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Spanish regional nationalism is a curse and a blessing for Rajoy

Regional parties mitigate the threat of a single populist party winning national support.

Supporters of independence for Catalonia demonstrate in Barcelona. Photograph: Getty Images.

Once Catalonia’s regional election completes on 25 November, Spain’s electoral calendar is scheduled to be blissfully clear for at least 12 months. But anyone hoping this will keep a lid on political instability in the country will likely be disappointed. Spanish politics is primed for a difficult 2013.

The reasons for this are no secret: a worsening economy, painfully high unemployment, and an austerity programme which is likely to exacerbate these issues further. What is less clear is how the inevitable fall in the government’s popularity will affect Spanish politics at both the national level and at that of its restive, independence-minded regions.

Polls suggest that Artur Mas, leader of the Convergence and Union party, is likely to win Catalonia’s regional election in November. He has made the promise of a vote on Catalan independence from Spain a central plank of his campaign. Any referendum would be illegal without the sanctioning of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government, which has vehemently rejected such a possibility. But whilst the law may be on the government’s side, popular support is with Mr Mas (polls show over 70 per cent of Catalans want a referendum). The constitutional standoff that looks set to take place will at best be an unwelcome distraction for an already harried government; at worst it will thrust Mr Rajoy into a destabilising power struggle, greatly inflaming regional nationalism and sapping the confidence of Spain’s creditors. If the centralisation of powers which has been necessitated by the drive for deficit reduction (i.e. newly-legislated powers to take over the budgets of overspending regions) is perceived to be threatened, markets may well lose faith in the central government’s ability to rein in the activities of its recalcitrant autonomous regions.

But whilst the risks are real, regional nationalism is also likely to serve a more benign purpose. Its capacity to absorb anti-government sentiment should work to reduce the risk of national populist parties gaining support, as they have to disruptive effect in other peripheral countires. If Spain’s national parties lose legitimacy then regional parties will fill the gap, dissipating opposition to the government and mitigating the threat of a single populist party gaining enough support country-wide to challenge the mainstream establishment.

This is important as, currently, Spain’s political profile is following the same inglorious route that Greece laid out in 2010/11. The absolute majority the People’s Party (PP) holds in parliament is comparable to that which George Papandreou’s PASOK enjoyed following its overwhelming victory in the 2009 election. The rapid collapse PASOK suffered thereafter (as its unpopular budget measures fomented increasing opposition and dissent) is being mirrored to an even more precipitous degree by Rajoy’s PP. PP support has slumped from 46% in March to 30 per cent in October and seems likely to fall further as the recession persists. The less likely, but far more concerning risk in Spain is of a disintegration in the government’s majority brought about by the deepening unpopularity of the People’s Party.

Spanish voting intentions (2008-present)

Source: ASR Ltd. / CIS / Obradoirp / NC Report / MetroscopiaG

The difference between a ruling party which is ahead in the polls and one which is terribly unpopular is difficult to underestimate. The control party leaders have over their members is almost entirely predicated on their ability to advance, hinder or, occasionally, destroy political careers. With a degrading party brand and the increasing personal unpopularity of the leader, party discipline is an almost inevitable casualty. That process is ongoing for Rajoy’s People’s Party, albeit at an early stage. The absolute parliamentary majority it enjoys, at just ten seats, must be considered vulnerable, just as PASOK’s proved to be in Greece in 2011.

Greek voting intentions (2006-present)

Source: ASR Ltd. / CIS / Obradoirp / NC Report / MetroscopiaG

The expulsions and splinter party formations that eroded PASOK’s majority were the result of a conveyor belt of austerity packages that became ever more austere as target after target was missed. Spain is in danger of being locked into a similar cycle. Its 2013 deficit targets are based on growth figures considered over-optimistic by everyone except the Spanish government. The need for further austerity seems certain to grow, and the potential for a disruptive political shock in Spain will grow with it.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research