In March 2004, it was confidently predicted that the ruling right-wing Partido Popular (PP) would see a repeat of the electoral victory which four years earlier had delivered an absolute majority. In the event, the opposition Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) pulled off a stunning triumph, and have remained in power ever since under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. With elections due on Sunday, and all the polls pointing to the PP returning to power after nearly eight years in opposition, might we see a similar surprise this time round?
In short: no. The unexpected PSOE victory of 2004 took place in hopefully never to be repeated circumstances. Just three days before the election, a massive terrorist bomb exploded on a crowded commuter train entering Atocha station in Madrid. The PP government, which had earlier defied public opinion by joining George Bush’s ‘coalition of the willing’, was desperate to avoid any link being made between its highly controversial support for the US-led invasion of Iraq and the atrocity in Madrid. Government ministers were mobilised to insist that the bombing had been the work of the Basque separatist group, ETA. In fact, it very soon became clear that the real authors were indeed linked to Al Qaeda, and that the government had been seeking deliberately to mislead the public. The outcome was a groundswell of anti-government sentiment that translated into punishment at the polls.
Leaving aside the very specific circumstances of the March 2004 elections, there is another key difference. In 2004, the gap between the PP and the PSOE prior to the elections was around 5 per cent, and showing signs of starting to narrow before the vote. This time round, the PP has been leading the PSOE by a huge margin – an average of over 14 per cent in all major polls since September, reflecting a gap between the parties which has been steadily widening ever since the last elections in 2008.
Spanish electoral law prohibits the publication of opinion poll data during the five days prior to the vote. However, as of Tuesday of this week, the most recent national polls showed PP support running between 44.7 and 47.7 per cent, compared to the PSOE between 28.7 and 35.1 per cent. These are the biggest margins between the two main parties in Spain’s democratic history. Unsurprisingly, virtually everyone is predicting a landslide victory for the PP on Sunday, with Mariano Rajoy finally becoming prime minister at the third time of asking.
But will the outcome be as bad for the ruling PSOE, led in these elections by Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, as is so widely assumed? There may just be some straws for Rubalcaba to cling onto. Historically, apart from the very particular and exceptional circumstances of March 2004 election, ruling parties have always performed considerably better in national elections than opinion polls have predicted beforehand. In 1996, for instance, opinion polls gave José María Aznar a 9 point lead over Felipe González, but his victory margin turned out to be just 1 per cent – as the latter said, ‘Never has defeat tasted so sweet, nor victory so bitter’.
Moreover, as we have seen before in other countries, a desire to see the back of the ruling government does not necessarily translate into enthusiasm for the opposition. In a Europe marked by widespread protests against draconian cuts in public expenditure, and with the PP strongly committed to fiscal retrenchment, already many are getting nervous as the bond markets continue to subject Spain to pressure. The PP will comfortably win the election on Sunday, but probably not with any sense of euphoria amongst a Spanish public fearful of where things may be heading next. Relief at getting rid of the PSOE may soon turn into a distant memory as the PP seeks to placate markets via an austerity policy which will impose yet more pain in Spain.
As the results come in, I will be tweeting via @NottsPolitics giving my take on events.