SEVILLE, Spain — Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez won’t be on the ballot when Spaniards vote in local elections Sunday — but he might as well be.
Everyone in the country sees this weekend’s municipal votes as a dress rehearsal for the national election, which has 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 to be reelected on his own merit — but may end up losing his post because Sánchez is so unpopular.
In an interview with POLITICO, Muñoz complained that the national framing of the election — and the conservative party’s critiques of Sánchez — had undermined the possibility of real debate over how to improve Spain’s fourth-largest city, the capital of the country’s Andalusia region.
“If you want to just generate noise and have a debate about national politics: run for parliament, not mayor of Seville,” Muñoz said. “Me, I’ve stayed faithful to my slogan in these elections — Seville and only Seville — and I think that’s what voters want to hear about.”
In any ordinary election season, Muñoz might be right.
The openly gay, 63-year-old economist is an unusually popular mayor in Seville, a city that once had a reputation for being inward-looking 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’s more to it than bullfights, religious processions and flamenco — while being careful not to alienate Seville’s traditionalists.
As the city council member in charge of the powerful urbanism, tourism and culture portfolios, he bet on a more alternative, vibrant vision of Seville — promoting electronic music and indie film festivals; and lobbying to steal major events like the Goyas, Spain’s version of the Oscars, away from Madrid.
It was under Muñoz’s watch that Game of Thrones came to town, when the dragon-packed extravaganza used the lush Alcázar palace as a stand-in for the kingdom of Dorne. The producers of Netflix’s The Crown also passed through, using the palatial Alfonso XIII Hotel as a double for Beverly Hills and filming Mohamed Al-Fayed’s Egyptian wedding in Seville’s sumptuous Casa de Pilatos estate.
At the same time that he’s shown off the city center — famed for its narrow, winding streets, whitewashed homes, interior gardens and Moorish architecture — he’s also promoted newer parts of Seville. These include the high-tech Cartuja Science and Technology Park, where the European Commission recently inaugurated the headquarters of its new European Centre for Algorithmic Transparency.
He’s also an enthusiastic booster of the eclectic Fibes Conference Center, located in the working-class Sevilla Este district, which this year will host the 2023 Latin Grammys, the first-ever to be held outside the United States.
“During the next term, we’ll be doing even more to consolidate this city as a Spanish and European reference point for culture, the green economy and the digital transition,” said Muñoz. He became mayor early last year when his predecessor stepped down to run for office at the regional level.
While crafting a more modern image of Seville, Muñoz has been careful not to neglect the city’s classic cultural scene.
He may not be a member of any religious brotherhood, but he has no problem joining religious processions during Holy Week. He may not be a bullfighting enthusiast, but he’s happy to socialize with famous toreros. And while he may not have a passion for flamenco, he’s an almost omnipresent force at the city’s annual April Fair, where smartly dressed men spend a week dancing with women in long, ruffled, polka-dot dresses while downing pitchers of rebujito, the signature Andalusian cocktail.
“You can like those events more, or less … but they’re a part of our history, our way of life,” said Muñoz.
The skill with which Muñoz has walked the line has played well among sevillanos, especially those who work in the hospitality sector and have been delighted to see the number of tourists in the city boom. Some 6.5 million overnight stays were registered last year.
“I’ve always been proud of my city, but right now I feel that Seville is at a new level as a destination, as a brand,” said restaurant owner Emilio Gimeno. “I think a lot of that has 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 move around in an official vehicle or surrounded by bodyguards,” he added. “If you’re opening up a new bar, he’s the sort of person who will make time in his schedule to show up at the inauguration, the sort that wants things to work out and go well for you.”
The Sánchez problem
The trouble for Muñoz is that when Sevillanos head to the polls, they’re be making their choice based not just on his performance — but on the reputation of his party.
“The polls suggest that three out of four Spaniards intend to base their vote on local matters, but a quarter admit their vote will depend on national issues,” said Pablo Simón, a political scientist at Madrid’s Carlos III university. “That’s problematic for some mayors because Sánchez is such a polarizing figure.”
The local election will take place just months before Sánchez’s fragile left-wing coalition government — the first in Spain’s history — is set to complete 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 has been growing at a rate above the EU average, and unemployment has dropped to levels not seen since 2008.
The country’s residents pay some of the lowest power prices in Europe, thanks to the Iberian Exception energy price cap. The European Commission has applauded Spain for efficient handling of its share of the bloc’s pandemic recovery cash.
And yet, within Spain, perception of the government is negative, and all of the parties in the ruling coalition have suffered a steep drop in the polls. Since May of last year, Sánchez’s Socialists have trailed behind the country’s conservative Popular Party, which is currently 7 percentage points ahead.
Simón, the political scientist, said that some Spaniards distrust Sánchez for having entered into a coalition government with far-left parties with which he said he’d never govern. Not to mention that, like most political leaders, the prime minister’s prestige took a hit during the pandemic.
“The government’s policies — the higher minimum wage, the basic income, the country’s role in Europe — are broadly popular,” Simón said. “But at a personal level, he isn’t.”
Juan Espadas, Muñoz’s predecessor in Seville’s city hall and current leader of the Andalusian Socialists, admitted that the prime minister’s unpopularity had become a factor in the local elections.
“The right has realized that they can’t challenge him on his politics, so now what they’re trying to do is to discredit him on a personal level,” he said, adding that the Popular Party had focused on casting Sánchez as “an egoist” willing to do anything to hold on to power.
“Their only goal is to make it so that people won’t go vote because they don’t like the person behind the party,” he said.
The ghost of ETA
In addition to invoking the unpopular prime minister, the Spanish conservatives have been reminding voters of the coalition government’s cordial relations with pro-independence parties in the national parliament.
When the Basuqe pro-independence party EH Bildu included 44 former members of the terrorist group ETA in its official lists for the local elections earlier this month, the Popular Party seized on the issue and turned it into a major talking point in its campaign in cities across the country.
In Seville, José Luis Sanz, the conservative candidate for mayor, rallied supporters by declaring that his neighbors “could not understand how Muñoz’s Socialists have surrendered to the heirs of ETA.”
Like other Socialist candidates, Muñoz has denounced this line of attack, stressing its irrelevance in a campaign that should be about the threat posed by housing insecurity or extreme heat — not a terrorist group that ceased to exist more than a decade ago.
“I think what the [Popular Party] is doing is enormously disrespectful toward voters,” he said. “Instead of talking about what’s needed in this city’s poorest neighborhoods, about what we can do to promote culture, about how we should manage tourism, they want to talk about a party that isn’t up for election in Seville.”
But what politicians want to talk about and what voters are hearing seem to rarely be the same thing.
In the middle-class Los Remedios district, 83-year-old María Camacho Rojas has followed the campaign and decided she won’t give her vote to the mayoral candidate of a party led by Sánchez, a politician she believes to be “a compulsive liar.”
“[Sánchez] does deals with ETA, he doesn’t care about Spain, and I — like most Spaniards — am worried about the state in which he’s going to leave our country,” she said.
She added she’d vote for Muñoz in a heartbeat if he belonged to another party. “I like the mayor, I like how much he does for the city, how much he cares about Seville,” she said. “I’m not going to vote against him but I won’t vote for him: I’ll cast a blank ballot on Sunday.”
In Seville, the latest polls predict a technical tie, with Muñoz’s Socialists winning 12 or 13 seats in the city council and the Popular Party taking 12. That would leave the two mainstream parties dependent on the support of more extreme elements, the far-right Vox party on one side and array of left-wing groups on the other — with those two ideological blocs also nearly tied.
Whatever the outcome, the fallout is not likely to remain contained within city limits: Muñoz’s Sánchez problem could easily become Sánchez’s Seville problem.
Losing the city — the largest municipality controlled by the Socialists — would be a severe blow for the prime minister just months ahead of the national elections.
“One city won’t decide a general election,” said Simón. “But it can make the outcome easier for some, and all the more difficult for others.”