2015 Getty Images

Spain's lost generation pins its hopes on political revolt

In unparalleled challenge, newcomer parties poised for historic gains in general election

MADRID — On a chilly December afternoon in Madrid’s working-class district of Villaverde, Roberto Ruíz is face-painting children at a rally for Podemos (We Can), a leftist party. In a small circle, residents discuss with a Podemos representative the problems that plague Spain’s school system. “I really hope Podemos can change things around,” said Ruíz, 21, a former student. “So many of my friends are without jobs or an education.”

He dropped out of Rey Juan Carlos University after his freshman year because he could no longer afford to pay tuition. “When I tried to find a job instead, this was impossible,” he said. He hopes Podemos can help turn the tide. He wants to return to college with the financial support that the party promises. He said he feels somewhat fortunate, since dozens of his friends, unable to pay rent, have been evicted from their homes.

Evictions have become emblematic of the economic crisis that has walloped Spain since 2008, as the conservative People’s Party (PP), which assumed power in 2011, pushed austerity measures to reduce the country’s deficit. Under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, unemployment peaked at 26.9 percent in 2013. Joblessness among 16-to-24-year-olds reached 55.8 percent that year. Jobless rates decreased recently — to 21.1 percent and 47.7 percent, respectively — but they remain the highest in the eurozone except for Greece.

Embittered by austerity and disillusioned with a two-party system that has been in place in Spain since the late 1970s, Ruíz and millions of indignados (outraged) have taken to the streets — in protests that culminated in January 2014 with the creation of Podemos. Led by the ponytailed political science professor Pablo Iglesias, the party has rocketed to political prominence. Podemos-affiliated parties won mayoral races in Barcelona and Madrid in May and over 100 seats in regional parliaments.

Podemos’ rapid rise — and its bold challenge to the PP and the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) — has been echoed by that of Cuidadanos (Citizens). Founded in 2006 in Catalonia as an anti-separatist party, Cuidadanos is led by Albert Rivera, a charismatic 36-year-old lawyer. The center-right, business-friendly Cuidadanos wants to liberalize the labor market, but it also has plans to strengthen the welfare state.

Ruíz, however, is not tempted to vote for Ciudadanos. “They tell the middle-class people that their lives can become better,” he said. “But we are not middle class. We are poor. They are not addressing us.”

Ciudadanos does appeal to Flor Mercedes, 26, a marketing student in Málaga, on Spain’s southern coast. Last week, an hour before Rivera gave a speech in the city center, she eagerly waited to see the person she hopes will be Spain’s next prime minister. She has seen scores of her friends leave Spain in search of work. Thousands of others have followed their example, according to a report published earlier this year that said about 218,000 young Spaniards left the country from 2009 to 2013.

“Among my close circle of friends, only two didn’t leave Spain,” she said.

Mercedes, too, was tempted to leave, but Ciudadanos’ recent rise has made her more hopeful. She said Málaga University is buzzing in anticipation of Sunday’s general election, in which all 350 seats of the lower house, the Congress of Deputies, are up for grabs, as well as 208 of the 266 seats in the Senate.

She believes Ciudadanos can stop the brain drain. She supports the party’s plans to improve the quality of public schools and to introduce bilingual classes. “Everybody in the whole world speaks English nowadays. It’s time we start doing so as well,” she said. “Rivera really knows how to put the new Spain into words.”

Moments later, when Rivera took the stage, the young crowd greeted him with shouts of “President! President!”

One out of two young Spaniards is without a job now. We are pretty much a failed state.

Juan Carlos Monedero

Podemos co-founder

Ciudadanos and Podemos have jolted Spanish politics. Since Spain transitioned to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, either the PP or the PSOE has governed the country, except for after elections in 1977 and 1979, which were won by now defunct parties. On Sunday the two nascent parties could grab as many as 131 of the 350 seats in the lower house, according to private pollster Metroscopia, with up to 64 seats going to Podemos and 67 to Ciudadanos. The PP, according to Metroscopia, looks likely to win no more than 112 seats, meaning that Rajoy would need to form a pact with rivals to continue governing.

Pablo Simón, a political science professor at Carlos III University in Madrid, is convinced that Sunday’s elections will spell doom for Spain’s two-party system. “There is no doubt about that,” he said. “Many young people who were born in a democracy are now voting for the new parties. They are also the generation that was most affected by the economic crisis.”

Juan Carlos Monedero, a Podemos co-founder, believes new jobs for young Spaniards are essential. “If you don’t work, you practically lose your rights as a citizen,” he said. “One out of two young Spaniards is without a job now. We are pretty much a failed state.” Podemos wants to raise the minimum wage and curb austerity measures. Many jobs could be created as a result of a sustainable energy plan, he said. “Unemployment in Spain has very deep roots. We think it is also important to see how much money we can get back by looking into fiscal fraud and corruption,” he said.

Luis Garicano, an economics professor at the London School of Economics who helped craft Ciudadanos’ budgetary platform, said his reforms are focused on the young generation. “Many young Spaniards still live with their parents because they cannot find a stable job. This has to change.”

Ciudadanos would introduce a standard contract to reform the labor market, in which Spaniards go often from one short-term contract to another, making it difficult to find job stability and sufficient income. Garicano said his party is “liberal for the market but social for the workers and people with short-term contracts. We believe in the market but not necessarily in big companies running things.”

In Madrid’s Villaverde district, the Podemos-affiliated party Ahora Madrid (Madrid Now) won the most votes in the municipal elections in May. Ruíz sees it as an omen for Sunday’s elections. “I really hope Podemos wins. Not for me, but this would be good for everybody in Villaverde.”

Mercedes did not vote in the last general election. There was no party that represented her stance on major issues, she said. “At least now there is a political party for young people,” she said. “But whatever the result of Sunday’s elections, plurality wins. And that is a good thing.”

Related News


Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter



Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter