The suspense surrounding the general elections in Spain is over. The Socialist Party, led by former Prime Minister Rodriguez-Zapatero, won a second term in office that will last until 2012. By contrast, the conservative Popular Party led by opposition leader Mr. Rajoy – which had held serious hopes of regaining power after its surprising defeat in March 2004 following the Madrid bombings –once again experienced defeat.
Participation, which was bound to be key in determining the final outcome, was almost as high as in 2004 (75%), despite many predictions by poll institutes that it was going to be lower. With 350 seats in the Spanish Parliament, that Socialist Party and Popular Party obtained 169 (164 in 2004) and 153 (148), respectively. Thus, the absolute distance remained the same. In terms of percentage of votes, however, the Socialist Party increased its support by one percentage point (from 42.6 to 43.5%) while the Popular Party experienced a larger rise (from 37.7 to 40.1%). The most significant outcome has been the concentration of the votes on the two major parties (from 80.3 to 83.7%) at the expense of the extremist regional parties and the former communist party. The more conservative (albeit favourable to secession) parties in Catalonia and the Basque country, more or less maintained their share of votes (around 4.3%). Since the Socialists missed an overall majority by six seats, they are likely to count on these regional parties in the near future – especially given the election debacle experienced by his former coalition partners in this election.
Yesterday’s results may have looked puzzling two months ago. The ferocious opposition by the Popular Party and its associated media cast doubts on the authorship of the bombing in the trains and on the usefulness of the subsequent secret talks with representatives of the Basque terrorist group, ETA, together with serious mistakes made by the government in the implementation of its regional decentralisation policy and over-optimism about the possibility of a permanent truce with ETA, led many to believe that the possibility of the Popular Party overturning the Socialist Party was realistic. At that time, most polling institutes predicted a tie; those close to Popular Party predicted a narrow victory for the conservatives. An uncountable number of demonstrations, fostered by the Popular Party together with some associations of victims of terrorism controlled by the extreme right and the more conservative side of the Catholic Church, were slowly but steadily damaging the government’s reputation in civic rights (withdrawal of troops from Iraq, gender parity and dependence laws, approval of gay marriage, etc.).
Nevertheless, things started to change over the last month or so. With the progressive slowdown of the Spanish economy – one of the EU “tigers” whose GDP growth (3.5% since 2004) relied too much on the building sector – the Popular Party changed its strategy to attack the Socialist Party on its lack of pre-emptive action and on the perils of uncontrolled migration inflows. Basically, they gave up on the former accusations that ETA was involved in the manslaughter of 11 March 2004 – an issue which was totally cleared up by the court judging the responsibility of an Islamic terrorist cell in the bombings – and switched instead to a campaign almost fully focused on tax cuts and a new immigration contract that would force immigrants to be loyal to Spanish customs. These proposals planted the seeds for their defeat. In terms of economic policies, there are no substantial differences between the agendas of both parties (tax and expenditure cuts vs. various rebates) and in times of uncertainty the Socialist Party offered the bonus of using the proceeds of the 2% of GDP surplus of the public sector in a countercyclical fashion. In terms of immigration policies, the Popular Party’s performance from 1996 to 2004 had been appalling while the Socialist Party had a regularisation process in 2004, with the full support of employers and trade unions.1 Moreover, the blatant support of the heads of the Catholic Church to vote “populares” and a weak performance of Mr. Rajoy in two public debates with Mr. Zapatero did the rest in waking up potential voters for the Socialist Party. Election polls since mid-February started to widen up in favour of the Socialist Party showing up to a 3-4% lead which has ended up being an accurate estimate of the final gap (3.5%).
Some econometric analysis on the properties of these opinion polls has shown that the fraction of partisans (committed voters who hardly change their vote) among Popular Party voters is higher than among Socialist Party voters and much higher than in the extreme left.2 The latter are the ones who have changed their vote this time, especially in Catalonia and the Basque Country, where they have seemingly appreciated the (maybe erratic) efforts of the government to give more autonomy (Catalonia) and end with the violence (Basque country). As opposed to the traditional belief that both parties had to fight to the centre-minded voters, it seems that that this time the victory has come from one of the extremes.
Dolado, J., Gonzalo, J. and L. Mayoral (2003), “Long-Range Dependence in Spanish Political Opinion Poll Series” Journal of Applied Econometrics, vol. 18, 137-155.