|Spain’s premier hopes to avoid electoral setback on austerity and separatism||
SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain — Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his Popular Party are fighting to avoid a potential setback in regional elections on Sunday that are considered critical bellwethers of both his austerity plans and the growing push toward separatism in parts of Spain.
Mr. Rajoy is a native of Galicia, which has been dominated by his conservative party and is one of two Spanish regions, along with the Basque Country, holding early elections this weekend. Galicia has in many ways been a model for Mr. Rajoy’s austerity program, and a loss here would portend badly for its already waning acceptance in the rest of Spain.
Both regions also have their own language and separatist political factions, which, in the case of the Basque Country, are expected to pose an unusually strong challenge in the vote. Coming just weeks after a mass rally for independence in Catalonia, the Basque vote could have a significant impact on the future of Spain if the results bolster the centrifugal forces tugging at the country.
In Galicia, the economy is the key issue. The election on Sunday presents “a serious test for Mr. Rajoy’s own credibility because he has used Galicia as a showcase for austerity,” said Santiago Lago-Peñas, a professor of economics at Vigo University.
Though the Popular Party is defending a parliamentary majority in Galicia, recent opinion polls suggest a very tight outcome, with a large number of undecided voters. Mr. Rajoy has praised Galicia for its fiscal discipline, but the pain of his austerity plans is being increasingly felt here, as in other parts of Spain.
Some commentators have suggested that Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the president of Galicia, called the elections five months early, anticipating a further decline in the economy next year. Opposition politicians also say that Mr. Feijóo has done his best to put daylight between the regional and national governments, distancing himself from his own conservative Popular Party. “Feijóo has done everything possible to keep Rajoy and his party affiliation out of his campaign and instead highlight his own rigorous management, because he knows that is the only way he can win another mandate,” said Xaquín Fernández Leiceaga, a Galician lawmaker from the opposition Socialist Party.
In an interview, Pedro Puy Fraga, the Popular Party’s parliamentary leader in Galicia, said there had been “no attempt to hide” from Mr. Rajoy. “When the economy of Galicia is doing better than other regions of Spain, it makes sense to talk about our own government rather than about a national government that has only had nine months in office and has been forced to take some very urgent measures,” he said.
Mr. Rajoy has faced an increasingly powerful pushback against his austerity program. Nationwide protests have intensified against his latest budget, which includes cuts in services and tax increases. Spanish unions called this week for a general strike on Nov. 14.
Unhappiness has been building in Galicia, too. Opposition candidates have pointed to figures showing the region’s once-relatively manageable unemployment rate has now climbed closer to the rest of Spain’s. Galicia’s jobless rate has risen to 21 percent from 12 percent when Mr. Feijóo took office in 2009. Nationally, almost 25 percent of the work force is searching for work.
When Mr. Feijóo took charge of Galica, the region had already been long transformed by Spain’s economic development and the huge subsidies that the country received after it joined the European Union in 1986.
As elsewhere in Spain, Galicia’s politicians and bankers encouraged reckless and unchecked spending during Spain’s decade-long construction boom, which came to an abrupt halt with the bursting of Spain’s real estate bubble in 2008.
Reminders of past missteps abound. Last year, the state seized control of Galicia’s main savings bank, Novagalicia Banco, because of bad loans. Overlooking Santiago stands the City of Culture, a cultural center inaugurated last year, more than a decade after it was commissioned by conservative politicians. Only two of its planned six buildings were actually completed, because of a financing shortfall. The $500 million project, designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman, has cost four times its initial budget.
The election also coincides with the start this week of a trial over the sinking of the Prestige tanker, whose oil devastated Galicia’s beaches a decade ago, and the revival of the disaster has given opposition candidates ammunition against Mr. Rajoy, who was deputy prime minister at the time of the spill.
Pachi Vázquez, the Socialist candidate, told supporters this week that Mr. Rajoy was “one of the culprits” of the environmental disaster. Mr. Vázquez suggested that Galicians now needed to prevent another spill, this time economic and caused by the Popular Party’s austerity crusade.
Mr. Rajoy has arguably less at stake in the Basque Country on Sunday, given that conservative politicians from Madrid do not have much sway among independent-minded Basque voters. But the Basque elections could have a significant impact if they confirm the ascendancy of Bildu, a radical separatist coalition party formed last year. In municipal elections, it has already managed to capture a quarter of Basque votes. Last year, Madrid tried unsuccessfully to outlaw Bildu, arguing that it was a new political front for ETA, whose violent separatist campaign has killed more than 800 people in four decades.
But Bildu has instead argued that it could help consolidate peace in the Basque Country, after ETA declared a cease-fire last year, while calling during its campaign for the Basque Country to become “a free state in Europe.”
Coming alongside the separatist push in Catalonia, the rise of the party has fueled fears that growing political instability will make it harder for Spain to address its economic troubles. Asked by reporters in August whether the Madrid government was worried about voters endorsing Bildu and its separatist agenda, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, Spain’s deputy prime minister, gave a clear answer: “very.”
(Source: The New York Times)
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