The winds of change are blowing in Spain

Posted on 22. May 2015

by Marta Remacha Recio

marta-remacha-recio-modifiedNext Sunday, on 24 May, Spain will hold its municipal and regional elections to elect the members of all the city councils and of 13 of the 17 regional councils. Although local elections are normally seen as less important than national ones, we, Spanish citizens, are excited about this call to the ballot box. With general elections just around the corner – scheduled to be held next November – the upcoming local elections will be an important litmus test revealing the support behind each of the political forces.

Four years have gone by since the Spanish anti-austerity movement, known as 15-M, emerged to show people’s indignation at the current political and economic system ahead of the 2011 local and regional elections. 15-M claimed that the Partido Popular (PP) and Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), the two major traditional parties, were not representing the Spanish citizens and demanded a more participatory democracy. Despite the scope of the movement, it did not have a significant impact on the election results: PP, the party who had been governing Madrid for 16 years, got re-elected, and six months later, in the general elections, PP received enough votes to govern alone in absolute majority.

However, in the longer run, the 15-M movement has proved to have provoked a change of mentality among Spanish citizens. During the last four years, Spanish society has become more critical of bad management, more concerned about the decision making-process, and more sensible to corruption and noncompliance with electoral promises. Welfare cuts and traditional way of doing politics shown by politicians in power, along with the various cases of corruption uncovered during this period, have definitely eroded the image of the two major parties and the public’s trust in their representatives.

This mentality change, triggered by Podemos, eventually resulted in the fragmentation of the political scene. The results of the 2014 European elections in Spain came as a big surprise: “Podemos”, a newly founded and almost unknown left-wing party, obtained 8% of the votes and five seats in the EU Parliament. During the past year, Podemos has increased its presence throughout the Spanish territory: recently, polls predicted that it will obtain up to 28% of the votes in the Madrid Town Council – which is the same as the PP is expected to get, and more than the PSOE. But it is not the only party to have recently flourished: polls predict that “Ciudadanos”, a centre-right party that went national only this year, might get close to receiving 16% of the votes in Madrid.

These elections will be very important to many Spanish citizens who feel that, for the first time in many years, their vote will be meaningful. Spanish electors are at a crossroads, since voting for traditional parties or for the new ones will convey two completely different messages about their demands and priorities. On the one hand, voting for traditional parties expresses a desire for political stability and easy decision making, and an appreciation for structured party bodies and representatives’ years of experience. However, it will also mean having to cope with corruption and nepotism. On the other hand, by supporting new parties, Spaniards are backing a new way of doing politics, which is more accountable and based on the principles of participatory democracy, and are clearly stating that they have zero tolerance for corruption. However, when voting for them, people might have to accept that some of their proposals might not be feasible, and that their weak – albeit growing – structures might hinder their ability to implement concrete changes.

With just two days to go, the outcome of Sunday’s elections is uncertain. According to the latest election polls, voting intentions remain unstable, while undecided voters represent between 30 and 45% of the total electorate. This makes last-minute campaigning all the more decisive, and parties are adapting their rhetoric to attract as many supporters as possible before voting stations open on Sunday. More specifically, traditional parties are mobilising the “useful” vote against new parties, saying that they will threaten democracy with their naivety and incompetence. In turn, new parties are mobilising the “protest” vote, channelling citizens’ rejection of the lack of credibility, integrity and answerability of the political forces in power.

Madrid’s political scene can be representative of the erosion of traditional parties, which is prevalent all over Europe. This erosion was already evident during the 2014 European elections, and hints have reappeared in the latest general elections of some European countries. Election results across Europe show bipartisanship is in the doldrums, but not collapsing. In fact, despite the general rise of radical and populist parties, Christian democrats and socialists continue to be the two major parties in Europe.

Yet, what all the different political scenarios across Europe demonstrate is many people’s uneasiness towards the old way of doing politics. New parties such as Podemos and Ciudadanos are finding their space in the political spectrum because they are engaging with voters using a language that’s closer to the public’s reality and expectations. The crisis that has been looming over Europe during the last years has created fertile grounds for similar parties and movements, as the inability of governing politicians to take effective measures has eroded the credibility of traditional parties even further. And even if new parties are branded as populists, as long as they gain the population’s support at the expense of conventional parties, they are reshaping the balance of power within European nations, and more importantly, giving power back to the citizens.

That is why I am optimistic about the next election results in Spain and their positive impact on the future of our country. Up to a certain point, the new party leaders have shown a different profile: they’re open to dialogue, willing to advocate people’s demands, using an up-to-date language, with honesty and charisma. All of this, which clearly contrasts with the politicians’ ‘old way’, is making voters trust politics again. Besides, if new parties gather as many voters as the polls predict, they will break the traditional parties’ monopoly and remove the certainty that, regardless of their management, they would be in charge again in the next term. The upcoming elections will allow Spanish citizens to make their voices heard and show how years of bad management and negligence have a cost, to be paid at the ballot boxes.