Rajoy Tackles Podemos in Spanish Vote as Brexit Roils Europe

  • Polls open on Sunday as Spain tries to end six-month impasse
  • Podemos’s support may be hurt if voters decide to avoid risk

Spaniards are gearing up for a general election this weekend with few clues as to how it might end the nation’s political deadlock as officials and investors are reeling from the U.K. vote to leave the European Union.

About 37 million voters are eligible to cast ballots on Sunday with polls signaling no single party will get anywhere close to a majority. Acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who’s on track to win the most seats, is seeking a showing strong enough to persuade rivals to offer the support he needs to stay in office.

Mariano Rajoy
Mariano Rajoy
Photographer: Pau Barrena/Bloomberg

With European leaders trying to get to grips with an unprecedented crisis -- anger over immigration and economic malaise rattled EU governments before helping to trigger Brexit -- Spain has its own problems. The country’s next premier will have to rein in the euro region’s second-biggest budget deficit while dealing with a 20 percent unemployment rate that’s four times the level in the U.K.

“Brexit is far from a one-off, it’s part of a wider European scenario in which populism is on the rise,” said Jose M. Areilza, a professor at Esade business school in Madrid and a former government adviser on European affairs. The next prime minister will need to push to make the European Union appear more caring, “especially for those who feel they’ve been left behind,” he said.

Final Push  

On Friday, all four main candidates ended their campaigns with a final plea to voters after a rollercoaster week dominated by the Brexit decision and leaked recordings that appeared to show a minister asking an official to help him dig up dirt on political rivals.

Rajoy said his People’s Party was the only force that could guarantee a stable, moderate government and urged voters to put aside their ideological differences. Pablo Iglesias of the anti-establishment party Podemos told Spaniards they have an historic chance to replace the old, failed politics of the past.

The prime minister set out his commitment to reviving the economy, keeping the Catalan independence movement in check, promoting EU integration and defeating terrorism.

“Vote for the PP because we’re the only ones that can win the election and continue this path,” he said.

Amid a global Brexit selloff on Friday, Spanish assets took a beating. The extra yield investors demand to hold Spanish 10-year bonds instead of safe-haven German securities jumped 31 basis points to 168 points, the highest in two years, while Spanish stocks slumped 12 percent.

The prime minister has struggled to get his message across in the final days of campaigning as the media focused on the leaked recordings of Acting Interior Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz discussing potential evidence against Catalan separatists. That story reminded voters of the long list of scandals that the government has been dragged into with party officials in Madrid and Valencia accused of taking bribes and illegal party financing.

Sweeping Reforms

Spain has been without a proper government since December’s election, when the collapse of support for traditional parties and an established policy consensus produced political deadlock in parliament. A new generation of leaders is demanding sweeping reforms to address the flaws in Spain’s labor market, its education system and, perhaps most importantly, the checks and balances on its politicians.

While the Socialists and Ciudadanos have hinted they might be able to do a deal with the PP, they say there’s no way they’ll support Rajoy, who denies any wrongdoing, because of his alleged ties to a secret party slush fund. Podemos is aiming to get the PP out of power altogether.

“We’re the only party that can defeat the PP,” Iglesias told supporters in Madrid on Friday night. “There are some cynics that will tell you the PP’s problem is Rajoy, and that without him, they can reach an accord. Today, we say it’s the time to defend our nation from those who have failed, from those who are responsible from the crisis.”

Safe Hands

Rajoy’s PP is on track to win as many as 120 seats in the 350-strong parliament, according to a Gesop survey published by El Periodic d’Andorra on Saturday, conducted from June 22 to June 24. That’s down from 123 in December and would be the party’s worst result since 1989.

Podemos is running neck-and-neck with the Socialists, the PP’s traditional rivals, for second place. Podemos, which was only formed in 2014, could win as many as 87 seats, one more than the 137-year-old Socialist party, according to Gesop. In December, the Socialists had 90 compared with Podemos’s 71. Ciudadanos, the pro-market party that broke through alongside Podemos in December, was seen maintaining its presence with about 40 seats.

The result in Britain has fanned speculation that more countries could withdraw from the EU and gave a fillip to populists in France, Italy and the Netherlands. France’s Marine Le Pen called for an immediate referendum her country. Unlike insurgents in other parts of the continent, Podemos is broadly in favor of the EU.

Iglesias, whose core support comes from well-educated young people shut out of the labor market by the crisis and rules protecting insiders, said the Brexit vote was a sign of the profound reform the EU needs.

“Nobody would leave a fair and united Europe,” he said. “We have to change Europe.”

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