Spain Is Booming and Now Voters Turn Against the Prime Minister

(Bloomberg) -- Mariano Rajoy’s gravity-defying run is at risk from the strange logic of Spanish politics.

The prime minister went into the 2015 election with unemployment over 20 percent after years of punishing austerity and a raft of corruption allegations hanging over him and his party. Yet Rajoy denied the accusations and somehow clung on to power.

Now the economy is booming, graft revelations are largely in the past, and voters are abandoning Rajoy like never before. Polls suggest his governing People’s Party could suffer its worst election result on record unless its leader can revive his fortunes before his term ends in 2020. Its traditional firewall of retirees and conservatives is starting to crack.

Spain Is Booming and Now Voters Turn Against the Prime Minister

“Rajoy has defied political logic for several years, but voters aren’t prepared to give him any more leeway,” said David Pac Salas, a sociology professor at the University of Zaragoza.

Weekly demonstrations by seniors protesting a stingy increase in state pensions might seem anecdotal when Rajoy has seen off the threat of Catalonia seceding and the jobless rate is at its lowest in almost decade. But the anger among his core voters hints at a deeper problem: The 63-year-old prime minister may be losing his touch.

Spain Is Booming and Now Voters Turn Against the Prime Minister

Though he often cuts an awkward figure on the international stage, with few foreign language skills and no professional experience outside of his home country, Rajoy has shown an uncanny knack for tapping into the Spanish psyche.

During the back-to-back election campaigns of 2015 and 2016, critics said the prime minister was out of date as he slogged round rural backwaters visiting retirement homes and cutting the ribbon on new transport links. On the eve of the June 2016 vote, pollsters projected less than 29 percent for the PP. It got 33 percent and Rajoy’s grip on the government was reinforced.

But since the Catalan crisis blew up last fall, the prime minister has been on the back foot.

Rajoy Dithers

First he was outflanked by calls from his emerging rival Ciudadanos to crack down on the rebel region. And since seizing control in October, he’s been embarrassed by failed attempts to extradite separatist leaders who fled Spanish justice. Catalan lawmakers will hold a press conference in Berlin Wednesday, flaunting a German court’s refusal to hand over the ousted regional president Carles Puigdemont.

Rajoy also missed the growing rage of the pensioners after he handed them a 0.25 percent raise while boasting of the economic resurgence.

And he’s dithered as the regional president of Madrid, Cristina Cifuentes, tried to ride out media reports that she was awarded a masters degree without attending class or submitting the thesis. Cifuentes, previously a rising star in his party, has failed to halt the allegations with her denials and refuses to step aside, putting PP cronyism back on the front pages day after day.

The liberals of Ciudadanos, who last year forced Rajoy to replace the head of the southern region of Murcia over corruption allegations, have given the prime minister a month-end ultimatum to persuade Cifuentes to step aside or they’ll withdraw support for the PP’s minority administration.

New Rival

Ciudadanos and its youthful leadership are at the heart of Rajoy’s problems.

The party emerged as a national force in 2015 offering voters a market-friendly alternative to the center-right PP for the first time. The Catalan crisis gave it wings.

As Rajoy tried to triangulate his response to the Catalans to avoid a potential backlash, Ciudadanos demanded shock and awe from the government lawyers, winning plaudits from those opposed to Catalan independence in the region and across the rest of Spain. In December’s regional election Ciudadanos placed first while the PP was all but wiped out.

If national elections were held now, Ciudadanos would win with 26 percent of the vote with the PP on 24 percent, its worst ever performance, according polling analysis by Madrid-based political-risk adviser Quantio.

Rajoy has a year to turn things around before the jobs of thousands of PP officials are on the line in local, regional and European elections next May. If Rajoy’s frontline troops see that their leader can’t even protect their livelihoods, then setbacks risk turning into a rout.

“The winds of change are pretty strong just now,” said Narciso Michavila, chairman of pollster GAD3 and occasional adviser to Rajoy’s party. “Voters are seeking a way out.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.