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Spain: Galicia Chooses Between Stability and a New Tide in a Regional Election

Written by Tidjani Saleh, contributions from Matías Pino, Adrian Elimian and Julius Lehtinen

Galicians will go to the polls on 18 February to renew their regional parliament in the first regional election since the national parliament one held in July. Regional president Alfonso Rueda (PPdeG-EPP) will seek to retain the region for his branch of centre-right People’s Party (EPP) in his first electoral test. Rueda’s predecessor Alberto Ñúñez Feijóo resigned to lead the People’s Party nationally in a failed attempt to become Spain’s head of government. However, polling suggests that Rueda may struggle to remain in government, which would be a historical setback for the People’s Party, which has virtually always led the region except during a brief interruption between 2005 and 2009.

A politically blue Galicia?

Galicia has been a historical stronghold for the People’s Party  since the region’s administrative devolution in 1981. The People’s Party is considered the predominant party of Galicia, with it having never fallen under 40% since its modern iteration was founded in 1989—solidly retaining the first position in all regional elections and constantly securing an absolute majority, losing it only by one seat in 2005.

The People’s Party of Galicia has obtained such success due to the combination of different factors: a more centrist, technocratic and regionalist branding, which helps the party present itself as a party of stability; the higher weight the more conservative, rural constituencies of Lugo and Ourense have in the election system in comparison with the more urban and progressive constituencies of A Coruña and Pontevedra; and an organised network of support—even internationally—as almost half a million registered voters will vote overseas.

However, the picture is looking more complicated for PPdeG nowadays. Most urban municipalities—concellos in Galician—are ruled by left-wing coalitions, which perform well in national and local elections compared to the regional elections. The party’s reputation has also been tarnished after ruling the region for such a long period, with Galicians complaining about regional policies on topics managed by the regional government such as healthcare, infrastructure, linguistic policies, and the environment. Rueda has been heavily criticised recently for disagreements with the central government on the management of the cleaning up of a plastic pellet pollution crisis off the coast of Galicia after a ship lost containers in the sea.

The Galician left—a ‘multipartite’ aiming to turn the tide

The left-wing opposition in Galicia is presenting this election as an opportunity for change in the region, with all parties focusing on attacking the Rueda government and activating their voters while presenting a government alternative.

Polls suggest that the left-wing nationalist Bloque Nacionalista Galego (BNG-G/EFA) will see a historical record high result in the next election, with its leader Ana Pontón presenting herself as the next President of the Regional Government of Galicia. Since Pontón became leader in 2016, the nationalists have focused their political message on ‘bread and butter’ issues, a move done similarly by other European left-wing nationalist parties such as the Basque Euskal Herria Bildu (LEFT) and the Irish Sinn Fein (LEFT). The party has thus prioritised healthcare and infrastructural development along with the reindustrialisation of the region. Simultaneously, the BNG has retained its nationalist credentials by continuing to defend the constitutionally recognised status of Galicia as a nation and bilingualism with the Galician language. This campaign strategy has allowed the party to expand out of its traditional base, while recovering other left-wing members that left the party to join the political platforms affiliated with  the nationwide left-wing parties.

The Party of the Socialists of Galicia (PSdeG), the regional branch of Pedro Sánchez’ Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE-S&D), is expected to remain steady in polling. The party is fielding national MP José Ramón Gómez Besteiro (who recently made the first speech in Galician in the national parliament), as PSOE sees the election as a test for the national government, with a symbolic defeat of PP in the region where its leader built his political career as a chance to consolidate Sánchez’s coalition. National PSOE political figures have involved themselves in the campaign, calling to transform the ‘indignation into votes’. PSdeG have presented themselves as a key partner in a future left-wing government as the ‘practical, effective, useful for change’ voice ‘against the paths of immobility and trips to nowhere that have more desires than certainty’.

However, both BNG and PSdeG may not be enough for the change of government. Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Labour Yolanda Díaz faces a major test for her political coalition Sumar (G/EFA|LEFT) in her home region, with the difficult challenge of returning her political space to the regional parliament. In 2020, the Unidas Podemos-affiliated coalition Galicia en Común (LEFT) suffered a major setback by obtaining just four per cent of the votes and zero seats. The non-nationalist left, which managed to obtain the second position and 19% of the votes in the 2016 regional election with the coalition En Marea immediately fell into infighting and splits by more nationalist elements of the coalition, which led voters to flee to the BNG.

Sumar won’t run with Podemos (LEFT), as the members of Podemos chose in an internal vote to refuse the coalition agreement signed between the parties’ leaderships, with Podemos polling under two per cent. Sumar is focusing on obtaining representation in A Coruña and Pontevedra, with their campaign focused on activating voters that voted in the general election (where Sumar obtained around 11% of the votes) but tend not to vote in regional elections. The coalition is polling between zero and two seats, which they present as the ‘key’ to oust the People’s Party from government. The whole coalition is heavily involved in the campaign, with all five Sumar ministers participating in rallies. The coalition chose the recently appointed spokesperson of the coalition in the Congress of Deputies—Marta Lois (a relatively unknown figure)—as its lead candidate, after other better known left-wing figures refused to lead the list, endorsing and campaigning for BNG instead.

The extra-parliamentary right, a menace for Rueda’s re-election?

PPdeG has always represented the entire electorate on the right half of the political spectrum in Galicia in the regional parliament, with no other right-wing party in the having seats since 1993. However, two relatively impactful  parties on the right-wing of the political spectrum are participating in the election, a move that could be so dangerous for PPdeG’s chances of re-election that Rueda’s party encouraged the parties to not run in the election.

On one hand, Vox of the national-conservative ECR will almost definitely not obtain representation in the region. The party, which heavily insists on Spanish nationalism, has struggled to obtain a voter base in a region with such a cherished regional identity, with all polls putting the party under the five per cent threshold required to obtain a seat in all four constituencies. However, its expected polling may be harmful for the People’s Party’s chance of retaining its majority.

On the other hand, the party has a more serious challenge in the province of Ourense. The right-wing populist and localist Democracia Ourensana (DO-*) is polling enough to obtain representation and a chance to be in a kingmaker position. The party is led by the controversial and self-described ‘microliberal’ mayor of Ourense, Gonzalo Pérez Jácome, who has fielded his deputy mayor Armando Ojea as candidate to the regional parliament. The party is focused on local demands, with Jácome vowing to even ‘pact with the devil to bring investment to Ourense’.

An uncertain scenario with national importance

No matter what the result is, Galicia’s 2024 regional elections have proved that the political climate in Galicia is changing. For the first time, voters feel that PPdeG may be at risk of losing its majority and that the region may elect a nationalist woman as its president. Rueda has tried to present this election as a vote between stability and an unstable ‘multipartite’ led by the political allies of Catalan and Basque left-wing separatists Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC-G/EFA) and Euskal Herria Bildu (LEFT) with the support of the ruling national PSOE-Sumar coalition, with PPdeG switching their message in the last week of campaigning from a vote against the national government of Sánchez to highlighting Ana Pontón’s ties with the nationalist left and members of the now disbanded armed Basque far-left separatist group Euskadi ta Askatasuna, a group classified as a terrorist organisation by Spain and the European Union.

The left, however, has preferred to focus on presenting an alternative to PPdeG, in what they deem as a historical opportunity and a change in the political trends of the region. PPdeG has refused to field anyone to the debate organised by national public broadcaster RTVE, preferring to participate solely in the debate organised by the regional public broadcaster CRTVG. This led to a debate with only BNG and PSdeG (as the parties currently holding parliamentary representation, CRTVG chose to allow Sumar and Podemos on the debate), which was used by Pontón and Besteiro to present their proposals and focus on an ‘alternative’ government on prime-time television.

PPdeG’s refusal to participate in the second debate is part of a trend in the People’s Party, declining to participate in multi-party debates and insisting on face-to-face presidential-like debates with the leader of the opposing bloc, with PPdeG asking the left to agree on a candidate to debate against Rueda. The left has criticised Rueda for this choice, with Pontón suggesting that he doesn’t want to participate since the four left-wing candidates managed to unite to challenge Rueda in the multi-party debate instead of a left-wing infighting that PPdeG would prefer.

The effect of such a debate is yet to be seen in the most open election in Galicia. Most pollsters suggest PPdeG will retain their majority, with 38 seats required for the absolute majority. This may be seen as good news for a People’s Party that has tended to exceed polling expectations, but the general feeling is that this election will be closer than usual. Only a few pollsters have suggested that the left can manage to obtain a result high enough to rule the region. The key will be turnout: the more voters show up on election day, the higher are the chances of Pontón becoming president.

With this being the most open election ever in Galicia, all parties see the election as a chance to measure their strength before the upcoming European Parliament election. The result will, more than ever, have an important national reading in both Ferraz (the headquarters of PSOE) and Génova (the headquarters of PP), with voters nationwide paying attention. A menaced PPdeG, a growing BNG, a stable PSdeG and the Sumar-Podemos infighting may all end up having important repercussions in how Spaniards will vote in June.