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This year has seen the news dominated by general elections. While candidates from both US parties have battled for the presidential nomination, in Kenya, months of political deadlock and large-scale daily murders resulted from what had been seen as a chance to show other African countries how democracy is done. And this month the focus falls on Spain, as citizens vote in elections inevitably touched by memories of March 2004.
Eleven parties currently hold seats in the Spanish congress, but this contest is essentially between the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), led by current Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and the right-wing Partido Popular (PP), whose presidential hopeful is Mariano Rajoy. Before the last general election in 2004, the PP held power with an absolute majority under two-term president, José María Aznar. However, polls during the campaign showed the PSOE closing the gap on their opponents. On March 11th, three days before the vote, the train bombings took place in Madrid. The government’s immediate, insistent and erroneous placing of blame for the attacks on Basque terrorists is regarded by many as the push that gave victory to the PSOE, either through motivating traditional left-wing abstainers to vote, or persuading PP (and other party) voters to opt for the PSOE instead.
This time, polls are forecasting a close fight; a January study by Sigma-Dos put the incumbents at 41.9 percent and the PP at 39.4 percent. Strikingly, however, in a poll by Instituto Opina 58 percent of those asked thought Zapatero would return for another term, with only 22 percent convinced Rajoy would take over.
Terrorism, unemployment and housing are key issues for the electorate, but it is on the economy that the PSOE and PP have focused. Headline-grabbing tax cuts have been promised by both Zapatero and Rajoy. The former announced a deduction of €400 from the annual income tax of millions of workers and pensioners, to be approved in his government’s first meeting following the election, providing they win. Rajoy has a different strategy, promising a change to the existing IRPF (income tax) bands, which would result in many people getting a reduction in their tax.
While each side tries to effectively buy the electorate, it is unlikely that Catalan voters will be swayed by the financial incentives on offer. Indeed, a recent poll in the Catalan daily Avui, saw 70 percent of respondents say that the economy would not affect their vote. Rather, while the PP has never been popular here, the PSOE has also fallen heavily out of favour recently thanks to the problems with local infrastructure, the late arrival of the AVE and broken promises, including from Zapatero himself, regarding the new Catalan Estatut.
The obtuseness of politicians, though, has seen members of both the PP (Manuel Pizarro, who was head of electricity company FECSA when Barcelona experienced a three-day blackout last year) and the PSOE (Magdalena Alvarez, in charge of public works and bringing the AVE here) proclaiming that no-one has done more for Catalunya than they have, much to the public’s outrage. Sensing an opportunity, Catalan party Convergencia i Unió has called for voters to support it instead of abstaining, a real risk in a region where electoral participation has dropped dramatically in recent years.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a Spanish election without a new procedural feature (last year’s council elections introduced rules concerning the gender balance of parties’ candidates). This time, the changes affect blind people, who for the first time in Spanish democracy will be able to vote on their own. Until now, the 63,000 blind voters here had to be accompanied by a sighted person to help them vote, thereby preventing them from having a secret ballot. However, this year, papers will be available at the polling station for them to be able to vote in private. The papers will have information in braille alongside ordinary printed ballot papers, necessary to make sure the counters correctly register the vote.