Photograph by Getty Images
By Ian Mount
December 18, 2015

To find a clear sign of generation gap in Spanish politics, you don’t have to look further than last Monday night’s election debate, when Socialist Party candidate Pedro Sánchez, 43, told Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy that, “The Prime Minister must be a respectable person, and you are not one,” and Rajoy, 60, replied that Sánchez was, “despicable, peevish, and miserable.”

The thing is, the generation gap wasn’t between Sánchez and Rajoy, who head Spain’s two traditional parties, the center-left PSOE (Socialists) and the center-right PP (Partido Popular). Instead, it was between them and the leaders of two upstart parties that are challenging them in this Sunday’s national elections.

Those two—the Young Republican-styled Albert Rivera, 36, who heads the liberal Ciudadanos (Citizens) party, and the ponytailed Pablo Iglesias, 37, who sits atop the leftist Podemos (We Can) group—weren’t invited to the debate, so they analyzed it on a TV talk show. There, the debate at the “kids table” was the polar opposite of the angry spat between the big party heavyweights.

The two young leaders agreed that the main event’s bitterness signaled the end of Spain’s two-party system. They said that Spain deserved better than personal insults. And then they gave each other a bro-shake before heading into the night.

Spain’s Dec. 20 elections takes place amidst a seismic political shift away from a generation marked by “Generalisimo” Francisco Franco’s dictatorship and the transition to democracy that followed his 1975 death. In this election, over four in ten eligible voters will be under 45 years old.

The older generation was socialized into politics in a period when the two main parties were monolithic brands—left/right, like Coke/Pepsi—designed to protect a fragile young democracy, says Jorge Galindo, an editor at the political blog Politikon. But that world is gone.

“With democracy not in question, strong parties that monopolize the debate now seem very unresponsive. They were built to protect against attacks that are now a ghost,” he says. “The old system and the old parties are not designed to handle a multiplicity of opinions.”

For young voters, the defining event in their lives has been the economic and political crisis that began in 2008. They are less interested in old divisions than in finding ways to cut long term unemployment, make the labor market work for Spain’s many young and educated jobless, and stop crony capitalism and corruption. Both of the big parties have been marred by corruption scandals and the unemployment rate, over 20% in Spain, is almost 50% for Spaniards under 25 who are in the labor market (i.e. not in school).

Young voters also expect politicians to be accessible, not figureheads of giant organizations to which one pledges allegiance. Amelia Pijuán, a 22-year-old from Mallorca who works at Joyners, a Barcelona Internet firm, says the new parties have figured that out.

“It’s not so much for ideology, as much as for the way they communicate. They have another sensibility. They make proposals, they make arguments. It’s like the people are giving them a final exam,” says Pijuán, a Podemos supporter. “And they know how to get out in the street, which has helped their message, and that’s why they’re winning over young people.”

Earlier in the campaign, Rivera and Iglesias held a televised debate in a Barcelona coffee shop where, dressed in shirtsleeves, they explained their competing proposals about issues like labor market reform and argued in an almost collegial manner. This casual style of communication extends to social media, where the two young parties are intense participants; try following @AhoraPodemos or @CiudadanosCs on Twitter for a day and you’ll see.

This generational divide is especially clear among well-educated young people whose aspirations were frustrated by the economic crisis, says Pau Marí-Klose, a professor of sociology at the University of Zaragoza.

“Spanish youth are always told ‘This isn’t your moment but your moment will come.’ This generational pact was broken with the crisis,” he says. “Among my students—among any students—the majority are followers of the new parties.”

In the most recent survey from CIS, the state polling service, 46.4% of people between 18 and 24 named either the economy, corruption, or politicians as the country’s biggest problem, twice the percentage in the over 65 age group (unemployment was by far the biggest issue for all age groups). Not surprisingly, the young parties have focused their message on these issues.

The question now is how many votes the new parties will get, and whether they will be able to keep them in the future.

In the CIS’s November survey, when asked who they would vote for if elections were tomorrow, voters in every age bracket under 45 named both Ciudadanos and Podemos before either of the traditional parties. The PSOE does best among the 45-64 groups, while the PP cleans up with the retiree crowd. (To keep the elderly PP base loyal, Rajoy recently he would cut income taxes on retirees who remained in the workforce.)

Overall, recent surveys place the PP in first place, with about 25% of the vote, with the PSOE and the two new parties duking it out for second, third and fourth.

But young people are more prone to abstain from voting, notes María Ramos, an editor at Politikon. And, while the new parties did well with voters up to 55 years old, 40% of eligible voters are over 55 and they vote overwhelmingly for the old parties, says Kiko Llaneras, who produces a rolling averaged voter poll (a la RealClearPolitics) for the El Español digital newspaper.

“The principal problem of the new parties is that they haven’t made inroads among the elderly,” says Marí-Klose.

The Spanish political panorama will change a great deal after the elections, no matter the result. How it changes will depend on whether the parties, both new and old, are able to step out of their generational niches and sell their product to voters not naturally disposed to them.

“The hard thing for the old political parties to understand is that the new generation has new demands,” says Jorge Galindo. “And for the new parties it’s that the old generation still exists.”

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