Can Europe Make It?

A new generation takes over Spain

Whatever happens in the Spanish general election, the real story will be about a profound transformation taking place at the heart of Spanish society: generational change.

Diego Beas
4 December 2015

Albert Rivera and Ines Arrimadas of Ciudadans at a rally. Demotix/Ignacio Luna. All rights reserved.December 20 will mark a watershed in Spain’s political history. Almost 40 years after the return to democracy, the two party system that made possible one of the most impressive national comebacks in recent memory and provided the political stability that allowed for extraordinary economic growth from the late 1970s up until 2008, will most probably give way in a general election that will bury the PP-PSOE dominated system.

Two new parties (left-leaning Podemos and Ciutadans, a centre-right upstart from Catalonia) will gain parliamentary representation, take around 32-37% of the vote combined, and become key political forces in the battle to form government (even allowing for the possibility of Spain's first national coalition government). 

But, parliamentary reshuffles aside, the story of this new chapter in Spain’s history has a more interesting angle that is often overlooked. At its core, the shifting political landscape is really about a profound transformation taking place at the heart of Spanish society: generational change.

With youth unemployment still at a startling 47% and a whole generation born after 1978 struggling to gain a solid foothold, for the young, the battle has turned political. The country has started a process of generational overhaul with an intensity not seen elsewhere in Europe. 

A short history of this political awakening takes us back to the Spring of 2011. Three years into a brutal recession that particularly hit the generation entering the workforce, millions of young people from a broad spectrum of society took to the streets to protest peacefully; and after a few weeks camping in city squares became known as the ‘Spanish Indignados’, or the 15-M movement (the protests started on 15 May). A generational cri de coeur that soon found support in their parents, grandparents and, even more broadly, in a wide spectrum of society fed up with a political class that had lost touch with mainstream worries. 

A couple of years later, from this disparate mix of generational disenchantment emerged a fresh group of thirty somethings that only a few years back were still in university classrooms, writing PhD dissertations or in entry level jobs in the private sector. Most of them, completely unknown to the public. Today, with  the start of the campaign, two weeks ahead of the general election, some of them are on the verge of making important inroads in the halls of power and becoming key players in the next parliament. 

A brief rundown of Spain’s new powerbrokers is led by Pablo Iglesias (Madrid, 1978). Podemos, the party founded by him and a small group of political science professors in early 2014, rocked the Spanish political world in last year’s European elections and became both the heirs of the ‘Indignados’ movement and the harbingers of generational change. A media savvy ponytailed politician that could play a fundamental role modernizing the role of the opposition in a country accustomed to cozy majorities.

Next on the list is Íñigo Errejón (Madrid, 1983). An adolescent looking deputy of Iglesias' deeply read in the political classics. Witty, combative and potentially an architect of any process that would require constitutional reforms or even frontman of the Podemos proposal of launching a full-blown constitutional process (the only solution to many of Spain’s woes, according to an increasing number of analysts). 

To the right of centre, Ciutadans is lead by Albert Rivera (Barcelona, 1979). Political darling of the right after his party took 18% of the vote in the September Catalan regional elections. Recent polls situate him ahead of the PSOE and within striking distance of the PP. Poll numbers that suggest it’s not too far-fetched to consider him a plausible head of government. Or, in a worst case scenario, play the kingmaker that holds the key to form an either left or right leaning government. 

Ciutadans’ woman in Catalonia is Inés Arrimadas (Jerez de la Frontera, 1981). A terrifyingly gifted orator, she is now the leader of the opposition in the Catalan Parlament and has the extremely difficult job of leading the charge against separatists that have just used their parliamentary majority (that does not translate into popular majority) to approve a resolution that seeks to start a process to permanently sever ties with the rest of Spain. She will be a key intermediary in future negotiations between Madrid and Barcelona and might even form government if the current deadlock leads to new regional elections in early 2016. 

Even the ossified established parties have started shacking up their hierarchies. On the left, the PSOE chose last year as its leader the barely known Pedro Sánchez (Madrid, 1972). Though highly unlikely he will win the election, he might be able to strike a deal and lead a government with either Podemos or Ciutadans. Anticipating such an outcome he recently named the constitutional scholar Meritxell Batet (Barcelona, 1973) as his number two.

The PP, on the other hand, hasn’t touched its top brass, yet, but has quietly positioned Pablo Casado (Palencia, 1981) as its de facto public face and Andrea Levy (Barcelona, 1984) as the parties political platform chief. Even the old fashioned Izquierda Unida has a new boss, Alberto Garzón (Logroño, 1985).

At a local level, this new kind of leadership is already on display in a city like Barcelona, led by Ada Colau (Barcelona, 1975). A foreclosure activist turned politician that for the first time in decades is thinking of the city in terms of its inhabitants needs and not as a tourist cash cow. And in Madrid, a retired judge backed by Podemos, Manuela Carmena (Madrid, 1944), has defeated the PP after a quarter of a century in power and ushered in a new generation of city council members. One of them, Pablo Soto (Madrid, 1979), is a talented software developer and activist that is using city government to challenge the deceiving and highly commercial concept behind the so-called ‘smart city’ and is instead proposing clever new ideas at the intersection of technology and good governance (Paul Mason wrote about the project in The Guardian recently).

Not at all bad for a country that as recently as the late 1970’s was poorly governed by a cadre of undemocratic male septuagenarians.

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