MADRID (Reuters) - Catalan and Basque regional parties won more votes than ever before in Sunday’s Spanish parliamentary election, but their ability to wring funds out of the central government will be stifled by the conservative party’s control of parliament.
Spain’s central government is often at odds with the fiercely distinct Catalan and Basque regions and political tensions are bound to rise after the election bolstered parties that promote autonomy from the rest of the country.
Mariano Rajoy’s center-right People’s Party — opposed to more powers for autonomous regions — won an absolute majority in the lower house of parliament as Spaniards punished the outgoing Socialists over 21.5 percent unemployment, huge debt and for taking the country to the brink of a euro zone rescue.
That means the PP, unlike most Spanish governments before it, will not need to court the votes of Basque and Catalan parties to pass laws.
In the past those regions — already among Spain’s wealthiest — won financial concessions as a way to secure their support. But such deals, always opaque, were resented elsewhere in Spain where Catalan and Basque independence movements are regarded with suspicion.
“I promise to govern without sectarianism ... Nobody need be worried. My only enemies will be unemployment, excessive debt and economic stagnation,” Rajoy said in his victory speech, a clear wink to autonomous political movements.
The incoming government has a tricky political job on its hands if it wants to keep peace with regions after decades of mistrust.
The PP has its roots in old centralist Spain and the repression of Catalans and Basques under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco until his death in 1975. Some of the party’s most vociferous members have made statements perceived as anti-Catalan or anti-Basque.
Xavier Vidal-Folch, political commentator at newspaper El Pais, said that even with a huge national majority the PP was still only the third most voted-for party in Catalonia and the fourth in the Basque region.
He said the PP would have to make overtures to Catalans and Basque leaders or “live with a latent conflict which gets deeper and will worsen the bad mood on the streets.”
“Rajoy mustn’t forget that the crisis is unforgiving. (Former Greek PM) Papandreou only lasted two years and he won an absolute majority too.”
Something that could help keep the political peace is the fact that Spaniards everywhere are overwhelmingly more worried about the economy than they are about nationhood, said Carlos Barrera, politics professor at the Navarre University.
“But the strength of the victory of (left-wing) Amaiur must be taken into account,” he said.
Amaiur, a regrouping of former supporters of the violent Basque separatists ETA, won an astounding seven seats in parliament on Sunday, surpassing moderate Basque nationalists PNV in its ballot debut.
Weeks before the election ETA renounced its four-decade armed struggle to form a Basque homeland, an era of bombings and shootings that blighted the whole country. Amaiur still favors independence for the Basques.
The political climate in the Basque region is also different from the rest of Spain because its economy is relatively better off. Basque unemployment is only 12 percent compared with 21.5 percent in Spain as a whole.
Overspending in Spain’s 17 autonomous regions is at the center of investor doubts about the country’s ability to pay its debts.
But the Basque region is on target to reach its budget deficit target this year. Fitch’s credit ratings agency gives the autonomous region’s long term debt an “AA” rating, better than Spain’s own “AA-.”
Catalonia has a lower “A-“ rating and, although the regional government, run by the nationalist party Convergencia i Unio, is set to bring down the deficit dramatically this year, they will not reach targets. Unemployment is also closer to the national average at 19.4 percent.
CiU won Sunday’s vote in Catalonia by around 2.5 percentage points despite controversial cuts in health spending which have prompted street protests and a health workers’ strike.
Additional reporting By Jonathan Gleave; Editing by Angus MacSwan