If you’ve ever been to coastal Spain, you’d be forgiven for thinking that life is simpler there: that Spaniards spend their days reposing beneath parasols, shading themselves from the unbearable heat, eating tortillas and drinking San Miguel – all this occasionally punctuated by an afternoon siesta – and that such a lifestyle leaves them unperturbed by unmistakably British matters like democracy. Yet, on a chilly, overcast Sunday in mid-December, 73 per cent of eligible voters across Spain, their coats fastened right up to their scarf-covered throats, determinedly headed for their local polling stations to play their part in the most open general election the country has ever hosted. That figure is impressive when compared to the turnout of 66 per cent for the British general election earlier in the year, but not as impressive as the years of sociopolitical revolt which preceded it.
Elections are relatively new in Spain. The dictatorship of Francisco Franco, which spanned from before the Second World War until the mid-1970s, unsurprisingly stifled democratic decision-making. In Franco’s eyes, Spain needed to be one nation which spoke one language, supported one leader, followed one religion and aligned itself to one nationality. Spaniards who voiced their disagreement with this were killed, imprisoned, or forced to flee the country. These restrictions on freedom go some way to explaining the overflow of ideas that Franco would have regarded as ‘anti-Spanish’ spilling from politics on the peninsula since his death in 1975. When 2008‘s financial crisis knocked Spain economically unconscious, the pipes burst and it awoke to find itself submerged in a pool of conflicting views about how best to deal with the biggest economic meltdown since its transition to democracy.
The ruling government in 2008 was that of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), the ‘Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party’ – Spain’s equivalent of the Labour Party – which suffered the same fate as its British centre-left counterpart in the elections following the crisis. The conservative ‘People’s Party’ (Partido Popular, or PP) successfully blamed the PSOE for the global banking crash and received an absolute majority of votes in the elections in 2011. Despite coming to power on a ticket of economic stability, though, the PP oversaw only a negligible recovery. Wages were frozen, VAT was raised, rent assistance for young people was ended and short-term work contracts did nothing to deal with the country’s colossal unemployment problem, particularly among young people, which, at its highest level in 2013, saw 56% of under-25s jobless. Even today, that figure is 47 per cent. Like so many other countries, Spain was making its people pay for problems they did not cause.
Many emigrated, searching for work elsewhere; most stayed, pinning themselves to whatever fate the PP would bestow upon them; but some stood up for themselves. Since 2011, revelations of corruption within both the PP and the PSOE have left both parties’ reputations in pieces. Add this to a disconnected youth and a shrinking middle class who felt that politics was failing them, and you have a social uprising on your hands.
Catalonia, a now semi-devolved area of 7 million inhabitants in the northeastern corner of Spain, suppressed under the Franco regime, with its regional language and culture under threat and its autonomy non-existent, has always had an underlying nationalism among its people, but its movement for total independence accelerated after 2011. Spain’s second-most populated region boasts lower levels of unemployment and poverty than the country as a whole, and many Catalans are gravitating towards the idea that they would be better off without Spain “robbing” their taxes. The message from Madrid has always been clear: breaking up the nation goes against the Spanish Constitution. The Catalan regional powers ignore this, and so used their local elections in September as a de facto referendum. The people were split: the pro-independence parties gained just over half the seats and only 48% of votes, but, stating their majority as a justification, they have started a ‘process’ of separatism, which they promise to deliver within 18 months, regardless of what the Spanish Government says.
In opposition to this grew Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’), a Catalan anti-independence party founded in 2006, which successfully rose to national level for the first time this December. Squeezing itself between the PSOE and the PP on the political spectrum and playing on the fact that it wasn’t either of them – and so wasn’t part of the corrupted, decaying mainstream, displaying this with its baby-faced leader, Albert Rivera – it drew support from both sides, gaining 3.5 million votes and 40 seats. A spectacular feat for such a new entity. At least, until you compare that with Podemos. The party name, meaning ‘We Can’, proved itself last month. Formed only two years ago, built from widespread indignation with the PP’s policies and national grassroots campaigning, Podemos grabbed 69 seats and over 5 million votes with its anti-austerity message. Both newcomers were still a distance from the PP (123 seats) and the PSOE (90 seats), but the decades-long period of two-party dominance is dead.
Spain finds itself scrambling for a government: the PSOE and the PP could form a coalition, as together they’d have a majority, but it would be political suicide for them both. Podemos and Ciudadanos are seemingly going to be in the frame somehow, but everything beyond that is presumable at best.
What is clear is that with Podemos’ success, the Spanish people have lunged away from ‘business as usual’ in European politics. This is a movement in its infancy: with the country still reeling from heavy cutbacks and the Catalan problem only growing, Podemos is in ascendance, and it has solutions. As we in the UK approach a referendum, Podemos shows itself not only as a symbol of contempt for neoliberal thinking, nor simply a radical protest on the periphery, but now also as a genuine challenge to the powers that be from inside the European Union.