1 seat to reach 15, with BNG more than doubling their tally from 6 to 14 and the UP-led coalition GeC falling from 14 to 4. As mentioned above, Marea Atlántica would not enter parliament under this scenario.

Basque Country: liquid alliances

The election in the Basque Country comes in the midst of the drafting of a new Statute of Autonomy. Each region in Spain has one such Statute, a law hierarchically only below the Spanish Constitution which regulates the extent of devolved powers. PNV, PSE/EE and left-wing, UP-participated Elkarrekin Podemos (EP-GUE/NGL) appointed a group of experts to update this law, using their large majority in the regional parliament. These experts sent a proposal back to the regional parliament in December, and the ongoing talks will resume after the new parliament is sworn in. However, there are visible differences among these three formations, mainly around how Basque sovereignty is stated in the text and whether it allows for the Basque Country to vote on self-determination along the lines of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Left-wing, pro-independence EH Bildu (GUE/NGL) has criticised how the proposal has been watered down in this matter throughout the process, while the centre-right PP has opposed the new Statute since the beginning.

This is a good example of how PNV’s dominating position in the Basque Country relies on changing alliances. This centrist party shares self-determination aspirations with left-wing EH Bildu, but teams up with PSE/EE and sometimes EP in daily politics. Liquid alliances, along with steady popularity across time, has arguably been the reason why all Lehendakaris (regional presidents) since 1980 have belonged to PNV, with the exception of the PSE/EE cabinet between 2009 and 2012 after a controversial election where several left-wing parties were banned. As a result, PNV has been able to set the agenda in Basque, but also Spanish politics, for devolved powers, national recognition and developing further one of the most advanced welfare states in Spain.

The current regional president, Iñigo Urkullu (PNV-RE), has been in office since 2012, and has led a PNV-PSE/EE coalition since 2016. His cabinet is strikingly popular, with a positive approval rating according to the latest Euskobarometro poll.  The cabinet gains support from voters of all parties except EH Bildu and right-wing VOX – which has no representation in the regional parliament. The same poll shows that even those opting for PP and Cs give Urkullu’s government a score of at least 6.5/10.

Among the opposition, EH Bildu will probably hold on to the second position, having had a successful showing in the November general election. PSE/EE aims at improving their 2016 result, overtaking EP, but is far from being a feasible government alternative. Unlike in Galicia, PP and Cs will run in a single list in the Basque election, led by PP’s Carlos Iturgaiz. Just when negotiations had stalled and the prospect of no agreement was looming, PP’s national leader Pablo Casado reached an agreement with Cs and, in a surprising move, forced the resignation of the regional leader Alfonso Alonso. Iturgaiz was a MEP between 2014 and 2019, and stands ideologically to the right of Alfonso Alonso and closer to Pablo Casado. His appointment aims at attracting Cs voters critical with the special Basque status in terms of decentralisation—although this position granted them little success in the past—as well as appealing to the VOX electorate. As a candidate in the 1998 Basque election for PP, Iturgaiz achieved one of the best results in recent decades with 20% of the vote and a stunning second position.

Sociométrica has recently published an opinion poll on the Basque election, with fieldwork running until 5 July. It paints a similar picture with the 2016 results, with PNV at 29-32 seats, up from 28 and closer to the absolute majority of 38. PNV’s current coalition partner, PSE-EE, would keep its 9 seats and therefore allow for a continuation of the current government. Meanwhile, EH Bildu could improve its 18 seats to up to 21 and PP would go from 11 to 7-9 seats. The coalition of PP and Cs would fall short of the 9 regional MPs that PP single-handedly won in 2016. VOX is not expected to enter parliament in Basque Country either.

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