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The elephant in the room for Spain’s conservatives? The far right

MÁLAGA, Spain — Where Andalusia goes, the rest of Spain follows.

The southern region holds an election on Sunday and the conservative Popular Party (PP), buoyed by a change in its national leadership, is well ahead in the polls. If the polls are borne out, it will be an unprecedented victory for the party, marking the start of an electoral cycle that is expected to culminate in a general election next year.

“The Andalusian population has shifted to the right,” said Juan Montabes, a political scientist at the University of Granada. “Ever since the first regional elections in Andalusia, in 1982, the voting behavior of Andalusians has forecast, to a great extent, how the rest of the country will vote.”

The PP, Spain’s main opposition party, entered government in Andalusia for the first time in 2018, forming a right-wing coalition with Ciudadanos after coming second to the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) in that year’s election. Four years on, the regional president, Juanma Moreno Bonilla, has consolidated his position by gaining broad approval for his management of the region’s economy despite the turmoil of the pandemic. Andalusia created more work than any other region last year, bringing its chronically high unemployment rate below 20 percent for the first time since 2008.

The PSOE, which polls show to be struggling in a distant second place under the lackluster candidacy of former Seville Mayor Juan Espadas, is set to lose in what used to be its biggest stronghold.

“For the first time ever, the PP is set to win an election in Andalusia,” said Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at Barcelona’s Autònoma University. “Before, when things were going badly for the left, they always had Andalusia to fall back on. But that’s not the case anymore.”

Andalusia, therefore, could provide a winning start to the tenure of the PP’s new national leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo. In April, the 60-year-old former president of Galicia took command of the party after the removal of his predecessor, Pablo Casado, who had engaged in an explosive public feud with the PP’s president of the Madrid region, Isabel Díaz Ayuso.

Having won four consecutive majorities in his native Galicia, Núñez Feijóo has a proven electoral record and his calm, centrist image contrasts with that of the erratic, often hard-line Casado.

Politics isn’t a reality show

At a PP campaign rally in the center of Málaga, a lean, bespectacled Núñez Feijóo took the stage in white shirtsleeves.

“Spain has suffered in recent years from too much frivolity in its politics and there has been too little deliberation, calm and steadiness,” he told supporters.

“This speech might sound old-fashioned and boring and untrendy but I’m sorry, politics isn’t a fashion or a reality show and nor should it be,” he said. “I believe politics is about managing people’s problems, defending our general well-being.”

Moments later, Moreno Bonilla echoed the party leader’s sentiments as he addressed the same supporters, arguing in favor of “a calm, steady, peaceful society, without conflict and confrontation.”

The newly elected president of PP, Alberto Núñez Feijóo waves during the 20th National Congress of the Popular Party (PP) at the Fibes conference and exhibition centre in Seville on April 2, 2022 | Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images

Spanish politics has become deeply polarized in recent years, with the emergence of new parties on the far left and far right. Meanwhile, Pedro Sánchez’s leftist coalition national government, which has survived thanks to the support of Catalan and Basque nationalists, enrages his unionist adversaries.

But in Andalusia the left is divided, between Sánchez’s PSOE, the Por Andalucía coalition, and Adelante Andalucía, which is a splinter party of Podemos. With the self-defined liberals of Ciudadanos in freefall, the electoral landscape is relatively clear for the PP.

Yet on the far right, Vox, which broke into the regional assembly in 2018 with 12 seats, is set to make gains. If Moreno Bonilla fails to secure a majority in the 109-seat chamber — which would require his party to more than double its current 26 seats — he is likely to need its help to govern.

“The PP are presenting themselves as moderates and at the moment that’s working,” said Bartomeus of Autònoma University.

“This is the idea that Núñez Feijóo wants to pursue nationwide: Run on a moderate platform and win elections — although they may end up having little choice but to make deals with Vox.”

Avoiding Vox

In February, the PP won an election in the Castille and León region, but fell short of a majority, allowing Vox to become the junior partner in a coalition, the first time the far-right party has entered a regional government. Taking place at the end of Casado’s tenure, Núñez Feijóo was able to distance himself from that controversial agreement.

But a similar situation in Andalusia, Spain’s most populous region, would undermine his attempts to occupy the center ground. Vox has waged a characteristically aggressive campaign in the southern region, taking aim at feminism, historical memory legislation, undocumented migrants and “climate change-fanaticism.”

“They can forget about governing on their own,” Vox leader Santiago Abascal said of the PP, confirming his party’s determination to enter the regional government.

Moreno Bonilla has needed Vox’s support in the Andalusia parliament over the last three and a half years, albeit in the form of a confidence-and-supply deal. He has said that after June 19 he would “try to avoid” forming a coalition with Vox, especially if the far-right party made demands that undermined Andalusia’s regional statutes. He has also floated the idea of calling a repeat election if there is a stalemate. If he failed to form a government, the left could then try, although that would appear to be a long shot.

Some of the conservative voters who attended the PP’s rally in Málaga see Vox as both undesirable and unavoidable.

“[Vox] would be the obvious parliamentary partner — although not necessarily in a coalition,” said Francisco Marín, an insurance broker. “But they have done that in Castille and León and it hasn’t been the end of the world.”

Pablo Linklater, a local psychologist, said that the PP “should make any deal it has to in order to stop the left from governing. If they have to make a deal with Vox, then so be it, at least within certain limits.”

With municipal and regional elections, followed by a general election, scheduled for next year, the Andalusia result will be watched closely.

A majority or near-majority for the PP would be a huge boost to the party as it seeks to prove itself as a moderate government-in-waiting on the national stage. But anything less could present Núñez Feijóo with the first major dilemma of his leadership.

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