Spanish regional nationalism is a curse and a blessing for Rajoy

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

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

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

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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