20D will go down in Spanish history. 20th of December – the Spanish write all of their most important dates in this manner – was the first time voters rejected the duopoly that had governed the country since democracy was reintroduced in 1975. For 40 years power in Spain has been held by either the ruling conservative Popular Party (PP) or the opposition Socialists (PSOE by their Spanish initials). Recently, however, both parties have started to look jaded, plagued by corruption scandals and outshone by the bright, new Ciudadanos and Podemos parties – Spanish for ‘Citizens’ and ‘We can’ – and their young, charismatic leaders, Albert Rivera and Pablo Iglesias.
Created as a party political extension of the 2011 Indignados movement that ground Spanish cities to a halt with strikes and protests against the tawdry cynicsm and corruption of the old parties, Podemos is perhaps the most interesting of the newcomers. A political science professor, Iglesias sports skinny jeans, wristbands and a ponytail and has built his popularity through searing speeches that denounce inequality, privatisation and the corruption of ‘la casta’ – his term for the ancien regime of Spanish politics.
The speed with which Podemos grew from a protest movement to nine months later earning 5 seats in the European Parliament with 8% of the vote showed that Spaniards were ready for change in their politics. Yet not everybody wanted the leftist alternative offered by Iglesias and his party. Formed in 2006 in Catalonia to fight the spread of Catalan separatism, Ciudadanos went national in 2014 and Albert Rivera became one of the most widely seen faces of the campaign. Depicting themselves as a centrist alternative to the old parties, Ciudadanos advanced liberal policies in both economics and society. Compared by many to the British Liberal Democrats as they were before the UK 2010 General Election, Rivera even admitted to studying the British Liberals in the hope of both learning from their successful campaign, but avoiding the errors they made in government.
Alongside corruption, the biggest issue of the campaign has been jobs. It may have avoided the economic takeover that Greece was subjected to by the Troika, but Spain has endured double-dip recession and an unemployment rate that still hovers above the 20% mark. Prime Minister’s Mariano Rajoy staked much of his campaign on his record of having created one million new jobs over his premiership, but the Premier failed to acknowledge that the majority of these jobs have been poorly paid and unstable.
The short-term contract has become a regular feature of Spanish economic life. With some lasting less than a week, many young people now find themselves jumping from week long employment as kitchen staff, fruit pickers or catering at events – short term jobs with no stability or possibility of advancement. Both PSOE and Ciudadanos vowed to overturn the labour market reforms Rajoy had brought in that encouraged the short term hiring and firing of workers.
Yet what marked these elections as truly historic was change. Spaniards have grown tired of the two-party dominance of their politics, and the emergence of both Podemos and Ciudadanos has breathed new life into the entire political process. Spain can now proudly boast some of the most politically engaged youngsters in Europe, most of whom were energised by the rise of Podemos and Ciudadanos.
Although PP’s vote plunged, the biggest losers were without doubt Pedro Sanchez’ PSOE. Clean cut but politically lightweight, Sanchez has overseen the party’s worst result in its history, picking up just 22% of the vote. The 90 seats won (the Spanish parliament has a total of 350 seats) by PSOE keep them as the second party in terms of seats won, way behind the PP’s tally of 123, but ahead of Podemos and Ciudadanos, on 69 and 40 seats respectively. Such a poor performance – never in its history has the PSOE won so few seats – will pile pressure on Sanchez, whose lack of substance was exposed during the televised debates when he was caught condescendingly laughing at his opponents’ answers.
Like Sanchez, Rajoy will face some tough questions from within and outside his party. PSOE has already ruled out forming a coalition to support the current Prime Minister, but have stayed silent on whether to support the PP should they dump Rajoy. Vice President Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría assumed a high profile role during the campaign, leading to speculation that she was being groomed to take over leadership of the PP.
Few things are certain in Spanish politics over the coming weeks. Rajoy, Sánchez, Iglesias and others all have a chance of being the next Prime Minister; their parties have until March to form a coalition government, something completely new to Spanish politics. Should they be unable to do so Spaniards will return to the polls, by which time the two old parties may well have replaced their leaders. What seemingly is certain, is that Spaniards have emphatically rejected the old way of doing things. Spain may never be quite the same again.
Image courtesy of Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación