Ignacio Escolar: Spain and the crisis of turning fortyIgnacio Escolar: Spain and the crisis of turning forty
Regardless who wins this Sunday's vote, many things will “change forever” in Spain, journalist Ignacio Escolar says.
By Ignacio Escolar @iescolar *
The question I am asked most often these days is quite obvious: "Who do you think will be the next Prime Minister of Spain?" I am a journalist, founder and director of eldiario.es, one of the most widely read digital outlets in Spain. I regularly participate as a radio and TV political analyst. I speak daily with candidates, with their advisors, with the spokespeople from political parties. Also with half a dozen sociologists who, up until the last minute, have conducted public opinion polls, yielding secret information, because in Spain it´s forbidden by the law publishing poll results during the last week of campaign.
I believe I have enough information from the hands of the best journalistic sources in Spain today. But when they ask me who is going to win this Sunday, my first answer is that I don't know who my country's next president will be. But I do have a clear sense that, whatever happens at the ballot boxes, regardless of who the next Prime Minister is going to be, there are many things that will change forever.
This Sunday's election in Spain is not going to be just another voting process. For the first time in almost four decades of democracy, the election will not be decided between two parties: the conservative and the progressive one, the PP and the PSOE; Spain's equivalent of the Republican and Democratic Party.
Spain's Parliament has always had other small parties, but the two larger parties tended to secure 80% of the votes and, thanks to the electoral law, an even larger seats percentage.
This time it will not be that way: two new parties, Podemos (We Can) and Ciudadanos (Citizens), are going to break this mold.
Podemos is Spain's equivalent of Syriza, the party of Alexis Tsipras in Greece. It is a left-wing party, highly critical of Europe's Social Democrats, accusing the social democrats of letting economic powers take the lead. Podemos is inspired by the Latin American revolutionary left of Venezuela, Bolivia or Ecuador.
Ciudadanos, for its part, is a liberal party that began in Catalonia as a centrist alternative to Catalonian nationalism, and which, in the past year, has jumped to become as sort of "Right-wing Podemos," as a kind of reform without rupture.
Both parties will make it into Parliament in full force and they will doubtlessly be key to decide who the next Prime Minister will be, because Spain's political system is parliamentary and not presidential. It is the Congress that elects the President of the Government and, on its own, no party will be able to get a enough majority to swear its candidate. They will have to make a pact.
On Sunday, when the tallying is completed, it is most likely that the people of Spain will go to bed without knowing for sure who the PM for the next four years is going to be. This will be the first time this happens, and it is possible that it may take at least a month or two for us to clear out any doubts because not a single of the many contradictory electoral polls that have been published allows someone to be the winner on his own, one who might become president without going through complicated negotiations. The old and the new will have to reach an agreement.
Podemos and Ciudadanos are very different, but they have some things in common. They agree there is a need for reforms, they criticize harshly against old parties political corruption, they stand up for greater transparency and setting an example in political life, and their voters are similar ages.
New parties are a sweeping success in large cities and among people under 45. Old parties resist in small towns and among those older than 55. Today the PP is the incumbent party and will probably continue receiveing most votes, but appears as the top political force only among people over 65 years old in the polls. More than a class struggle, it is almost a generational one.
Sunday will be a difficult day to forget. At least for me, for more than one reason: I will turn forty exactly on the day where elections are held. I was born on December 20, 1975, a month after the death of dictator Francisco Franco. I have no memory of the transition apart from the dictatorship, or of the failed military coup d'état of 1981. I have never feared that democracy might be yet another parenthesis in Spain's history, or being afraid of another civil war – we had four in just one century. These ghosts haunted the generation of politicians and journalists who experienced that transition.
I learned to read thanks to El País – a newspaper that was created six months after I was born – and three years ago I founded eldiario.es, a digital outlet that has, in barely three years, amidst the crisis and having few resources, succeeded in finding its space among Spain's headlines creators for reasons very similar to those that explain why, in Spain, two parties that today aspire to rule have emerged almost out of nowhere.
One of the important journalistic exclusive stories to be published at
eldiario.es is also one of the most symbolic corruption cases, one that largely explains the rise of the new parties: the scandal of the black credit cards. At
eldiario.es we discovered that Caja Madrid – a public financial institution that later merged with others to form Bankia, a bank that became insolvent and set off the Spanish bailout – for several years had been paying illegal overpayments to its advisors through a "black" credit card: a Visa card they used to spend money arbitrarily, avoiding tax declarations.
The overpaid wages with black money were enjoyed by politicians of the PSOE and the PP, trade unionists, and the management… 78 advisors in representation of all sectors of the old establishment who, for many years have agreed on something: remaining silent about the black payments they were all enjoying.
The black credit cards were used to embezzle nearly 15 million euros: very little compared to the bankruptcy of Bankia, which needed 30 billion euros from plubic funds and triggered the Spanish financial bailout. But these black credit cards have betrayed people's trust, especially the trust that people from Spain had in their political institutions- a betrayal so deep that it is hard to measure in euros.
These elections are going to be the first where three out of the four main candidates – all except the current president, Mariano Rajoy – are part of my generation. Their ages are between 36 and 43. As in my case, they grew up in democracy, with Spain already in the European Union. The three agree that there is a need to change the Constitution, which has barely been modified in almost four decades and it has been praised by the politicians who have governed the country so far.
For two new parties that now are not even in Congress to fight over presidency – and for them to determine the future of the country even if they lose – is something that nobody would have predicted a short time ago. It is the consequence of these years that have been anything but predictable in Spain.
The brutal economic crisis that began worldwide in September 2008 – with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, but which, due to the subsequent crisis of the euro, which we left behind us almost a year ago – has generated in Spain not only a great inequality increase, but also an unemployment rate that still exceeds 20% and a record rate of unemployment among the youth of the western world (almost 50%, another fact that explains why young people in Spain are not voting for the old parties). It has also resulted in a political and institutional crisis that is yet to be resolved.
The effects of this crisis are visible and varied. The mess that will shake the Spanish parliament on December 20 th will be just one more consequence. We have previously seen town squares fill with young people who yelled at politicians who "do not represent us" on 15M (March 15 th), the Spanish Spring of the "indignados" in 2011.
Or the abdication of King Juan Carlos I: the symbol of one of the main protagonists in theTransition in Spain, and who walked away from being the Head of State at the worst moment of his public image, cornered by his political mistakes and the corruption scandals that surrounded his own family. Or the access of two women mayors in the two most important cities in the country, Madrid and Barcelona, backed by Podemos and different social movements whose chances of winning would have been unthinkable a year ago. Or the energy of the independence movement in Catalonia, which has gone from being a minority option to being supported by nearly 48% of voters and the majority of members of the Catalonian parliament.
Anything can happen on Sunday. Even the current president, Mariano Rajoy, might end up winning on election night. He is the only one of all the candidates that is almost 60 years old and who bets that nothing will change so that everything remains the same. But even if that happens, it is doubtful that everything remains unchanged.
Not just because Rajoy, without an absolute majority, would have to enter into a pact with other parties that will push him to make changes, but also because there are ideas that remained outside the great wall up until now, beyond the consensus groups that ruled Spain for 40 years, but who are beginning to become majorities today, even among the more conservative voters, who, for other reasons, will continue to support Rajoy.
It is not going to continue, and it must not continue: that is, the almost absolute control by the main political parties over the institutions: ranging from the manipulated public television to a judiciary that has been intervened.
Nor is it going to be considered tolerable for politicians to refuse to hold press conferences for journalists or to agree to difficult interviews. Or for them to utilize public state-run budgets in an arbitrary way in order to control the news media. Or for the President of the government – as happened in this legislative term with Mariano Rajoy – to show up before the journalists in his party's press room through a plasma television screen: with the speech coming from another room by video, as a way of not having to answer questions about corruption scandals and black money overpayments, all of which pointed directly at him. This was a plasma television set that the judicial investigation later discovered had been paid for through that black cash box whose existence the president denied.
One of the most repeated complaints by the "indignados" of 15M was "they call it a democracy, but it isn't." Like any political slogan, the phrase entails an exaggeration and a truth simultaneously. The first 40 years and one month after Franco's death have left a clearly positive balance in Spain; with all its flaes, this political model transformed a backward country – one that left behind a dictatorship, four civil wars and a 19 th century best forgotten – into one of the most prosperous countries in the world. But the very harsh economic crisis of the past six years has been like that drought that depletes a reservoir and lets one see the rubbish that was hiding at the bottom, beneath the apparently tranquil waters.
Corruption always makes one feel outraged, but when the unemployment situation leaves almost half of the young people without any chance to work and prompts many of them to leave the country, it becomes intolerable. This is not to say that this is the cause of the country's problems, but it is easy to establish a connection here: while some are enjoying the black credit cards, others are condemned to being unemployed, precariously employed, or having to emigrate.
The transformations that most Spaniards demand today do not entail anything else than having a better democracy: one that is more transparent, shows more solidarity, and demands more of its public representatives.
I am an optimist, perhaps because this Sunday I will vote just as I turn forty, that vital moment that one associates with a definite beginning of the mature years, but also with the acknowledgment – or the mid-life crisis – of the lack of responsibility during one's youth.
These are times of uncertainty. But whatever happens at the ballot boxes, there are mistakes that we certainly will not repeat at this age.