Fed up with traditional parties, Spanish citizens usher in new political era

Story by Ellyn Bailey

SPAIN–Residents of Spain changed the course of their country in one day late last month when they went to the polls to oust the reigning conservative party and vote into power more coalition-oriented groups. The result, analysts say, will be a more liberal, less corruption-prone government that better reflects the progressive and liberal profile of a younger, educated and politically active population.

The words mentir, abusar, and robar (lie, abuse, steal) cover a political advertisement for the Popular Party. The defaced advertisement hangs in the Clot Metro stop in Barcelona. The advertisement is for Alberto Fernández who is currently a councilor and chairman of the Popular Party. Photo by Clara Cutbill

The words mentir, abusar and robar (lie, abuse, steal) cover a political advertisement for Alberto Fernandez, a candidate for the Popular Party. The defaced advertisement hangs in the Clot Metro stop in Barcelona. 
Photo by Clara Cutbill

“There is a generation that was born during the Spanish transition to democracy, that experienced the first socialist government [in Spain], and they are looking for a regeneration,” said Antoni Raja-i-Vich, a professor of history at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

He believes younger Spaniards are looking to these newer political coalitions that are emerging for more liberties and a more accessible government. “Spanish people do not trust Spanish institutions like the Constitutional Court” – the council that is charged with interpreting Spain’s Constitution – “or the various police corps. Many see them as an instrument of an oppressive government.”

The regional and municipal elections in late May shocked many as they definitively rejected the ruling party Partido Popular, or “PP,” led by prime minister Mariano Rajoy. After four years in power, PP lost its majorities in the 13 of 17 regions that held elections. Also soundly rejected was the other ruling Socialist party, and in their place emerged new parties including the Ciudadanos, which translates to “Citizens” party, and the anti-austerity group known as Podemos, which translates to the “We Can” party.

“Corruption and lies were their downfall,” said political scientist Ignasi Perez, a lecturer at University of Barcelona. He believes that PP will have no other choice but to form coalitions with other parties across Spain if its politicians want to regain what was lost in May. “[PP] will need the support of [Catalonian right-wing party] Ciudadanos,” for example, he said. “No other party is willing to support them.”

Podemos is led by former political science lecturer Pablo Iglesias. Iglesias left his post at Complutense University of Madrid in 2013 to lead a populist movement in the wake of nationwide protests against inequality and government corruption. The group also has a strong following in Madrid, previously a conservative stronghold.

Perez believes that Podemos and its coalitions offer a more desirable alternative for those who are disillusioned with the current state of the Spanish government.

“Since PP got into power,” said Perez, “rich people have become richer and middle class and poor people, way poorer.”

Spaniards have been living amid economic crisis for about six years now. Thousands have lost their jobs and many have been driven out of the country in search of work and a better life. The country’s residents have experienced a housing market crisis and an unemployment crisis and also suffered a combination of significant government cutbacks in services such as health care, and additional taxes in services such as education.

The resulting climate is one is which people constantly reference “the crisis” in conversation and protests of government austerity measures are common in the streets across the land. Which is why it’s not a surprise to many political analysts that the people affected such dramatic change on May 24.

“One thing for sure is that people’s access to politics will become much greater,” said Nacho Torreblanca, head of the Madrid branch of the European Council on Foreign Relations. A veteran political scientist, he also writes a weekly column for El Pais, the most-subscribed newspaper in Spain. “[Left-wing political coalition] Ahora Madrid is planning to change things. They will capitalize on the disgust of many Madrileños [residents of Madrid] and use this to increase access to basic needs, like housing and public transportation.’

Supporters hold up a picture of Podemos candidate Ada Colau, elected mayor of Barcelona, at a May rally.  Photo by Maria Amasanti

Supporters hold up a picture of Podemos candidate Ada Colau, elected mayor of Barcelona, at a May rally.
Photo by Maria Amasanti

A good example of the sort of change political scientists are talking about can be seen in the tourist-rich seaside city of Barcelona, which sits at the center of the Catalonian section of Spain – a four-province region that seeks to secede from Spain and has soundly rejected mainstream Spanish politicians.

There, where about 1.6 million people live, Ada Colau was elected as the city’s first female mayor. Leader of the left-wing En Comú party – which aligns itself with Podemos – Colau made her mark as an activist promising to fight back against corruption and fight for more equality for the poor and the elderly.

The party, whose name is in the language Catalan and translates to “In Common,” also gained a majority of the seats in the Barcelona City Council, beating out the ruling party, Convergencia i Union (CiU), which was aligned with the PP.

“A lot of people have tried and a lot of politicians have given up. I actually didn’t go to vote once because I felt hopeless. But now we’ve made a stand, we’ve stood up,” said Colau at a rally to an enthusiastic crowd the week before the election.

The elections in Barcelona a few days later proved her correct. The polls were well attended, with reports putting voter turnout at more than 60 percent, up eight points from the last election cycle. Even at 10:30 in the morning on voting day, when many would be attending Mass, lines at the polling station were long. Edward Michaels, a British national and English teacher living in Barcelona, was one of the first people at his polling station on Sunday morning.

“I’ve been watching the elections very closely,” said Michaels, 42. He has lived in Barcelona for the past three years. “I voted for En Comú. I think Ada Colau is the best person for the people of the city.”

Edward Michaels, 42, is a British national living in Barcelona. He is one of many who voted for Ada Colau of the enComú party. Photo by Clara Cutbill

Edward Michaels, 42, is a British national living in Barcelona. He is one of many who voted for Ada Colau of the enComú party.
Photo by Clara Cutbill

Colau herself described the win as a “victory for David over Goliath” in her acceptance speech late that Sunday night. She was clearly reveling in the fact that her party was able to topple the existing power structure in one of Spain’s largest cities despite only being formed in the previous year. Colau had no personal experience as a politician; she made a name for herself petitioning the government’s policies on forcing evicted citizens to pay back their loans.

She also made mention to that fact that she believes with the rise of leftist movements and protests all across Spain, coalitions like her own were going to continue to gain more power in the Spanish government.

“This time the future is not written in stone,” she said earlier in the week. “The challenges that lay ahead of us are not easy. I’m optimistic because I’ve seen people who have been disenfranchised or left aside, I’ve actually seen them get together and organize themselves and fight against oppression. That’s why I’m optimistic. The Democrat Spring has begun.”

Looking forward to the general elections later this year in November, Raja-i-Vich, the history professor in Barcelona, believes the PP and Socialist parties will continue to get punished at the polls. And for that, he is thrilled.

“Many people believe the administration needs to change in order to support more egalitarian policies,” he said. “As I always say, Spanish presidents always lose elections after their lies become too big to be hidden.”

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