Will Brexit affect Sunday’s general election in Spain?

Spain's conservative acting Prime Minister looks set to benefit as his countrymen fear economic repercussions from the UK's decision to leave the EU.

Will Brexit affect Sunday's general election in Spain?
Spain goes to the polls again on Sunday. Photo: AFP

Spain was united in urging Britain to vote to remain in the European Union. Now there are ripples of fear that Brexit could derail the country’s fragile economic recovery.

Spain – the euro region’s forth-biggest economy – is heavily invested in the UK as well as being one of the UK’s primary destinations for foreign investment. Spain benefits hugely from the money brought into the country by British tourists, but as the pound plummets, British spending in Spain looks set to similarly plunge.

Spain’s IBEX plunged 12 percent on Friday morning, as the euro fell to its lowest point since it was introduced in 1999. Shares in Spain’s biggest banks similarly plummeted after the vote for Brexit was confirmed.

All of these fears combine just two days before Spain’s general election and could have a profound effect on how Spaniards vote on Sunday. 

Acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Friday said that a few years ago “an event of this size could have tipped Spain into crisis or meant it needed bailing out,” but now – in reference to Sunday’s election – “is not a time to add uncertainty” to the situation. 

“Spain now has solid economic foundations to bear the financial turbulences provoked by Brexit. We are prepared,” Spain's acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy wrote on Twitter. 

The fear of uncertainty – worsened by Friday’s Brexit vote – could encourage Spanish voters to stick with what they know and vote for the conservative Popular Party (PP), who steered the country out of economic crisis after taking power in 2011.

The PP, as Rajoy has been arguing throughout the campaign, is a safe pair of hands. Perhaps Spaniards will be more likely to believe him after Friday’s political earthquake in the UK.

The PP won the most votes in December but failed to reach an absolute majority, resulting in months of fruitless negotiations and led to Sunday’s second general election.

The PP have campaigned hard on their economic record; they have helped Spain out of economic crisis but by imposing harsh austerity measures that were severely criticised by opposition parties.

The polls put the PP in first place, but again, without enough seats to form an absolute majority.

Left-wing newcomers Podemos are vying with the established traditional opposition, the Socialists (PSOE) for second place.

Podemos, who were allied with Greece’s Syriza, have campaigned for change. But they are, in many respects, an unknown on which – after Friday’s Brexit vote – many Spaniards may be unwilling to gamble. 

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Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.