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ENERGY

Thousands protest over soaring prices across Spain

Thousands of demonstrators hit the streets across Spain on Saturday in protest at the soaring cost of food, light and fuel, which have been exacerbated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

Thousands protest over soaring prices across Spain
Demonstrators wave Spanish flags during a nationwide protest called by Spanish far-right Vox party against price hikes, in front of the city hall in Madrid on March 19, 2022. (Photo by JAVIER SORIANO / AFP)

The rallies, which took place in Spain’s main cities, were called by the far-right Vox party which sought to tap into growing social discontent over the spiralling cost of living that has left many families struggling to pay their bills. 

Outside City Hall in Madrid, a crowd of several thousand people gathered, waving hundreds of Spanish flags and chanting angry slogans calling for the resignation of Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. 

“Sanchez, you’re rubbish, bring down our bills!” they shouted, between patriotic cries of “Long live Spain!” at a rally demanding government action to lower prices. 

“We have the worst possible government.. It’s not even a government, it’s a misery factory… which plunders and extorts workers through abusive taxes,” Vox leader Santiago Abascal told the rally to rousing cheers. 

“We will not leave the streets until this illegitimate government is expelled.” 

This government “is taking everything from us”, said Anabel, a 56-year-old demonstrator who didn’t give her surname.  

“They hike the light and gas prices and say it’s because of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, but that’s a lie. It was like this before,” she told AFP. 

“Light prices really affect (my family) because some of us work from home, and we can hardly put the heating on because the price of gas has almost doubled over the past six months.” 

‘Abandoning the people’

Many said government should be lowering taxes to help those struggling. 

“A country that raises prices in this way and doesn’t help its citizens by partially lowering taxes, is abandoning its people,” said Francisco, 53, who is unemployed and didn’t give his family name. 

“We have to force the government to act — or remove them, for Spain’s sake.”  Spain’s main right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP) has also demanded the government immediately lower taxes. 

“Taxes must be lowered at once! We can’t live with prices that are over 7.0 percent and growing,” said incoming PP leader Alberto Nunez Feijoo on Saturday, referring to Spain’s annual inflation, which jumped to 7.6 percent in February, its highest level in 35 years. 

Last year, energy prices soared by 72 percent in Spain, one of the highest increases within the European Union, and costs have surged even higher since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in a crisis that comes hot on the heels of the pandemic. 

On Monday, Spanish lorry drivers declared an open-ended strike over fuel prices which soon mushroomed into multiple roadblocks and protests, triggering supply chain problems. 

Rising prices have also prompted the UGT and the CCOO, Spain’s two biggest unions, to call a national strike on March 23. 

Government minister Felix Bolanos pledged the government would unveil its planned steps to reduce the cost of energy and fuel on March 29, accusing Vox of seeking to profit from a difficult situation. 

“The far-right is always stirring up problems and complicating things, no matter how difficult they are… They are not patriots they are troublemakers,” he told Spain’s public television. 

Sanchez is currently on a European tour to lobby for a common EU response to soaring energy prices. 

Madrid has for months urged its European partners to change the mechanism which couples electricity prices to the gas market, but its pleas have so far fallen on deaf ears, despite support from Paris. 

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SPANISH POLITICS

Spain’s PP is hot on the heels of PSOE, but will they need Vox to govern?

With the next general election slated for December 2023, recent polling shows Spain's Conservatives gaining ground on the Socialists. Spanish political correspondent Conor Faulkner looks at whether the PP will need far-right Vox to govern, as they now do at a regional level.

Spain's PP is hot on the heels of PSOE, but will they need Vox to govern?

Recent polling from Spain’s CIS (Centre for Sociological Research) shows the incumbent PSOE-led government with a slight, but shrinking, advantage over opposition parties.

On 30.3 percent, Pedro Sánchez’s PSOE would form the government if elections were held today, but that score is unimproved since April and, crucially, the centre-right party Popular Party is gaining, polling at 28.7 percent in May, with the difference between the two now only 1.6 percent.

In fact, PP have been on a steady rise since a turbulent start to 2022 in which former leader Pablo Casado was forced to resign after becoming entangled in intra-party infighting with PP’s regional President in Madrid, Isabel Ayuso.

Casado was replaced by Galician Alberto Núñez Feijóo, considered to be a more traditional centre-right candidate in the mould of Rajoy, who served as President of Galicia between 2009-2022.

PROFILE: Feijóo, steady hand on the tiller for Spain’s opposition party

Whereas Casado was often drawn into scandal and outflanked on cultural issues by far-right Vox, Feijóo is considered a more conventional conservative less prone to populism, and his short tenure as leader has put the PP back on the road to electoral respectability. 

PP were polling around 21 percent in February, amid the public infighting, but since then have steadily risen to the 28.7 percent that they would get if an election were held today, according to recent CIS numbers.

Yet, while many view Feijóo as more centrist than his predecessor, at the regional level far-right Vox have entered into a regional government coalition with PP in Castilla y León.

With important regional elections looming in Andalusia in June, and a general election further down the line in December 2023, it remains unclear if PP would be forced to rely on Vox to overcome PSOE’s thin polling advantage and form a national government.

Crucially, PP’s recent rise has not chipped away at Vox’s polling numbers. According to the CIS, Vox’s polling numbers grew from 14.8 percent in April to 16.6 percent in May, and with centrist Cuidadanos all but electorally wiped out, hovering around 2 or 3 percent all year, and the far-left, junior coalition partner Podemos falling further in the polls, to below 10 percent, the CIS estimate a higher probability of a right-wing PP-Vox (45 percent) than they do a PSOE-Podemos (39.9 percent) government.

With Vox now firmly established as Spain’s third political party and already on the offensive in Castilla y Leon’s regional government – including its Minister of Industry, Commerce and Employment in the assembly recently declaring war against “the virus of communism” – all eyes will be on the upcoming Andalusian regional elections to see if PP is again forced to rely on Vox members to form a government.

Vox’s anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, climate-sceptic populist policy programme is controversial, and the prospect of them as junior coalition partner in a national government would be an abrupt change from a government that wants to introduce menstrual leave and provide financial aid to renters.

Their entry into government at the regional level in Castilla y León was the first time they have officially entered into an executive, at any level, although PP have relied on Vox votes in regional assemblies in both Murcia and Andalusia in the past.

READ ALSO: Spanish cabinet approves paid ‘menstrual leave’

Whereas under Casado’s leadership PP were often forced rightward on cultural issues in an effort to stop Vox shaving away at their core electoral base, under Feijóo the future is less clear. Although Feijóo is considered more centrist than his predecessor, Vox’s steady rise since its emergence into Spanish politics since 2014 worries many on the left and centre, particularly as it has now officially entered into government at the regional level.

Yet, Feijóo seems keen to draw some distinction between the two parties. “The leaders of Vox cannot prove experience in management [of the country] because they do not have it, [and] it seems that they do not like the European Union… the State of Autonomies does not satisfy them either,” he said this week, but did recognise their electoral gains as “obvious.”

“The difference between Vox and the PP,” he continued, “is that a good part of Vox leaders came from the PP and left the common home.”

“We are very interested in those votes that those leaders have because they were votes that the PP had. And, as you will understand, we are here to win,” he added.

What exactly that means for the future political makeup of La Moncloa – whether Feijóo intends to win back those votes for PP or keep them in the ‘common home’ and work with Vox in coalition – remains unclear.

With the Sánchez-led coalition having had almost its entire term swallowed up by the global pandemic, then war in Europe, and now a cost of living and inflation crisis, it seems likely the left could lose the next general election and the Spanish right will return to power.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether that means a PP government or a PP-Vox coalition and the prospect of the far-right in government. All eyes will be on Andalusia in June to see how Feijóo pivots his party as it looks ahead to general elections next year. 

READ ALSO: What a Vox government could mean for foreigners in Spain

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