The Spanish local and regional elections of 24 May 2015

Posted by ap507 at May 27, 2015 09:50 AM |
Professor Laura Morales and Dr Luis Ramiro discuss important signs of turbulence in the Spanish party system
The Spanish local and regional elections of 24 May 2015

Logos for Ciudadanos and Podemos

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On 24 May, 35,755,195 Spaniards were called to the voting booths to choose 67,611 local councillors and 8,093 mayors in municipalities across Spain as well as their regional MPs in 13 regions - all Spanish regions but Andalusia, Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia that have their elections in a different date - and two autonomous-cities of Ceuta and Melilla.

Although local and regional elections are considered less important than national legislative elections - what political scientists call second order elections - they are followed with great interest by Spanish media, politicians, pundits and citizens not only because they may indicate the voting trend in subsequent national elections, but also due to the high degree of decentralization and relevance of the powers held by regional and local governments.

The 2015 local and regional elections have been full of excitement and uncertainty. After seven years of economic crisis and austerity policies, the Spanish party system is showing important signs of turbulence. Incumbents and mainstream parties are suffering, as in many other European countries, the insurgence of smaller and challenger parties.

After the PSOE defeat and PP victory in the 2011 general elections, the 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections shook the Spanish party system, with two new entrants in the nation-wide competition: Podemos - a political party that emerged as a spin-off of the Indignados/15M social movement, rallied by radical left savy political science academics  - and Ciudadanos, a party that emerged in Catalonia in 2006 to represent a niche of anti-separatist and centre-right voters transformed now into a nation-wide party competing with the PP for the conservative electorate with an anti-corruption and fresh-looking branding and leadership.

Pablo Iglesias Turrión, leader and founder of Podemos
In the EP elections, Podemos obtained 1,253,837 votes (8% of the valid votes) and Ciudadanos 497,146 (3.2%). Podemos’ results in the EP election produced shock waves across the Spanish party system, affecting the Socialist PSOE and the radical-left IU electoral support. Podemos was only 2 percentage points behind the latter. The results by Ciudadanos dwarf in comparison, but were a considerable achievement for a party that was only rooted in Catalonia, and there were no precedents in Spain for a regional party going national.

In the year between the 2014 EP elections and the 2015 local and regional elections, Ciudadanos has been able to appeal to leaders, activists and voters of the smaller centrist party UPyD, and has become a strong competitor for right-wing voters with the incumbent PP; and Podemos has overcome IU and has grown to reach levels close to those of PSOE and PP.

After the 2014 EP elections, the 2015 local and regional elections were the first across the whole country where these two new parties would be fully tested. In the run-up to the elections, multiple polling companies had predicted a huge surge in support for Ciudadanos and Podemos, with an arrested trend for the latter in recent months.

Podemos aimed at positioning itself as a major player within its strategy of winning national office in the November 2015 general elections. To this aim, Podemos decided not to field local councillor candidates with their own brand. Doing this, Podemos’ leadership opted for a centrally-controlled pattern of development in order to protect the party image from a proliferation of Podemos local lists that could backfire on the party image, and decided to focus the largest part of their efforts and campaigning to regional elections run under the Podemos brand.

At the end, at the local level, they had an ambiguous policy of sometimes supporting broad left-wing lists (e.g. Barcelona, Madrid, Zaragoza, A Coruña, Santiago de Compostela) - sometimes accepting the traditional electoral coalition among parties as a formula (as in Barcelona), sometimes imposing a different procedural solution (as in Madrid) - and sometimes running separate lists with ‘mock’ brand names (as in Cádiz or Murcia) legitimized by the central leadership in some places but not in others (as in Seville). By contrast, Ciudadanos ran across the country in as many municipalities as they could (eventually 970) and in all regions with their own brand, and hugely investing their leader (Albert Rivera) in the campaigning efforts.

Eventually, the turnout rate for the local elections in 2015 (64.9%) has been very similar to that of the previous ones (2011, 66.2%), and not too far away from the average turnout rate in this type of elections since the first ones held in 1979. Despite a tense and polarized electoral campaign, with much at stake in many municipalities and regions, Spaniards did not turn out in greater numbers than in other such occasions. Yet, this figure masks some local particularities, with some big cities where the race was thought to be very close resulting in considerable increases in turnout (as in Barcelona, but also in some smaller provincial capitals as Cádiz). In any case, the turnout in the largest Spanish cities did not increase dramatically and there were some cases of significant decrease.

Table 1. Electoral turnout in the 10 largest cities
























Palma de Mallorca



Las Palmas de Gran Canaria






Source: Ministry of Interior

While turnout was not at unusual levels and shows a remarkable stability, these local and regional elections have been exceptional in many ways. It is true that the governing PP has been able to retain their place as the party with the most votes across the country in the local contests, with 27% of the votes they came ahead of the PSOE by 2 percentage points and nearly 500,000 votes.

Yet, the 2015 local results also confirm that the PP is at historic lows since 1995, that the PSOE (25%) does not fully halt its electoral decline (being particularly weak in the largest cities) and, most importantly, that the sum of the two largest mainstream parties’ share of the vote is in its lowest since the first democratic local elections in 1979.

Figure 1. Turnout (%) and vote for the two largest parties (%) in local elections, 1979-2015

Source: Ministry of Interior

Ciudadanos has won 6.5% of the vote, and has now 1,527 local councillors (and is present in most of the regional parliaments for which the party ran). The radical left IU has suffered a drastic defeat at the regional level, but at the local one its results have been similar to those of the previous local elections in terms of councillors. Nevertheless, for IU, in terms of votes the comparison is complex given that they participated in many broad-coalition local lists - in some of them running with Podemos and other left-wing parties, including some of the lists who obtained better electoral results as the ones presented in Barcelona, Zaragoza and some Galician cities.

Podemos’ local results are difficult to analyse given that the party only endorsed some local lists despite many Podemos activists having promoted their own ones. The successes of the local lists in Barcelona, Santiago, A Coruña and Zaragoza, for example, cannot be directly assigned to Podemos because they were common lists with the rest of the left-wing parties in those cities (IU, Equo, Anova, ICV, among others). The success of the left-wing common list in Madrid is also of difficult attribution, given that the mayoral candidate is, notoriously, not a Podemos member and the list included Greens from Equo, independents, and IU and former-IU members.

However, the results of the regional elections provide a complex but clearer image of the balance among the main nation-wide parties. Considering the average vote of the 13 regions where elections took place, the PP is the largest party with 29.2% of the vote, followed by the PSOE with 24.1%. Well behind is Podemos with 13.5% of the vote - still, a remarkable figure for a party only founded in January 2014, but too low if the party aimed, as their founders repeatedly declare, to win the next general elections (scheduled for November 2015) - Ciudadanos (8.4%) and, finally, IU (4.2%), perhaps and paradoxically the clearest loser (with the almost vanished centrist UPyD) of the post-2008 electoral upheavals.

The PP is set to lose local and regional power, the PSOE has gained ground despite an un-arrested decline, and broad left-wing lists may gain office in some of the largest cities. However, despite their increasing weakness, PP and PSOE still are the two larges parties and the main challenger, Podemos, did not achieve its stated goals yet: overtaking the PSOE as the clear alternative to the governing PP for the November national elections.

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