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July 14, 2020

SPAIN: Managing the pandemic remains biggest short-term challenge for Sanchez

BY Antonio Barroso

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As expected, last Sunday’s elections in the Galicia and Basque Country regions returned resounding victories for the center-right incumbents. Despite the poor results of the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos, the regional polls are likely to have a limited impact on the ruling coalition, however. The biggest challenge for Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in the coming weeks will be to manage the potential tensions between the central government and the regions over the containment of new Covid-19 clusters.

Podemos had one of its worst election nights on 12 July. The party lost all its MPs in the regional parliament of Galicia and lost five deputies in the Basque Country region. As for PSOE, Pedro Sanchez’s party managed to win an additional seat in both regions. As explained, however, the poor performance of Spain’s main left-wing parties does not threaten the survival of the ruling coalition. If anything, Podemos’s defeat will reassure party leader Pablo Iglesias of the need to avoid elections. Moreover, the Nationalist Basque Party (PNV) will have to rely on PSOE again to govern in the Basque Country region despite its victory. This will consequently strengthen the alliance between the two parties on the national level.

While the elections will not have a substantial impact in the short term, the rise of nationalist parties underlines how territorial issues will continue to play an important role in Spanish politics going forward. Podemos’ loss on Sunday was coupled with the rise of the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG). In the Basque Country, 67% of voters opted for nationalist or secessionist parties. This nationalist surge has two long-term consequences. First, it is unlikely that the Basque Country will push unilaterally for secession a-la-Catalonia anytime soon. But the debate over a self-determination referendum is likely to gain salience in the future. Second, Podemos’s ability to absorb left-wing nationalist votes in certain regions is significantly suffering. This could lead to further splitting of the leftist vote in future national elections and increased political fragmentation.

Looking at the short term, the biggest challenge for Sanchez remains to manage the emergence of new Covid-19 outbreaks. There are currently around 130 active clusters across the country, according to the health authorities. To counter a rapidly expanding cluster, Catalonia recently moved to put a small area of the Lleida province under lockdown. However, a judge invalidated the decision shortly after. This has led the Catalan government to ignore the judges and pass a decree to enforce the lockdown. The standoff between the two sides illustrates the uncertainty surrounding the existing legal framework to deal with the outbreaks.

Beyond the legal issues, the emergence of new clusters might create some political headaches for Sanchez. For instance, the opposition Ciudadanos party has criticized Sanchez for not tackling the Catalan cluster. But adopting measures targeting specific regions would generate a backlash from regional governments, who on 21 June recovered their competences to manage the pandemic after the nationwide state of emergency ended. At the same time, if a region fails to contain an outbreak, Sanchez will be under pressure to act, although the government has made clear that returning to a nationwide lockdown would be a last resort solution.

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