Rajoy Takes Lead as Spain’s Protest Parties Wither

Spain’s ruling party seems to be winning back support now that the economy is improving.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has taken a clear lead over his left-wing rivals, an official poll released on Wednesday showed, but could still struggle to defend his majority in an election later this year.

A survey by the state-run Sociological Investigation Center put Rajoy’s People’s Party at 28 percent support. That is down from 45 percent in the last election but it confirms an upward trend since the conservatives hit a 22 percent low in one poll in April.

It would still leave the right without a majority. An alliance with the liberal Ciudadanos may be necessary but they oppose coalition government.

The Ciudadanos have also been losing support. Down from almost 20 percent in April, they would now get 16 percent of the votes.

Other surveys show voters prefer an alliance between the Ciudadanos and the opposition Socialists but the two would almost certainly fall short of a majority.

The Socialists have seldom polled ahead of the Rajoy’s party since they lost power in 2011 and get only 25 percent support in Wednesday’s poll.

They would probably have to do a deal with the far-left Podemos party to get back in government. But it is down in the polls, too. From 30 percent earlier this year — when some polls suggested it could become Spain’s biggest party — the anti-establishment and anti-euro movement would now only get 15 percent of the votes.

The failure of Greece’s Syriza party to end austerity there appears to have depressed Podemos‘ support.

In local elections in May, Spaniards split their vote four ways. The People’s Party and Socialists, which have alternated in power since democracy was restored in 1975, barely got 50 percent support together. Corruption scandals involving leading figures in the ruling party took their toll as did the slow pace of the eurozone’s fourth largest economy’s recovery.

Recent months have seen the economy rebound. Cheap oil prices and an expansionary monetary policy by the European Central Bank helped raise industrial output and exports. Employers and unions agreed to raise wages 1 percent this year. Home sales are up and unemployment — which reached a 27 percent high in 2013 — is slowly coming down.

But youth unemployment, while also on a downward trajectory, is still alarmingly high. Nearly one out of two Spaniards under the age of 26 is out of work.

Podemos is not coincidentally most popular with young voters.

Hampering a faster jobs recovery is Spain’s dual labor market which makes workers on fixed- and long-term contracts difficult to fire while giving young workers and those on temporary contracts almost no benefits and protection.

This divide between often older and inflexible workers and youngsters who struggle to find their first job exists in other European countries, like France and Italy, as well and Rajoy’s government has done little to mend it.

Adding further uncertainty to the general election, which has yet to be called, are regional elections in Catalonia next month. Separatist parties there have said they will read the outcome as a referendum on independence. Ciudadanos, originally a Catalan party, is against seceding from Spain. Should the separatists win the election, the liberals could be discredited nationally. But should they fail to win a majority — which looks likely — the Ciudadanos may be bolstered.