“It has been the most difficult and painful legislature in all of regional history.” The president of Asturias, the socialist Adrián Barbón, says this when asked about his four years at the head of a minority government, supported by the IU and also, on occasions, by Ciudadanos or by Podemos. But the difficulty that Barbón alludes to is not that of parliamentary weakness, but that of an overwhelming context: the pandemic, the crisis of raw materials and the rise in prices added in Asturias to the need to face an inevitable ecological transition.
The end of the mining activity carried out since the beginning of the 19th century has forced an authentic revolution in the economic model in the Principality to try to position itself at the forefront of the new green and digital economy. The end of public aid came on December 31, 2018, imposed by Europe, and today there is only one small active mine left. The alternative has been to look for that new coal of the 21st century, that of research, development and innovation (R+D+i), which has generated in the last three years more than half of the 6,000 jobs created in Asturias in highly qualified sectors, according to the Ministry of Science, Innovation and University. The R&D centers of large companies, 12 in total in Asturias —two created before 2019 and ten created since then—, have a workforce of 400 people.
But to get to this point they have had to deal with complicated morlacos. The first, the negotiations of a minority socialist government in a divided Parliament. The Executive has approved the four budgets of the legislature and two social consultation agreements, and has managed to increase the number of participants in the Alliance for Infrastructures, a group created in 2017 with the presence of political parties, unions, economic and social organizations to demand the improvement of infrastructures in the community. The fiasco of the commuter trains —the 31 new convoys that Renfe ordered three years ago to circulate through the Cantabria and Asturias network and whose manufacture had to be discarded last February when it was discovered that they were not going to fit through the tunnels— had consequences of wide spectrum: not only did it take away the Secretary of State for Infrastructure and the president of Renfe, but it also showed the risk that the north of the peninsula could be left out of the great European rail corridors.
This infrastructure claim front has united Asturias, Galicia, Cantabria and the Basque Country for the first time under the umbrella of the Atlantic Macroregion, a kind of lobby created by those four territories to defend their interests before the EU in matters such as connections railways and energy. And the four communities have also made a common front to help combat the last great scourge of this legislature in Asturias: the forest fires, which during three weeks last March devastated more than 30,000 hectares, with more than 250 outbreaks that affected half of the municipalities.
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subscribeFrom the left, the presidents of Cantabria, Miguel Angel Revilla; Asturias, Adrian Barbon; Galicia, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, and the lehendakari, Iñigo Urkullu, chat before the meeting of regional presidents held in Salamanca on July 30, 2021. Juanjo Martín (EFE)
In between, the legislature has had in Asturias, as in other communities, a strong and clear voice of protest: that of the health sector. In February 2020, a survey by the Professional Medical Union (Simpa) carried out among 400 doctors (out of a total of 3,500 public health workers) showed that 81% were willing to go on strike. After the pandemic, this discontent was added to a spectacular increase in demand, the all-time high for waiting lists —although now they are below the national average, according to data from the Ministry of Health— and an exhausted workforce. At the end of 2022, the negotiations between the sector and the regional government concluded with an agreement for the reform of primary care and a second remuneration agreement.
Asturias has been gradually losing its population for years and is currently about to drop below the iconic figure of one million inhabitants, something that has focused a good part of the political discussion. To alleviate the trend, the Law on Urgent Administrative Measures and the Law on Environmental Quality and Public Employment have been approved, aimed at streamlining the operation of the Administration to facilitate the establishment of companies in the region. The Demographic Boost bill — pending development in the next legislature — has also gone ahead, which includes measures to encourage the return of emigrants by facilitating their work and residence. And there are other initiatives underway against demographic decline, such as birth aid, which reaches 2,200 euros per child in councils at risk of depopulation.
The community closes the legislature with a worsening of one of the structural problems of its labor market: the low activity rate, which in the first quarter of this year stood at 49.71%, the lowest in the country, according to the Active Population Survey (EPA). Unemployment, however, fell by 6,700 people (-10.49%), the highest drop in the country.
All the parties, except the PSOE and Vox, have experienced strong internal crises. The regional leadership of the PP, with the support of Alberto Núñez Feijóo, removed the previous candidate, Teresa Mallada, last November and appointed Diego Canga as head of the list. The parliamentary spokeswoman, Beatriz Polledo, summarizes the legislature as follows: “All the significant legislative promises announced by Barbón have been left in a drawer, to which is added the fiscal hell we are suffering, the unstoppable deterioration of health and social services, contempt for rural areas or Fevemocho [el fiasco de los trenes de cercanías]. The tandem Adrián Barbón-Pedro Sánchez had a catastrophic result, a ballast for Asturias”.
“Asturias is already on the limit of being a failed community. The pandemic has exposed the deepest weaknesses of the Principality”, agrees Manuel Iñarra, candidate for Ciudadanos, who the polls leave out of the regional Parliament. Also Foro Asturias, the political creation of former PP minister Francisco Álvarez-Cascos, broke up in 2022 with the expulsion of Pedro Leal, who continues as a regional deputy, and left Adrián Pumares in charge. He speaks of “misrule” in this mandate.
Closed the circle of crises Podemos Asturies. The election of a new regional leadership headed by the national deputy Sofía Castañón was the origin of a wound that burst at the end of 2022 with the victory in the primaries of an alternative list for the elections, that of Covadonga Tomé. This ended up starring last April in a confinement of several days at the party headquarters to criticize the treatment of the national leadership of her candidacy. In his opinion, “Adrián Barbón has been the paradigm of unfulfilled projects these four years.” “Public health is in a worse situation than on arrival; the promised infrastructures have not advanced, and the mandate ends without a housing policy, ”he points out.
The Asturian president defends himself by assuring that, “in the most difficult and painful legislature in history”, his Government “has managed to channel the future of Asturias towards a new green, digital and sustainable economic model”. “It is the community that leads the green revolution in Spain. The Principality today has more employment and less unemployment than in 2019, the best flight offer in the history of the airport, it has broken all its tourist records, multiplied foreign investment and reached the highest level in its exports. Those are the milestones of change,” he says.
View of the Aboño thermal power station, in Carreño, Asturias. Manu Brabo
From the social sphere, unions and employers find lights and shadows in the legislature. The president of the Asturian Business Federation (FADE), María Calvo, applauds the fact that some of the issues historically defended by Asturian business have been placed among the political priorities: “the need to improve connections or reduce excessive bureaucracy” . However, she emphasizes, the bulk of these projects has been pending for the next legislature. José Manuel Zapico (CC OO) lacks “more influence in the central government, especially in matters of industry and infrastructure”, and Javier Fernández Lanero (UGT) points out: “We have been able to agree on and implement far-reaching measures , aimed at improving the quality of life of citizens. But there are still issues to address.”
The summary is made by the general secretary of the Professional Medical Union (Simpa), José Antonio Vidal: “Before the pandemic, anger. During the pandemic, hell. After the pandemic: desolate landscape and rays of light”.
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