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Rows over Eta and racism loom large as Spain holds local elections

Spain heads to the polls on Sunday to elect 12 regional governments and 8,000 municipal councils in votes that will allow the governing Socialists and the opposition conservatives to gauge their strengths and hone their strategies before December’s general election.

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the rightwing, populist president of the Madrid region, will be aiming to secure an absolute majority for the People’s party (PP), while Barcelona’s leftwing mayor, Ada Colau, will be hoping to see off challenges from the regional branch of the Socialist party and a centre-right Catalan pro-independence party.

The PP, which has been in opposition since it was turfed out of central government after a string of corruption scandals five years ago, wants to wrestle as many regions as possible from the ruling Spanish Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE). But it is likely to have to rely on the far-fight Vox party’s support in forming new regional governments in all of the contested regions except Madrid.

The elections come at the end of a bitter campaign in which regional and local matters have been often overshadowed by the spectre of the defunct Basque terrorist group, Eta, the row sparked by the racist abuse directed at the Real Madrid footballer Vinícius Júnior, and allegations of electoral fraud.

Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, who is also the PSOE leader, had begun the campaign hoping to stress his government’s economic record, new housing reforms and schemes to help young people.

But his attempts to push those achievements were swiftly derailed after it emerged that the Basque nationalist party, EH Bildu – on whose support the minority government relies in congress – was fielding 44 convicted Eta members, including seven people found guilty of violent crimes, as candidates.

Although Sánchez criticised Bildu’s decision, describing it as legal but “obviously indecent”, and the Basque party saying later the seven candidates convicted for violence would not take up their seats, the damage had been done.

The PP leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, pounced on Sánchez for his reliance on Bildu and on Catalan pro-independence parties – and for bungled sexual offences legislation that allowed more than 1,000 convicted sex offenders to have their sentences cut, and more than 100 to win early release.

“You’re the great electoral hope for rapists and pederasts, for mutineers, squatters, corrupt people and now for those who used to go about in balaclavas with pistols,” he told Sánchez. “And I will never be that.”

Ayuso, a climate change denier who once said the spread of Covid in the Spanish capital was partly due to “the way of life of immigrants in Madrid”, went further, claiming that “Eta is still alive” in the guise of Bildu and calling, unsuccessfully, for the legal political party to be banned. Her words were criticised by a group representing the victims of terrorism that accused her of trivialising what had happened and showing a lack of respect for the families of the dead.

Eta murdered 829 people during its violent, five-decade quest to bring about an independent Basque homeland before it abandoned its armed campaign in 2011 and dissolved itself five years ago.

Sánchez said the PP’s familiar obsession with a vanished terror group was proof of its lack of electoral policies. He asked the party: “What’s your proposal on housing? Eta. In other words, nothing. On education? Eta. In other words, nothing. On the climate emergency? Eta. In other words nothing.

He added: “When Eta is nothing in Spain it is still everything to you. Because, in your desperation, Eta is all you have, even though it doesn’t exist.”

By the middle of this week, the focus had switched to racism after Vinícius called Spain “a country of racists”.

Sánchez replied: “Hatred and xenophobia should have no place in football nor in our society.”

Feijóo also said racism and sport were “totally incompatible”, but added: “Spain is not a racist country in any way.”

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That in turn gave way to fears of electoral corruption after police in Spain’s north African enclave of Melilla arrested 10 people suspected of participating in an alleged mail-in vote-buying fraud, while seven other people were detained on suspicion of vote-buying in the Andalucían town of Mojácar.

Pablo Simón, a political scientist at Carlos III University in Madrid, said Sunday’s elections were on course to be a closely run affair, with much depending on turnout. “What we’re going to see is a situation where the left and right blocs will be finishing neck-and-neck in many places,” he said.

“Things are going to be very tight in the Valencian regional government, in the Balearic islands, in Aragón, in Barcelona, in Seville, in Vitoria, and in Valladolid.”

Simón said the results would inevitably shape the political narrative before the general election. He said: “If the PP grows a lot and wins a lot of territorial power – and if it outperforms expectations – then that will give rise to the perception that the left’s time is up and that Pedro Sánchez is in stoppage time.

“On the other hand, if the left holds out and if the result is mixed, then the impression will be that the game’s not over when it comes to the next election.”

While the PSOE will be hoping to minimise losses in the run-up to the general election, Podemos, its leftwing, junior partner in the national coalition government, is badly bereft of the momentum and support that propelled it into Spanish politics eight years ago. Meanwhile, the centre-right Citizens party, once a kingmaker and possible party of government, is set to continue its slow slide into insignificance.

One of the main focuses will be on the reconfigured right. Although the PP stands to hoover up support from the moribund Citizens, it is unlikely to perform well enough to avoid the need for deals with Vox, with whom it already governs the region of Castilla y León. Such deals, however, would come at a price as they would allow the left to question the PP’s credentials as a centre-right party and paint it as all too prepared to enter into cynical alliances with the far right.

“Vox is growing in all regions and is going to win more power and be in more regional parliaments and in more councils than in 2019,” said Simón. “Second – and this is important – all the surveys show that the PP will need Vox to govern in every region except in Madrid. That means that Vox, which is running a very discreet campaign and is trying not to make any mistakes, will be seeking to enter into coalition governments.”

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