Spain’s PM faces stiff challenge in tightest electoral race in decades

Campaigning officially begins on Friday ahead of the December 20th vote in what is tipped as Spain's 'most volatile elections ever'.

Spain's PM faces stiff challenge in tightest electoral race in decades
Photo: AFP

Official campaigning for Spain's December 20th general election begins Friday with conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy facing a stiff challenge from three younger rivals in the tightest race in decades.

With some polls showing that more than one in five potential voters are still undecided less than three weeks before the election, it is impossible to predict who will win, said Manuel Mostaza, the operations director at the Sigma Dos polling firm.

“These are the most volatile elections ever,” he told AFP.

Three party leaders who were unknown during the last general election in 2011, which Rajoy's Popular Party won by a landslide, have emerged during Spain's sharp economic downturn and are well positioned as the election nears.

The three – rising star Albert Rivera, 36, from the centrist Ciudadanos party, the Socialists' Pedro Sanchez, 43, and far-left Podemos candidate Pablo Iglesias, 37 – set out their positions on Monday in a two-hour live Internet debate hosted by daily newspaper El Pais.

Rajoy, 60, declined to take part and attended a one-on-one televised interview instead on Telecinco, Spain's most-watched television station.

His Popular Party has been worn down by corruption scandals, austerity measures and the unemployment rate which is falling but still stands at 21.2 percent, the highest in the eurozone with the exception of Greece.

The Popular Party holds a narrow lead ahead of the polls with 27.1 percent support, according to Sigma Dos, compared to the 44.6 percent it won during the last election.

Ciudadanos is in second place with 23 percent support, followed by the Socialists with 20.2 percent and Podemos with 16.2 percent.

Another poll by Metroscopia pointed to an even closer contest. It put support for the Popular Party, the Socialists and Ciudadanos within a hair's breadth of each other at 22 percent with Podemos, a close ally of Greece's ruling Syriza, in fourth place with 17 percent support.

The surveys indicate no party will secure a parliamentary majority, with Ciudadanos likely to emerge as kingmaker.

Ciudadanos has criticised both the Popular Party and the Socialists – Spain's two main parties which have dominated politics since the country returned to democracy following the death of dictator Francisco Franco – and it is not clear which formation it would support.

Economy in focus

The November 13th jihadist attacks in Paris and a strong independence drive in the northeastern region of Catalonia, where the regional assembly passed a resolution last month calling for secession from Spain, have made national security and unity campaign issues.

Rajoy will debate Sanchez, who took the helm of Socialists last year, on December 14th. He will not debate the leaders of Ciudadanos or Podemos since those parties are not represented in parliament, according to the Popular Party.

Podemos did not exist during the last election and Ciudadanos only operated in Catalonia at the time, not at the national level.

Rajoy has made economic recovery one of the mainstays of his campaign for re-election after Spain in 2014 came out of five years of recession or zero-growth.

The government predicts the economy will expand by over 3.0 percent this year.

“We are starting to have more resources,” Rajoy said during the television interview on Monday.

Public workers in November received part of an annual Christmas bonus that was cut in 2012 and will receive another part later this month.

Rajoy has vowed to cut income tax and create two million jobs over the next four years if his party is re-elected.

He plans to focus his campaign on the offer of the “experience” of a “competent” team and “security”, his campaign chief Jorge Moragas told reporters.

But opponents of the Popular Party say many of the jobs that have been created are short-term or badly paid.

Rivera said during the debate 90 percent of the new jobs created under Rajoy's watch were “garbage contracts” while Sanchez said “one in four contracts in our country last less than one week”.

By Michaela Cancela-Kieffer

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Spain’s basic income scheme hits backlog dead-end

Three months after Spain rushed to launch a minimum basic income scheme to fight a spike in poverty due to the coronavirus pandemic, the programme is at a dead-end because of an avalanche of applications.

Spain's basic income scheme hits backlog dead-end
Red Cross volunteers bring food packages to elderly and low income people. Photo: Cesar Manso/AFP
The measure was a pledge made by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's leftwing coalition government, which took office in January, bringing together his Socialist party with far-left Podemos as the junior partner.
The scheme — approved in late May — aims to guarantee an income of 462 euros ($546) per month for an adult living alone, while for families, there would be an additional 139 euros per person, whether adult or child, up to a monthly maximum of 1,015 euros per home. It is expected to cost state coffers three billion euros ($3.5 billion) a year.
The government decided to bring forward the launch of the programme because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has hit Spain hard and devastated its economy, causing queues at food banks to swell.
Of the 750,000 applications which were filed since June 15 when the government started accepting requests, 143,000 — or 19 percent — have been analysed and 80,000 were approved, according to a social security statement issued on August 20.
'Months of waiting'
But Spain main civil servant's union, CSIF, paints a darker picture. “Nearly 99 percent of requests have not been processed,” a union spokesman, Jose Manuel Molina, told AFP.
The social security ministry has only really analysed 6,000 applications while 74,000 households that already receive financial aid were awarded the basic income automatically, he added.
For hundreds of thousands of other households, the wait is stressful. Marta Sanchez, a 42-year-old mother of two from the southern city of Seville, said she applied for the scheme on June 26 but has heard nothing since.
“That is two months of waiting already, when in theory this was a measure that was taken so no one ends up in the streets,” she added.
Sanchez lost her call centre job during Spain's virus lockdown while her husband lost his job as a driver. The couple has had to turn to the Red Cross for the first time for food.
“Thank God my mother and sister pay our water and electricity bills,” she said, adding their landlord, a relative, has turned a blind eye to the unpaid rent.
'Rushed everything'
A spokeswoman for the ministry acknowledged that the rhythm “was perhaps a bit slower than expected” but she said the government was working to “automate many procedures” so processing times should become faster from now on.
“The launch of a benefit is always difficult … and this situation is not an exception,” she added.
But Molina said this was a new situation, that was made worse by years of budget cuts to the public service which has lost 25 percent of its staff over the past decade.
“The problem is that they rushed everything, did it without training and a huge lack of staff,” he added.
The social security branch charged with the basic income scheme has only 1,500 civil servants, who also process most pension applications, Molina said.
These officials are facing an “avalanche” of requests, which already match the number of pension requests received in an entire year, he added.
About 500 temporary workers have been recruited as reinforcements but their assistance is limited because they do not have the status of civil servant, so they cannot officially approve requests for financial aid.
Demand is expected to increase. The government has said the measure was expected to benefit some 850,000 homes, affecting a total of 2.3 million people — 30 percent of whom were minors.
When the scheme was launched the government said all it would take is a simple online form, but this is a problem for many low-income families without computers and internet access, especially since the waiting time for an in-person meeting to apply is about two months, according to the CSIF union