Friday, February 22, 2008

Spanish General Election 2008....The Campaign Begins

It seems almost crazy to talk about the Spanish election campaign beginning now, when it seems like we have been in full campaign for months. Nevertheless, the official campaign period began at midnight last night; leaving us with just 16 days until the day of reflection that precedes election day itself on March 9th.

The election currently appears to be very tight between the governing PSOE and the Partido Popular (PP). At one point a few weeks ago it looked as if the gap in the opinion polls between the PSOE and the PP was widening slightly. If anything, the reverse has been the case as some of the most recent polls show the gap being as low as 1.5%. Although many analysts talk of the polls reflecting a stalemate or technical draw because of the margins of error, the reality is not quite that simple. There is still not a single poll that has put the PP in front of the PSOE, and the lead the PSOE has is occasionally greater than the 3% which is commonly assumed to be the margin of error. That said, there does seem to be a trend showing a slight increase in the PP’s support.

Other indicators included in the opinion polls tend to reinforce the idea of the PSOE being ahead, when it comes to evaluation of the party candidates then Prime Minister Zapatero consistently outscores PP leader Mariano Rajoy. On questions of competence for dealing with different issues, the PSOE does better in the majority of cases than the PP. The opinion poll scores we see on the front pages of the newspapers are heavily adjusted, the raw data on voting intentions shows a much bigger PSOE lead, but the results are then weighted to take into account factors such as likely abstention or those who tend to lie to opinion pollsters.

Analysts differ on whether the narrow gap the polls show is good for the government or not, some seem to think it will motivate abstention-prone PSOE voters to turn out as the threat of the PP returning to power becomes greater. It is seen as very bad news for Izquierda Unida (IU), the party to the left of the PSOE. The closer the gap between the two major parties the bigger the squeeze on the IU vote as some of their natural supporters switch to the PSOE in an attempt to prevent a PP victory. As if things weren’t complicated enough already, it is worth pointing out that the opinion polls in Spain have not been very accurate in predicting general election outcomes in the past. I am not just talking about the last election in 2004, where no one predicted what would happen after the train bombings. The polls have been wide of the mark in several elections, so surprises can never be completely ruled out.

Barring all major and unpredictable events, it is hard to see what will happen between now and election day to significantly change the current situation. The PP, having aggressively attacked to make the economy and factors such as immigration the focal points of the campaign, are probably going to be content with a relatively boring official campaign; they have consolidated and motivated their support and a higher rate of abstention tends to work in their favour. Hence the reported “gaffe” by Zapatero last week when he was recorded saying to a journalist that the government needed a bit of tension in the campaign to get their supporters out.

Huge attention will be devoted to the two televised debates which have been agreed between Zapatero and Rajoy after very protracted negotiations. At one point there was much speculation that the PP was seeking to avoid the debates as they insisted on only having them on the private channels of Telecinco or Antena 3. The PSOE offered five or six different alternatives and in the end the PP gave way and the independent television academy will organise the debates. This is the first election to see debates between the main contenders since 1993 when Felipe Gonzalez agreed to go head to head with José Maria Aznar. The debates will be held on the 25th February and the 3rd March, although the agreed format is so tightly controlled that the opportunities to score points are going to be few and far between. Last night saw a dreadfully tedious debate on the economy between the Finance Minister Pedro Solbes and his PP equivalent Manuel Pizarro. Majority opinion seems to think that Solbes edged it as Pizarro’s verbosity and lack of political skills undermined his case.

The campaign may become unbearable but the tension over the eventual outcome promises to make this election memorable. If the polls are correct, or even close to being correct, then Spain is not going to have a majority government come March 10th. In the past a winning party hitting over 40% of the popular vote could expect to have a parliamentary majority. The big difference this time could be that both major parties hit that figure. The post-election scenarios in such a situation ironically increase the power of the smaller parties – the possible post electoral alliances will I think be worth a blog post of their own.

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