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Catalan protests fan rightwing revival as Spanish vote nears

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Via Financial Times

In April, Pablo Casado led Spain’s People’s party, the country’s centre right opposition, to the worst general election result in its history. Next month, he gets another chance — and the result is likely to be very different. 

According to almost all opinion polls, Mr Casado’s PP is set to make the biggest gains of any party in the November 10 vote. It has already roughly halved the lead held by the ruling Socialists and could benefit from more advances if reaction in the rest of Spain to events in Catalonia — where protests have erupted after the jailing of separatist leaders — further rallies the right.

“We were already recovering a few months ago,” said one party insider. “Now it’s possible — not likely, but possible — that we will take the lead from the Socialists.”

Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s caretaker Socialist prime minister, triggered next month’s election in an attempt to improve on his party’s April result. He still hopes to enthuse his base, not least with the reburial of the remains of Francisco Franco, the former dictator, which were moved on Thursday from an imposing fascist-era monument to an out-of-the way private crypt.

But at present Mr Sánchez has to contend with the PP’s apparent recovery and a broader return of the right, a phenomenon that is set to make it much more difficult for the Socialists to form a stable government.

The far-right Vox party, which scored 10 per cent in April’s vote and came fifth, is competing hard to become the third biggest force in the Chamber of Deputies, after the Socialists and the PP. A rightwing backlash to Franco’s reburial and — in particular — to the protests in Catalonia could also bolster its vote.

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“When the issue is Catalonia, it favours the right,” said Kiko Llaneras, the election analyst at Spain’s El País newspaper. “And right now, Catalonia is very much the issue.”

The country’s right-of-centre parties have demanded that Mr Sánchez take a more aggressive approach towards the sometimes violent protests in the region — a call that resonates with broad swaths of Spanish opinion deeply opposed to Catalan separatism.

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 06: Member of far right wing party VOX, Ivan Espinosa takes part in 'Vistalegre Plus Ultra' rally on October 06, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. The party expected around 12,000 supporters. Since their 'Vistalegre' rally, a year ago, the support to the far right wing party has increased hugely. Spaniards are called to vote on general elections for the fourth time in four years next November 10. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
The Vox party’s Ivan Espinosa says its voters are are “the most committed and the least disappointed” © Getty

Mr Llaneras’s poll tracker shows the PP at 21.6 per cent, up more than 4 percentage points on its result in April, and the Socialists at 27.5 per cent, more than a percentage point down. 

Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, the PP’s spokeswoman in parliament, said her party’s rebound in the polls was largely because of its greater “credibility” on Catalonia — notably its calls for a more aggressive stance on separatism — as well as what she termed “the combination of socialism and economic crisis”.

The country’s economy has slowed since April; the Bank of Spain expects it to grow 2 per cent this year, down 0.4 percentage points on its projections in June, although still comfortably above the eurozone average. Figures out last week showed that a seven-year-long decline in the unemployment total has basically stalled.

PP officials say the 38-year-old Mr Casado has also learnt from the last election, when he had only recently emerged from a fight for the party leadership. In February, he dubbed Mr Sánchez a traitor and “the biggest felon in the democratic history of Spain”. This time, he has struck a more measured tone.

At an appearance last week, Mr Casado, a former PP youth leader, set out plans for €16bn in tax cuts that he said would represent Spain’s biggest fiscal change in more than 20 years.

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Whether he will be able to implement such plans is open to doubt. Overall, Spain’s rightwing and leftwing parties scored about 43 per cent of the vote apiece in April and remain in broadly similar terrain, according to the polls.

That makes forming a government excruciatingly difficult. In the 1990s, Catalan nationalist votes helped give a majority to first the left then the right. Today that is not an option; such close co-operation has been in effect ruled out by both the Socialists and the PP.

“If we do win, that could make forming a government even more complicated,” said a senior PP figure, who speculated that his party and the Socialists may have to co-operate on thrashing out a budget whoever comes first.

Many PP leaders blamed the scale of their defeat in April on a three-way split of the rightwing vote, between their party, Vox and the pro-market Ciudadanos, which came close to overtaking the PP.

“It was a near-death experience for us,” said the senior PP figure. “But this time will be very different.”

Ciudadanos has slumped in the polls — a phenomenon its political rivals attribute to a quixotic attempt to outflank the PP on the right. That has made the election in large part a contest for disenchanted Ciudadanos voters — and one the PP is winning.

But Vox also appears to be prospering. Mr Llaneras’s poll of polls indicates that the far-right party is around 11 per cent, just behind the radical left Podemos and just ahead of Ciudadanos.

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At such a level, he says, Vox can reasonably hope to become the third biggest grouping in the Chamber of Deputies, because its strength in rural areas means it will outperform in smaller provinces where other parties fail to secure any seats.

Mr Llaneras argues that the big question over the longer term is whether Vox — which has taken many social conservative and nationalist voters from the PP — will follow the example of France’s far-right and expand its support in the working class.

Ivan Espinosa, Vox’s number three, rejects such international comparisons and says the party will do well because its motivated voters will turn up at the polls when others stay away.

“Our voters are the most committed and the least disappointed,” he added, predicting that Vox will score a similar total to the 2.8m votes it racked up in April even as overall turnout falls. “If we don’t make any mistakes, we will grow explosively in the coming years.”

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