Grassroot parties make strong gains as ruling party fails to keep absolute majority in most regions, exit polls show.
Madrid, Spain – It was impossible to avoid a political conversation for more than five minutes on the streets of Madrid on Saturday, a day before the Spanish legislative elections. “This time it is mandatory to vote,” insisted a man in his 30s sitting at a cafe with a group of seven friends.
“Now it will be more difficult for them to steal,” echoed another voice from a terrace where two couples sat having a beer. “…At least they will support the culture…,” said a father carrying his baby.
The outcome of the elections set to take place on Sunday, seem to be the most unpredictable in more than three decades. After seven years of economic harshness, “political interest among people has risen” to unthinkable levels a decade ago, wrote the author of The Broken Ballot Box, a book that analyses the political crisis in Spain.
A series of events have led to this defining moment. An economic recession that inspired a general disaffection towards the political class grew in parallel to numerous corruption cases. This helped pave the way for new political parties as millions of people took to the squares of Spanish cities in May 2011 to show their anger against the political class with the slogan “They do not represent us.”
On the Friday night prior to the elections, Rocio Lopez and Jordi Navarro had come to dinner to their friend Maria Soria’s apartment in Huertas, a central neighbourhood in the Spanish capital, Madrid. They are all in their 30s. Two of the friends are unemployed and Lopez, 34, has an unstable job. She has a degree in history but now works part time at a grocery store, earning 450 euros per month ($489).
Lopez’s boyfriend Navarro lost his job in April after a conflict with his employer, and receives an unemployment subsidy. Together the pair are able to pay rent for a two-room apartment but can hardly afford any other luxuries.
“Of course the economic situation influences my decision on how to vote,” Lopez said, as the group enjoyed the treats from the Christmas box filled with typical Spanish food and drinks she had received from her employer in a traditional holiday gesture.
Lopez had always voted Izquierda Unida, a leftist party that has lost ground in the last few years. She is now one of the nearly 40 percent of Spaniards who are undecided according to a recent poll from the Centre for Socialogical Research (CIS). But she does admit she feels “enthusiastic about Podemos”. Podemos – “We Can” in Spanish – is one of the emergent political parties that has the potential to play a decisive role in the formation of the new government.
“They have been able to connect with a large part of society after denouncing the consequences of the economic crisis and the urgent need for a new way of doing politics,” Lopez explained.
This Sunday, Spaniards will vote for a new legislature that will then form a new government. Since the end of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorial rule, which lasted from the end of the Spanish civil war until his death in 1975, two major parties have shared power in Spain: The Popular Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) usually collected more than 70 percent of electoral votes.
Yet, the latest polls indicate that four political parties will receive at least 15 percent of the votes and not more than 30 percent each.
“With the emergence of two new parties, everything is much more unpredictable because we do not have references,” explained Berta Barbet Porta, political scientist and analyst for Politikon, a public policy advocacy group composed of academics and media professionals.
Podemos is a leftist party led by Pablo Iglesias, a 37-year-old political science professor. The political organisation is seen as the biggest representative of the Indignados movement that arose during the demonstrations of May 2011, and polls show that they have a wide support base among the demographic of the unemployed, the youth, and those with unstable jobs.
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Another strongly contending party is Ciudadanos – “Citizens”. It was founded by Albert Rivera, who was born in Barcelona 36 years ago. The party has played with ideological vagueness, but has a strong following among liberally minded Spaniards as well as highly educated professionals.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has touted Spain’s economic recovery in his re-election campaign. Spain’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew at a rate of 3.4 percent as of October, one of the highest in the eurozone.
But with unemployment rates at nearly 22 percent, very similar to the rates in 2011, the year of the last general election, the prime minister’s PP is no longer guaranteed a majority.
According to studies from CIS, the young and unemployed or temporary workers are more likely to vote for the new parties, but they are not the only supporters.
Fifty-six-year-old Pilar, who did not provide a surname, works for a state agency and will not vote for the same party she voted for in the last elections. The economic crisis is one of the reasons behind her change of mind, explained this mother of three boys. One of her sons is struggling to find a job after graduating from university.
Sitting on a bench in the middle of a square with a colleague, she explained how her salary “has suffered continuous cuts”, and that the public services sectors, such as those of health and education have been downsized.
She will vote for one of the two new political parties, because she is “tired of the corruption and the lack of progress in all the fields: political, economic, cultural”.
Her friend, 65-year-old Carlos Cabrera, will vote differently than he did in the previous elections as well. Changing his vote for the first time in many years, he said: “I will vote for Podemos because I am tired of the impotence of the ruling political elite.”
Calls for renewal
Political corruption is another issue that will drive the vote of the Spanish populace. In the last four years, Spaniards have rarely opened a newspaper without reading about a new corruption case.
All public institutions seem to have been affected, from city councils to the national government. The accusations have affected politicians connected to the PP, the ruling party, as well as nearly all other relevant political organisations with a share in power structures.
One case that shocked society the most was the revelation that the PP elite, even the prime minister, received illegal bonuses.
“We have to break with the 1978 regime,” Navarro said of the PP during the discussion with Soria and his partner Lopez. In 1978, after Franco’s death, as Spain transitioned to a democratic system, the country implemented a new Constitution which is the supreme law of the kingdom.
But the system is now seen as the symbol of political stagnation by a significant sector of Spanish society. In December 2014, Podemos’ Iglesias called for a process “to open the padlock of 78”.
Democratic renewal has been the idea most widely articulated by the new parties, and has even spread among the more established political organisations. It is a rhetoric that resonates with the public regardless of political loyalties.
“What is new, who is new and who is not is very arguable, but there is an element that is essential to these elections, and this is democratic regeneration,” Berta Barbet echoed standing outside a shop in Torres Acosta square in Madrid.
While the two traditional parties still have a very strong base among voters compared to the newcomers, the changes within Spain’s political landscape are already evident.
“The political renewal is extremely necessary after so many years of failed bipartisanship,” 28-year-old Griselda Gil from Barcelona said.
“New political parties will force the others to change, at least thanks to the competition that has emerged.”
Follow Nicolas Lupo Sonnabend on Twitter: @niluso