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Spanish conservatives score big win over ruling Socialists in local elections

Spain’s conservative People’s party inflicted a resounding defeat on the ruling Socialist party in local and regional elections on Sunday, but despite its big gains the PP will need the support of the hard-right Vox party to govern in many areas.

The vote in 12 regions and more than 8,000 municipalities was a crucial test of the national mood and produced grim results for prime minister Pedro Sánchez, suggesting he will face an uphill struggle to hold off emboldened conservatives in a general election due in December.

The PP won 31.5 per cent of the vote in the municipal elections, a nine percentage point surge from its showing in 2019 elections, while the Socialist’s 28.1 per cent marked a drop of one percentage point. Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the PP’s leader, hailed the night as the start of a “new political cycle”.

José Pablo Ferrándiz, a director at pollster Ipsos, said the elections had been an “unmitigated defeat” for the Socialists. “It cannot be hidden or underestimated. Sánchez comes out wounded and Feijóo reinforced.”

But the PP did not secure the absolute majorities it wanted in many regional and municipal legislatures, meaning a new era for the Spanish right that will entail coalitions or voting pacts with Vox in order to form many governments.

With Vox securing 7.2 per cent of the municipal vote, the results also raised the spectre of a PP-Vox national coalition if the right prevails in the general election. That would make it the first hard-right party in the central government since Spain’s return to democracy more than 40 years ago.

But the PP will not need a coalition partner in the Madrid region, where the incumbent president Isabel Díaz Ayuso strengthened her position and won an absolute majority. Ayuso, whose brand of libertarian populism has made her a political star, frequently overshadows her party leader Feijóo and is seen as a future candidate for prime minister. Madrid’s PP mayor also won an absolute majority.

As PP supporters celebrated on the street outside the party’s Madrid headquarters, the Socialist party was left mourning its apparent loss of power to likely PP-Vox alliances in the regions of Valencia — an electoral bellwether — and Aragón, Extremadura and the Balearic Islands. In La Rioja, which the PP took from the Socialists, it is set to be able to govern alone. The PP formed its first regional coalition with Vox in the Castile-León region last year.

At the municipal level, the PP ejected Socialist mayors in places including Sevilla, Valladolid and the city of Valencia, although it will need Vox to govern.

In Barcelona, where national politics were not at play, the leftwing mayor Ada Colau was defeated by Xavier Trias, a pro-business Catalan nationalist and former mayor, who blamed the incumbent for a sense that the city has lost its way. Trias, however, will need the votes of other parties to reach a majority in the city council, meaning a period of lengthy negotiations is likely to begin.

Across Spain, the PP had sought to make the elections about Sánchez even though his name was not on the ballot, portraying him as unscrupulous and untrustworthy and seeking to capitalise on discontent over his political deal making.

The prime minister has alienated some Spaniards by relying on the parliamentary votes of Catalan separatists and a Basque secessionist party, whose electoral candidates included 44 convicted members of Eta, the disbanded terrorist group, among them seven found guilty of violent crimes. Sánchez was also wounded by a botched sexual consent law, pushed by his coalition partner the hard-left Podemos party, which resulted in more than 1,000 convicted sex offenders having their prison sentences cut. Podemos performed poorly on Sunday.

The prime minister and his allies had lambasted the PP for running a negative campaign and warned that the conservative party would end up slashing spending on public services, while noting that its national leaders were saying little about their governing plans.

Sánchez decided that his biggest electoral asset was his management of Spain’s economy, which has the highest employment levels in 15 years and lower inflation than most of the rest of the EU. But stagnant wages and the prevalence of low-quality jobs counted against him.

Ferrándiz of Ipsos said the Socialists had also been hurt by well-publicised episodes of alleged electoral fraud in small municipalities in recent days. “So if people voted in municipal or regional terms, it was bad for the Socialist party and Sánchez. And if they voted nationally, it was bad for the Socialist party and Sánchez . . . So things will have to change if he wants to reach the end of the year with a chance of victory.”

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