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THE EURO ZONE

Take a (back) seat

The date for Spain's second early general election in five years is now set for April 28th. Despite uncertainty surrounding the result, we can be sure of a couple of things: firstly, that the state of the Spanish economy won't be in the forefront of voters' minds when they head to the polls; and secondly, that the fraught issue of Catalonia - the political problem that seems immune to resolution - will be.

During Pedro Sánchez's term as prime minister, Spain's economy has rarely been the red-hot topic, whether in parliamentary sessions, media coverage or bar-room discussions. This is partly because it's doing fairly well, at least at the macroeconomic level: the country's GDP expansion has consistently beat the eurozone average since Spain emerged from recession in 2014.

One consequence of the economy being bumped off the top spot is that Sánchez's fiscal policies - as set out in the Budget That Never Was - have not received the attention that they should have done.

Although costly (PP leader Pablo Casado called the spending plan "suicidal"), a lot of the PSOE leader's economic proposals were aimed at improving the prosperity of Spanish households - a welcome change after years of Conservative and EU-imposed austerity. His inability to get the 2019 budget through parliament, though, was precisely the failure that triggered an early election.

But it's not just because the Spanish economy is relatively healthy that voters' thoughts are likely to be elsewhere on April 28th. Instead, the issue of Catalan independence, as far from any kind of solution now as it was in October 2017, is likely to determine where on the ballot paper the cross is etched.

Vox, for example, can attribute their success in Andalucía last December largely to their hard line on Catalan secession. Fiercely opposed to the region's attempts to divorce the rest of Spain, the far-right party took the southerly region from the Socialists, who had controlled it for decades. The latest opinion polls agree that Vox will win seats in the national parliament on April 28th, but disagree on how many, with forecasts ranging from 16 to 46.

Opinion polls also put Sánchez's PSOE as number one come the end of April, but far short of a majority in the 350-seat congress. His party employs a different approach to dealing with Catalan secessionists from that favoured by Vox (and the PP and Ciudadanos) - namely, to try and establish a dialogue with them and, by doing so, achieve a result that works for both Madrid and Barcelona.

On April 28th, we'll see which of the two ways of dealing with Catalan separatists wins out. The economy, in the meantime, will take a back seat.