Madrid & Scotland

There are no national elections on this week, but two very interesting regional elections are being held in Europe. Madrid went to the polls on Tuesday, and Scotland does the same tonight.

Madrid was an early election, called halfway through a four-year term by premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso, of the centre-right People’s Party. She had been governing in coalition with the centrists and with the support of the far right, but being concerned that the centrists were about to switch sides and oust her in conjunction with the centre-left, she decided to get in first.*

The move was a complete success (see official results here). The People’s Party doubled its vote, leaping to 44.7% and 65 of the 136 seats in the regional assembly (up 35). The centrists, Citizens, on the other hand, were wiped out, falling from 19.5% to 3.6% and losing all of their 26 seats. The centre-left Socialists also did badly, dropping to 16.8% (down 10.5%) and 24 seats (down 13) – their worst result ever, and in fact the first time they’ve ever fallen below 25%.

There wasn’t much movement elsewhere. More Madrid, somewhat to the left of the Socialists, picked up 2.8%, putting it just ahead of the Socialists with 17.0% and also 24 seats (up four). The far-right Vox was up just 0.2%, gaining a seat and finishing with 9.1% and 13 seats. The far-left Podemos also gained slightly, up 1.6% and three seats to 7.2% and ten seats: not a great return for its leader, Pablo Iglesias, on his decision to switch from federal to regional politics in the hope of becoming premier.

Four seats short of an absolute majority, the centre-right will still need Vox’s support in order to govern, and Ayuso has made it clear she has no qualms about that, although a formal coalition will still be taboo.

On one reading, it’s a depressing story of the rise of extremism: the centre has collapsed, the centre-right has been rewarded for its dalliance with the far right (and perhaps for soft-pedalling its response to Covid-19), and even the movement on the left is away from the middle.

There’s an alternative way to look at it, however, in which Citzens has been punished not for being in the centre, but for having betrayed its liberal roots. Its aggressive opposition to self-determination in Catalonia won it a new cohort of right-wing supporters, driving it to co-operate with the far right after the 2018 regional elections in Andalusia, and then to decline talks with the Socialists to form government nationally after the first election of the following year.

As Guy Hedgecoe at Politico puts it, Citizens’ then-leader Albert Rivera “cast himself as a new leader of the right, targeting [Socialist prime minister Pedro] Sánchez as the enemy.” In doing so, he seems to have thrown away the qualities that made the party attractive in the first place, leaving his successors to try to pick up the pieces.

Scotland‘s regional election is in some ways less complicated. The pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) has been in government since 2007, although it has held a majority in its own right for only one of its three terms, from 2011 to 2016. In 2016 it won 41.7% of the vote and 63 of the 129 seats and remained in office at the sufferance of the other parties – especially the Greens, with 6.6% and six seats.

The Greens are generally pro-independence, but the other three parties that won seats last time are all anti-independence. The Conservatives won 22.9% of the vote and 31 seats, Labour had 19.1% and 24 seats, and the Liberal Democrats ran a poor fifth with 5.2% and five seats.

Less than two months after that parliament was elected, British politics was upended by the victory of the “Leave” vote in the Brexit referendum. That put independence for Scotland (which had voted strongly for “Remain”) back on the agenda, and the SNP has promised a new referendum on the question if it is re-elected, although the government at Westminster is decidedly cool on the idea.

Opinion polls showed a big jump in SNP support at the beginning of last year, after Brexit finally happened, but since then its trajectory has been mostly downwards, and quite steeply so in the last few weeks. It is now sitting in the high 30s, a little below the 2016 level. Some of that decline, however, has been to the benefit of a new pro-independence party, Alba, led by former SNP leader Alex Salmond.

Salmond left the SNP in controversial circumstances in 2018 and the new party is basically a vehicle for his vendetta against current leader and first minister Nicola Sturgeon. It is only polling a few percentage points, but if it manages to snare some seats then it will make the new parliament considerably more interesting.

The other parties are not showing much change in the polls from where they were in 2016. The three anti-independence parties in aggregate are polling in the mid-40s; it seems unlikely that they will win a majority between them, and in view of their ideological breadth and historical antagonisms it’s hard to imagine them co-operating in government even if they did.

The Greens look to improve a little on their 2016 performance, and [if] the SNP’s decline is not too steep then the two in combination may again have a majority. If so, Sturgeon will treat that as a mandate for another attempt at independence, and the consequent conflict with prime minister Boris Johnson.

Wales is also electing its regional parliament, or Senate, where the Labour government is expected to be returned, and there are local elections across much of England. Pundits love to try to read some meaning into these, but with Johnson’s government less than 18 months into a five-year term their national significance is even less than usual.

* Interestingly enough, the early election does not reset the clock: an election still has to be held in 2023, so the new regional parliament will only get a two-year term.


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