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Poor regional result hits electoral strategy of Spain’s centre-right

If all had gone to plan, Pablo Casado would have burned his credentials as Spain’s prime minister-in-waiting this week, restored electoral impetus to his center-right People’s Party and seen off his internal rivals.

Instead, the big winner of a snap election the PP triggered in Casado’s native region of Castile-León was the party’s hard-right rival Vox, which more than tripled its vote to a record 18 per cent.

Sunday’s poll result cast a spotlight on the PP’s predicament as a party that, like many of its European counterparts, is struggling to retain voters attracted to the more clear-cut message of the far right and which, if it is to return to national power , may have to do so in coalition with Vox.

“You can not have a party that gives the impression it does not like its own voters: Casado does not seem to register that they are defecting en masse to Vox,” Ana Palacio, a former PP foreign minister, told the Financial Times, suggesting the party had lost touch with former supporters. “It’s hard to think of an issue where the party has a clear position. . . It can not go on just reacting to events. ”

The PP was seeking an absolute majority in Castile-León, the Spanish heartland it has governed for 35 years, and to bounce back from the last such contest, held three years ago when the party was at its lowest ebb.

Vox leader Santiago Abascal, right, at a rally in León before the election

Vox leader Santiago Abascal, right, at a rally in León before the election © Secundino Perez / Europa Press / Getty

The election took on added significance as the PP tried to regain the initiative after months of internal feuding – principally between Casado and Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the head of the Madrid regional government – took a toll on the party’s standing in the polls.

With Spain’s next general election due by the end of 2023, Casado’s lieutenants made clear he was keen for an electoral success to underline his chances of taking power from the country’s Socialist-radical left coalition – and one, which unlike the PP’s previous triumph, in a Madrid regional contest last year, would owe nothing to Díaz Ayuso.

In the event, the PP failed to improve on its 31 per cent share of support it received in 2019. Its 31 seats in the 81-member regional assembly represented an increase of just two and left it at the mercy of Vox, which is demanding a place in Castile-León’s government.

“Calling the elections was a mistake and the PP knows it. . . Vox has become unmanageable for the PP, ”said Lucía Méndez, a leading Spanish journalist. “This is about much more than Castile-León: there’s a serious risk for the PP that Vox will equal it in national elections. . . Casado’s leadership is becoming weaker and weaker. “

The Socialists of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who had come first in the previous Castile-León election but failed to form an administration, endured an even worse night, losing five percentage points, seven seats and more than 100,000 votes. In line with a string of disastrous results over the past three years, the PP’s former coalition partner, the centrist Ciudadanos, was almost wiped out completely, forfeiting all but one of their 12 seats.

But the votes the PP gained from Ciudadanos did not make up for those it lost to Vox, as its support declined by over 50,000 votes.

The head of the list to the Cortes de CyL for Valladolid, Patricia Gomez;  the socialist candidate for the Presidency of the Junta de Castilla y Leon, Luis Tudanca;  the President of the Government, Pedro Sanchez and the Mayor of Valladolid, Oscar Puente, applaud at the Cupula del Milenio where the closing of the PSOE campaign for the regional elections of 13F, to February 11, 2022, in Valladolid

Spain’s Socialists, led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, second from right, shed seven seats and more than 100,000 votes in Castile-León © Claudia Alba / Europa Press / Getty

Narciso Michavila, a prominent pollster who has advised Casado, noted that, because Castile-León does not have as extensive local media as other regions, national issues played an outsized role in the election. He said the PP fell back as much as three percentage points when one of the party’s national MPs mistakenly cast the decisive vote to approve the Socialist-led government’s signature labor reform.

Vox’s 13 seats are enough to provide the PP with its only route to a majority unless the Socialists abstain in an investiture vote. The remaining alternative – the PP banding together with smaller regional parties – would still command less than half of the Castile-León assembly.

“The chess board has changed,” said Michavila, who suggested he was revising his opinion that the PP could score a big enough victory in a general election to govern without depending on Vox. “In the current context, it does not seem that Vox is going to weaken.”

In the days before the poll, an increasingly confident Vox attacked the “rancid and sectarian” left and the “cowardly” traditional right, while alleging that Spain’s streets had been made unsafe by a “real migrant invasion”.

On election night in Castile-León, Vox’s Santiago Abascal was the only national party leader to address the cameras, as he declared victory and proclaimed the hard-right’s force’s “right and duty” to enter a regional government for the first time. Up until now Vox has supported PP-led administrations from outside.

Such a prospect is anathema to Casado, who has denounced Vox’s “anti-liberal populism” and “isolationism” and is aware that if the hard-right party gains a coalition place in Castile-León it will be still harder to shut out of other regional administrations or a national government.

“We are beginning a dialogue with all the parties,” said Pablo Montesinos, a leading PP official. “The objective is an [exclusively] PP government. ” But as the Socialists rejected the idea of ​​helping the PP into office and Vox stepped up its demands for a coalition, that objective looked all but out of reach.

“The PP does not seem to have a way out,” said Méndez. “It’s the latest sign that politics in Spain are becoming ever more unstable.”

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