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Spain’s socialists have a problem with Sánchez – POLITICO

SEVILLE, Spain — Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez will not be on the ballot when Spaniards vote in local elections on Sunday — but he might as well be.

Everyone in the country sees the municipal elections this weekend as a dress rehearsal for the national elections, which are due to be held by the end of the year.

That’s bad news for socialist candidates like Antonio Muñoz, the mayor of Seville who just wants re-election on his own merit – but who could end up losing his job because Sánchez is so unpopular.

In an interview with POLITICO, Muñoz complained that the national framing of the election – and the conservative party’s criticism of Sánchez – had undermined the possibility of a real debate on how to improve the fourth largest city in Spain, the capital of the Andalusian region of the country.

“If you just want to make noise and have a debate on national politics: run for parliament, not for the town hall of Seville,” Muñoz said. “I have stuck to my slogan in these elections – Sevilla and only Sevilla – and I think that’s what voters want to hear.”

In any ordinary election season, Muñoz could be right.

The 63-year-old, openly gay economist is an exceptionally popular mayor of Seville, a city that once had a reputation for being introverted and socially conservative.

Elected to the city council in 2011, Muñoz has worked to redefine the city’s identity and reinforce the idea that there is more to bullfights, religious processions and flamenco, while being careful not to alienate traditionalists. of Seville.

As a member of the city council in charge of the powerful portfolios of urban planning, tourism and culture, he bet on a more alternative and dynamic vision of Seville – by promoting electronic music and independent film festivals; and lobbying to steal major events like the Goyas, Spain’s version of the Oscars, away from Madrid.

It was under Muñoz’ watch that Game of Thrones came to town, when the dragon-filled extravaganza used the lush Alcázar Palace as a stand-in for the kingdom of Dorne. The producers of Netflix’s The Crown have been there too, using the lavish Alfonso XIII Hotel as a double for Beverly Hills and filming Mohamed Al-Fayed’s Egyptian wedding at the lavish Casa de Pilatos estate in Seville.

At the same time that he showed the city center – famous for its narrow, winding streets, whitewashed houses, interior gardens and Moorish architecture – he also promoted the new neighborhoods of Seville. These include the high-tech Cartuja Science and Technology Park, where the European Commission recently inaugurated the headquarters of its new European Center for Algorithmic Transparency.

He is also an enthusiastic promoter of the eclectic Fibes Conference Center, located in the popular neighborhood of Sevilla Este, which will host the 2023 Latin Grammys this year, the first to be held outside the United States.

“During the next term, we will do even more to consolidate this city as a Spanish and European point of reference for culture, the green economy and the digital transition,” Muñoz said. He became mayor early last year when his predecessor resigned to stand in regional elections.

While shaping a more modern image of Seville, Muñoz was careful not to overlook the city’s classical cultural scene.

He may not be a member of any religious brotherhood, but he has no problem join the religious processions during Holy Week. He may not be a bullfighting enthusiast, but he’s happy to socialize with celebrities bullfighters. And although he may not have a passion for flamenco, he is a almost omnipresent strength at the city’s annual April Fair, where smartly dressed men spend a week dancing with women in long, ruffled polka-dot dresses while drinking pitchers of rebujitothe Andalusian signature cocktail.

“You can like these events more or less… but they are part of our history, our way of life,” Muñoz said.

The skill with which Muñoz navigated the line played well among sevillians, especially those who work in the hospitality industry and have been delighted to see the number of tourists to the city soar. Some 6.5 million overnight stays were recorded last year.

“I’ve always been proud of my city, but right now I feel Seville is on a new level as a destination, as a brand,” said restaurant owner Emilio Gimeno. “I think it has a lot to do with the mayor because he’s always promoting the city, he never stops.”

“I like that he’s a normal guy who lives in the city and doesn’t drive around in an official vehicle or surrounded by bodyguards,” he added. “If you’re opening a new bar, he’s the kind of person who will make time in his schedule to show up at the grand opening, the kind who wants things to go well for you.”

Spain's socialists have a problem with Sánchez – POLITICO

Sanchez’s problem

The problem for Muñoz is that when Sevillians at the polls, they make their choice based not only on his performance, but on the reputation of his party.

“Polls suggest that three out of four Spaniards intend to base their vote on local issues, but a quarter admit their vote will depend on national issues,” said Pablo Simón, a political scientist at Carlos III University in Madrid. “It’s problematic for some mayors because Sánchez is such a polarizing figure.”

Local elections will take place months before Sánchez’s fragile left-wing coalition government – the first in Spain’s history – ends its four-year term in December.

Despite the devastating impact of the COVID crisis and the economic impact of the war in Ukraine, from the outside, Sánchez’s administration appears to have weathered the storm well.

Spain’s gross domestic product grew at a rate above the EU average and unemployment fell to levels not seen since 2008.

Residents of the country pay some of the lowest electricity prices in Europe, thanks to the Iberian Exception energy price cap. The European Commission has praised Spain for effectively managing its share of the bloc’s pandemic recovery money.

And yet, in Spain, the perception of the government is negative and all the parties of the ruling coalition have suffered a sharp drop in the polls. Since May last year, Sánchez’s Socialists have trailed the country’s conservative People’s Party, which currently leads by 7 percentage points.

Simón, the political scientist, said some Spaniards were suspicious of Sánchez for forming a coalition government with far-left parties with whom he said he would never govern. Not to mention that, like most political leaders, the Prime Minister’s prestige has taken a hit during the pandemic.

“The government’s policies – the higher minimum wage, the basic income, the country’s role in Europe – are widely popular,” Simón said. “But on a personal level, he’s not.”

Juan Espadas, Muñoz’s predecessor as Seville mayor and current leader of the Andalusian Socialists, admitted the prime minister’s unpopularity had become a factor in local elections.

“The right realized they couldn’t challenge him on his politics, so now what they’re trying to do is discredit him on a personal level,” he said, adding that the Popular Party had focused on portraying Sánchez as “an egoist” willing to do anything to retain power.

“Their only goal is to make people not vote because they don’t like the person behind the party,” he said.

The ghost of ETA

As well as invoking the unpopular prime minister, Spain’s conservatives reminded voters of the coalition government’s cordial relationship with pro-independence parties in the national parliament.

When the Basque independence party EH Bildu registered 44 former members of the terrorist group ETA on its official lists for local elections earlier this month, the People’s Party took up the issue and made it a major topic of discussion in its countryside in cities. Across the country.

Spain's socialists have a problem with Sánchez – POLITICO
Muñoz worked to redefine the identity of Seville and reinforce the idea that there is more than bullfights, religious processions and flamenco | Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images

In Seville, José Luis Sanz, the conservative mayoral candidate, rallied supporters by saying his neighbors “couldn’t understand how Muñoz’s socialists surrendered to the heirs of ETA”.

Like other socialist candidates, Muñoz denounced this line of attack, pointing out its irrelevance in a campaign that should be about the threat posed by housing insecurity or extreme heat — not a terrorist group that has ceased to exist more than ten years ago.

“I think what [Popular Party] fact is extremely disrespectful to voters,” he said. “Instead of talking about what the poorer neighborhoods of this city need, what we can do to promote culture, how we should manage tourism, they want to talk about a party that doesn’t is not in contention in Seville.”

But what politicians want to talk about and what voters hear rarely seem to be the same thing.

In the bourgeois district of Los Remedios, María Camacho Rojas, 83, followed the campaign and decided not to give her vote to the candidate for mayor of a party led by Sánchez, a politician she considers ” a compulsive liar.”

“[Sánchez] does business with ETA, he doesn’t care about Spain, and I, like most Spaniards, worry about the state in which he will leave our country,” she said. .

She added that she would vote for Muñoz in a heartbeat if he belonged to another party. “I love the mayor, I love everything he does for the city, how much he cares about Sevilla,” she said. “I will not vote against him but I will not vote for him: I will vote blank on Sunday.”

In Seville, the latest polls predict a technical tie, with Muñoz’s Socialists winning 12 or 13 city council seats and the People’s Party 12. That would leave the two traditional parties dependent on support from more extreme elements, the far right. The Vox party on one side and a range of left-wing groups on the other – these two ideological blocs also being almost evenly matched.

Whatever the outcome, the fallout is unlikely to remain contained within the city limits: Muñoz’s Sánchez problem could easily become Sánchez’s Seville problem.

Losing the city – the largest Socialist-controlled municipality – would be a blow to the prime minister just months before national elections.

“A single city will not decide a general election,” Simón said. “But it can make the outcome easier for some, and all the more difficult for others.”

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