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Spain’s crisis fuels anti-establishment parties – but not far right

Dani Pozo, AFP | Jobseekers line up outside an employment centre in Madrid, Spain.

Spain has one of Europe’s highest unemployment rates. But while elsewhere the crisis has translated into a far-right surge, in Spain it has spurned a different kind of challenge to the political mainstream.


They are both below 40 and have never had an electoral mandate. Today, they embody the renewal of Spanish politics.

In just a few years, Albert Rivera, 36, and Pablo Iglesias, 37, have upended Spanish politics and turned their respective parties – Ciudadanos (Citizens) and Podemos (We can) – into major contenders ahead of Sunday’s general election.

According to the latest opinion polls, the two newcomers are poised to win 18% and 20% of the vote respectively, thereby denying mainstream parties a majority in parliament.

An ambitious lawyer from Catalonia, Rivera has established himself as the fresh voice of Spain’s centre-right. He says Sunday’s vote is a “golden opportunity” to end the country’s decaying two-party system.

“Spaniards have had enough!” he told supporters gathered in Madrid on December 13. “For too long we have complained of a decaying two-party system, of corruption, budget cuts and poor management – now is the time to change all that!”

The same day, Iglesias called for the citizens of Spain to seize power at the ballot box.

“We will give the people the power to revoke prime ministers in a referendum if they fail to keep their promises!” said the professor of political science, who emerged in 2011 as the spokesman of the popular “Indignados” (Outraged) movement that railed against economic austerity.

Two-party system crumbles

Municipal elections in May of this year saw the two upstarts pick up council seats in towns across the country, forcing Spain’s traditional ruling parties – the People’s Party (PP) of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the opposition Socialist Party – to review their strategies.

The PP and the Socialists have dominated Spanish politics ever since the dictatorship of Francisco Franco ended in 1975. But recent corruption scandals, coupled with the economic crisis, sky-high unemployment and painful austerity measures, have eroded support for the political mainstream. As a result, many disgruntled voters have flocked to Podemos and Ciudadanos.

Alberto Peñadés, a professor of political science at the University of Salamanca, says many conservatives from Spain’s middle class have turned to Ciudadanos.

“It appears the most reasonable choice for centre-right voters who want to punish the corrupt and put a new generation into power,” he told FRANCE 24.

Concerning Podemos, which is more popular with left-wing voters, Peñadés said the bedrock of its support was still derived from the Indignados movement.

He stressed the “momentum” it acquired in the recent municipal vote, noting that Iglesias’s party now has councilors in most Spanish towns and cities.

Spanish exception?

In a bid to stem the surge of his anti-establishment rivals, Rajoy has trumpeted figures that suggest the Spanish economy is finally on the mend after years in the doldrums. But the upturn is far from visible to all.

Spain still has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, with 21% of the workforce out of work. The situation is especially dire for those under 25, almost half of whom are jobless.

Contrary to many other countries in Europe, Spain has not witnessed a surge in support for the far right as a result of the grim economic outlook. Far-right parties are still a tiny minority and the legacy of forty years of Franco’s dictatorship prevents their emergence.

'Front runner ironically one of least popular leaders in this race'

Catalan question

The recent showdown between Spain’s central government and Catalonia’s regional authorities has fuelled support for Rivera’s Ciudadanos – to the detriment of Iglesias’s Podemos.

Rivera campaigned actively against Catalonian secession ahead of regional polls in September that had been billed as a de facto referendum on independence. His party emerged as the second-largest force in the Catalan assembly.

In contrast, Podemos slumped to fourth, crippled by its sometimes ambivalent stances and its refusal to take sides in the debate on independence.

Iglesias, a close ally of Greece’s anti-austerity leader Alexis Tsipras, has also been damaged by the latter’s protracted tussle with Eurozone leaders, which left his country on the brink of bankruptcy.

Too close to call

When the official election campaign began on December 4, opinion polls gave Ciudadanos level with the PP and he Socialists on around 22.5%. Podemos trailed behind with just 17% of voter intentions.

While Spanish media were banned from releasing new polls starting on Friday, a local daily in the independent principality of Andorra suggested Podemos had climbed back into third, trailing the ruling conservatives by 5 percentage points and the Socialists by just one.

As Spain faces its most uncertain election in decades, the outcome is likely to be determined by the so-called “neither-nor” generation (neither working, nor studying), who make up between 30% and 40% of the electorate.

With no single party expected to win a majority in parliament, the election could pave the way to an untested era of coalition government.

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