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Six moments that define Spain’s chaos election – POLITICO

Six moments that define Spain’s chaos election – POLITICO

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MADRID — On Sunday, 37 million Spaniards are called on to vote to decide if their country will continue to be run by Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, or if instead the reins of power will be handed to the center-right Popular Party’s Alberto Núñez Feijóo, a candidate who is open to forming a coalition government with the far-right Vox party.

Polls indicate that the race is tight, with a relatively small number of votes likely to determine if the country remains on a progressive track or if it swings dramatically to the right.

The tensions around such an already high-stakes vote have been heightened by a campaign full of surreal episodes. Here’s our review of the most striking moments of the chaos election happening in Spain:

1. Summer spoiler

Spain’s election kicked off with a jolt in May when left-wing parties suffered devastating losses in the country’s nationwide municipal elections. The following morning pundits expected the prime minister to give a standard speech recognizing that his Socialist Party had been thumped. But in addition to admitting defeat at the local and regional level, Sánchez shocked the country by announcing the dissolution of parliament and calling surprise snap elections.

The move caught Spaniards off-guard and led to collective groans. Because Spanish electoral law dictates that elections have to be called 54 days after the dissolution of parliament, electors were confronted with the prospect of having to cast their votes in the middle of their summer holidays. Indeed, this Sunday’s election falls on a date when over a quarter of registered voters are expected to be on vacation. The conservative opposition made a big fuss about this, with Popular Party leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo accusing Sánchez of purposely “ruining everybody’s holidays.”

But Sánchez’s calculation has proven to be smart. By calling elections immediately, the prime minister ensured that the lead-up to the vote coincided with a period in which the Popular Party has entered into uncomfortable coalitions with the far-right Vox party at the local and regional level. Throughout the campaign, Sánchez has pointed to those deals — which have led to the elimination of gender-equality departments in places like Valencia and a ban on rainbow flags in municipalities like Náquera and Torrijos — and warned that if Feijóo and Vox come to power, they’ll enact similar measures at the national level.

2. Billboard war

A few years ago, buses plastered with controversial messages inexplicably became the hottest thing in Spanish politics. During this campaign season, however, right-wing parties have opted for more static messaging and covered the façades of different buildings in Madrid with attention-grabbing billboards.

The first to do so was the far-right Vox party, which in June put up a giant billboard showing a disembodied hand tossing different symbols — among them a feminism symbol, a pride flag and the logo for the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda — into a trashcan. It was followed by another paid for by Desokupa — a company that has been linked to Spain’s neo-Nazi movement — that proposed “evicting” Sánchez from the country and sending him to Morocco.

The far-right Vox party in June put up a giant billboard showing a disembodied hand tossing different symbols, including a pride flag and the logo for the UN’s 2030 Agenda | Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images

But green NGOs and left-wing groups soon got in on the fun. Last week, environmental NGO Greenpeace hung a guerrilla billboard on Madrid’s Puerta de Alcalá depicting the four main candidates nude and covered in sweat — an image meant to highlight the absence of conversations about climate change in these elections.

Meanwhile, an activist group called Violetas defaced a Vox billboard that accused Sánchez’s government of releasing criminals and “putting hundreds of monsters on the street,” altering the message to read “Vox has put hundreds of monsters in its party.”

3. Sánchez’s charm offensive

It’s no secret that Sánchez has a popularity problem: Spain’s economy is going great and the public generally approves of the measures passed by his left-wing coalition government — but voters just don’t seem to like him very much.

The prime minister’s image problem is partially due to Spain’s media landscape, which is dominated by conservative broadcasters; but it also has to do with the prime minister’s communication strategy. During his time in power, Sánchez has largely avoided interacting with the potentially hostile media platforms consumed by huge numbers of the Spanish public.


For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

In the lead-up to these elections, however, Sánchez decided to take on those broadcasters and embarked on an audacious charm offensive that saw him appear on a plethora of Spanish television and radio programs. The prime minister did remarkably well and managed to charm radio and television presenters who had spent years criticizing him, leading many to wonder why he hadn’t followed this strategy before. Sánchez also won over Gen Z voters by appearing on the hit La Pija y La Quinqui podcast, where he skillfully declared himself to be a “Swiftie.”

4. ETA overshadowing everything

A huge part of the campaign was spent discussing ETA, a Basque terrorist group that ceased operations more than a decade ago. Feijóo’s Popular Party repeatedly attempted to link Sánchez to the terrorist group by highlighting the sporadic parliamentary support his government had received from EH Bildu, a Basque separatist party which the Spanish judiciary has repeatedly determined is a legal, democratic organization.

Popular Party politicians and supporters have spent the past weeks shouting “¡Qué te vote Taxapote!” — a slogan that sarcastically urges Sánchez to get votes from Francisco Javier García Gaztelu — a.k.a Txapote — one of ETA’s most notorious assassins. The use of phrase was condemned by the Collective of Victims of Terrorism (COVITE), a non-partisan group that represents victims and family members of all acts of terrorism, which said that the slogan trivialized the crimes committed by ETA and unfairly subjected Txapote’s victims to have to hear the murderer’s name over and over again.

Sánchez struggled to change the narrative and a tense back and forth over ETA ended up eating a big chunk of the only face-to-face debate between the prime minister and Feijóo. At a moment when Spain is facing far more pressing challenges — among them, a housing crisis, climate disasters and sky-high youth unemployment figures — the focus on a defunct terrorist group was an unfortunate distraction.

5. ¡Viva Correos!

With the election falling in the middle of summer, it was clear from the beginning that many Spaniards would opt to vote by mail and in the end, a record 2.6 million Spaniards — 7.4 percent of registered voters — signed up to deposit their ballots in this manner.

In a Trumpian twist, Popular Party leader Feijóo spent part of the campaign casting doubt on the integrity of Correos, Spain’s state-owned postal service. The conservative politician — who himself was president of Correos between 2000 and 2003 — suggested its current management had purposely understaffed offices and went so far as to urge postal workers to resist higher-ups’ supposed attempts to manipulate the vote.

Postal workers responded to Feijóo’s allegations with fury and vindicated the professionalism of the postal service, which hired 19,400 extra workers ahead of the election in order to guarantee the quick and efficient processing of all mail-in ballots. Moreover, more than 30 percent of the employees scheduled to go on vacation in July voluntarily requested to delay their holidays in order to ensure none of the offices were short-staffed.

The numbers speak for themselves: The deadline for mail-in voting expired on Friday and Correos has already registered the 2.4 million ballots that were returned before the 2 PM deadline. Those votes will be delivered to polling stations on Sunday and counted along with the rest of the ballots at the end of day. Despite the best efforts of those who sought to muddy the waters, Spain’s postal service stepped up to the election’s unusual circumstances and addressed the challenge in an exemplary manner.

6. Feijóo and the narco

For much of this campaign the center-right Popular Party has succeeded in setting the conversation and having its talking points dominate coverage. But that all changed during the last week of the campaign, when POLITICO reported on conservative leader Feijóo’s relationship with Galician drug trafficker Marcial Dorado.

Feijóo’s links to Dorado were already well-known: Spanish daily El País first published photos showing the two men yachting together back in 2013, and the media had subsequently reported on their trips together to places like the Canary Islands, Portugal and Andorra. In the following year, the connection between the politician and the drug trafficker had also periodically resurfaced when Feijóo had run for reelection as president of the Galicia region.

But no one had mentioned the friendship between the two in this national campaign. Despite repeated attacks on his person, despite the accusations of his purported political alliances with “terrorists,” Sánchez avoided bringing up Feijóo’s documented friendship with Dorado.

POLITICO photo-illustration (source images via Getty Images and El País)

The turning point came when left-wing Sumar leader Yolanda Díaz spoke about Dorado in a rally last week and demanded Feijóo explain himself. Following POLITICO’s article on Díaz’s statements and the links between the two men, Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Nadia Calviño and other politicians raised the matter and argued that it would be a source of national embarrassment to elect someone who pals around with drug traffickers.

The Popular Party has struggled to change the conversation, in part because Feijóo appears to be unable to justify his links to Dorado in a credible manner. As the Spanish media once again began to ask questions about the relationship this week, the conservative politician stumbled and gave increasing odd answers.

Although the Galician media had reported extensively on Dorado’s illicit activities in the 1990s, at the time when Feijóo was friends with him, on Wednesday Feijóo claimed that he had no idea about his questionable background because “there wasn’t any internet at the time so I couldn’t Google him.”

On Friday, the candidate appeared to contradict himself by alleging that while he had never known that Dorado was a drug trafficker, he was aware that he was a “smuggler.” Feijóo did not appear to grasp that, as a member of the Galician government at the time, it would have been inappropriate to be intimately involved in illegal imports and exports.

While it is unlikely the Feijóo-Dorado links will change the balance of the election, news of the relationship has made for an uncomfortable final week of the campaign — one that concluded with a group of mariachis who showed up at the Popular Party headquarters on Friday to serenade him with a narcocorrido, a traditional Mexican ballad celebrating the exploits of audacious drug traffickers.

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