Regional votes to test support for Spain's Rajoy

Reuters News
Posted: Oct 21, 2012 6:40 AM
Regional votes to test support for Spain's Rajoy

By Julien Toyer

MADRID, Spain (Reuters) - Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will struggle on Sunday to retain support for his policies in two elections in his home region of Galicia and the Basque Country.

The vote in Galicia, where austerity steps were taken by the People's Party even before Rajoy took office one year ago, has become a referendum on his handling of the euro zone crisis.

European officials and analysts said Rajoy wanted to wait until after the election to request European aid to handle the country's soaring debts as he feared tough conditions, such as a reform of the pension system, could anger voters.

Senior euro zone officials told Reuters they expected an aid request to be made next month. Rajoy said on Friday he had not yet taken a decision on if and when to do so.

His party risks losing its absolute majority, and power altogether, in Galicia's legislature. This would be a major psychological blow to Rajoy, whose conservative PP party has ruled his homeland for 24 of the past 31 years.

A win would give him much-needed political breathing space nationally as polls have shown him losing support amid massive demonstrations against spending cuts in public services and successive tax hikes.

The results are especially difficult to predict with almost 40 percent of Galicians saying in a recent survey in newspaper La Voz de Galicia they were still undecided how to vote.

"We need to change," said Goretti Gonzalez, a 32-year-old town hall civil servant who will lose a further month's salary this year after having her wages cut by 5 percent two years ago.

The newspaper poll however suggested the PP was in a position to retain the region thanks to a strong traditional backing for its policies.

"Today I voted for the same people I voted for the last time round. I don't think they ran things completely badly," said one elderly voter who didn't want to be named.

In the Basque Country, as in another regional vote in Catalonia on November 25, the outcome of the vote will not depend on tax hikes or spending cuts but rather on recent tensions between central government and the regions on whether devolved powers to provinces should be reduced.

Parties which back increased autonomy or even full independence for the region are set to win the elections and challenge Rajoy's drive for increased centralization.

Opposition parties have accused the government of using the crisis to claw back the extensive powers of its 17 autonomous regions, whose overspending was partly to blame for the failure of the country to meet its deficit targets last year.

(Additional reporting by Catherine MacDonald in Vigo; editing by Ron Askew)