A general election will be held in Spain on Sunday. All opinion polls have favoured the ruling Socialists (PSOE). Voters have been impressed by their record on health, social policy and the environment, but are critical of the government over immigration, housing and terrorism.
The final opinion polls give the PSOE a lead of 2-4% over its main rival, the centre-right People's Party (PP). However, neither is projected to secure an overall majority. While evaluations of the Socialist election campaign are more positive, remarkably little movement of votes between the parties is evident. Overall, the polls point to a similar result to 2004.
For the Socialists, the polls are reasonably favourable taken in the context of the economic slowdown that has become a major concern for voters. Their ability to maintain a modest lead is attributable to a number of factors:
• While Spaniards are aware of the economic slowdown, they are not yet feeling its full effects in their pockets.
• The proportion of Spaniards describing the economic situation as 'bad' or 'very bad' in fact fell during the election campaign, after a more convincing performance by the Socialist finance minister in a televised debate with his PP 'counterpart'.
• Moreover, employers' organisations appear to prefer the re-election of a government led by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
However, the PP insists, with some justification, that the polls may be misleading:
• They tend to neglect the other parties in the contest. Zapatero is clearly more popular than PP leader Mariano Rajoy and there is an overall preference for the PSOE to govern, but this is partly due to the preferences of voters who support Basque and Catalan nationalist parties or the United Left (IU), most of whom will not vote Socialist.
• Up to 20% of voters, especially in the centre, remain undecided how they will vote.
• The PP vote is much firmer than the PSOE's, with a higher proportion of 2004 PP voters intending to do the same this time. Thus it is not crucial to the PP to attract undecided voters, so long as they can persuade them to abstain rather than vote Socialist.
• Although the PP commands little respect among other parties, it is receiving uncommon support from the Catholic Church, helping it to mobilise its own hard-core voters.
PSOE advantage. Nevertheless, the PSOE remains favourite to win:
• Voters are traditionally inclined to give incumbent parties a second term.
• While the polls do not indicate the intentions of first-time voters, these can be expected mostly to prefer the Socialists, lured by promises of improved access to employment and housing.
• Polls point to a reasonably strong turnout of 74-75%, suggesting the PP attempt to influence traditional working-class Socialists by claiming government failures over the economy, immigration and terrorism are failing. A high turnout is likely to benefit the Socialists.
• Polls show much stronger rejection of the PP: 40% say they will never vote for it, compared with 14% for the PSOE.
Smaller parties. Divisions within Basque and Catalan nationalist parties, particularly over their position towards the central government, have alienated voters. Moreover, the focus on the competition between Zapatero and Rajoy is likely to hurt Spain's only other nationwide force, the IU. Spain is not moving to a two-party system. The smaller parties will remain, but with a smaller share of the vote. This may simplify the winning party's task in negotiating a parliamentary majority after the election, but it is likely to be more difficult than in 2004.