x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Spanish PM in battle to retain support

Polls a referendum on austerity ahead of expected aid request.

MADRID // The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, faces a struggle to retain support for his policies in two elections yesterday in his home region of Galicia and the Basque Country.

The vote in Galicia, where austerity steps were taken by Mr Rajoy's People's Party (PP) before he took office one year ago, has become a referendum on his handling of the euro-zone crisis. European officials said Mr 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 said they expected an aid request to be made next month. Mr Rajoy said on Friday that he had not yet taken a decision on if and when to do so.

The PP risks losing its absolute majority, and power altogether, in Galicia's legislature. This would be a major blow to Mr Rajoy, whose conservative 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 about 40 per cent of Galicians saying in a recent survey in La Voz de Galicia newspaper that 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 per cent two years ago.

However, the newspaper poll suggested that the PP was in a position to retain the region thanks to 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 an elderly voter who did not want to be named.

In the Basque Country, as in another regional vote in Catalonia on November 25, the outcome of the pollwill not depend on tax hikes or cuts but rather 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 Mr Rajoy's drive for increased centralisation.

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 country's failure to meet its deficit targets last year.