2016: A Unique Year for Spanish Politics

I’m so glad I chose this summer to study in Spain because a major presidential and parliamentary election occurred on June 26th, right at the end of our program. Disappointed by the inefficient parliament elected in December 2015, King Felipe IV called for a new election, hoping to set things straight. My inner Government major squealed with delight at the thought of witnessing the advertisement efforts, debates, and the election day itself! However, the political climate in Spain differs greatly from the United States such that campaigns are significantly shorter, with less funding invested ahead of time, as well as citizens’ general disengagement in the current events at hand. Before I explain the weeks leading up to the election day, also known as “26J”, let me provide some context about modern Spanish politics.

 

Since Spain’s democratic “transición” period in the late 20th century after a long, fascist dictatorship, a two-party system emerged with PP (the Popular Party) and PSOE (the Socialist Worker’s Party). Since the mid-2000s, other political parties have emerged from more extreme rights and lefts, Cataluña (Ciudadanos), and even the Basque country! One of the new political parties that was a ~hot topic~ in this year’s election was Podemos (We Can), a leftist group that gained support from intellectuals, activists, and celebrities all over Spain, especially Andalucía. About a month before we arrived in Spain, Podemos joined forces with Izquierda Unida (United Left) to create a prominent coalition on the national scale called Unidos Podemos (United We Can). Not only did I get to research this particular political party for my Spanish culture class in Cádiz, I also got to see its campaign events during the month before the election, which was a super exciting experience!

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Posters for Unidos Podemos displayed on a local billboard.

Story Time! I remember one late night in our host mother’s apartment when Hannah and I sat down in front of the TV to watch the political debate between the 4 front-running parties, including PP, PSOE, Unidos Podemos, and Ciudadanos. About 30 minutes into the debate, our host mom, Mari Carmen, walked into the living room and scoffed at the discussion on the screen, “Politics these days is so complicated. I don’t like a single one of those parties, yet I always vote the same” (roughly paraphrased translation from Spanish). Something that I noted about older generations was that many citizens still clearly remember the post-war nationalist regime and have stuck to more conservative ideologies without ever changing their vote. Therefore, they are disinterested in modern-day politics. A few moments after Mari Carmen’s remark, her 18-year old niece, Alba, walked in and reacted in a practically identical way. Although this summer was her first chance to vote, she told us she wasn’t very excited about the process and outcomes. Overall, young people in Spain are likewise uninterested in politics and religion, despite the efforts that the new parties make to recruit new members. That night, I learned more from Mari Carmen and Alba’s comments than from the debate itself.

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Unidos Podemos members promoting their platform through street performances!

I was very lucky to witness a variety of political strategies during the entirety of the parties’ campaigns. For example, one day as I walked across the flower market plaza in Old Cádiz, I saw a group of musicians performing in order to promote the platform for Unidos Podemos. On my daily walks home from class, I saw more and more of the party’s campaign ads on street corners, billboards, and the walls near our apartment complex. During our excursion to Sevilla, we unexpectedly walked past a political protest calling for equal worker’s rights, on behalf of Podemos. This event was especially intriguing for me, as I did not expect so much political participation from the citizens. These few occurrences of politics in action gave me hope for a good turnout at the polls on June 26th, but unfortunately the numbers were low and the results created another dysfunctional parliament, similar to the one that the King originally intended to change.

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Podemos political march in Sevilla

Despite the unimpressed reactions of Spanish citizens, this election was not a total failure, because it allowed for more political parties to become prominent and share their platforms, giving citizens more knowledge and options. Ironically enough, however, the Spaniards are decently up to date about the 2016 U.S. presidential election; they immediately ask you who you’re voting for once they know that you’re an American student. This is partially because they believe that the American president will have a bigger effect on their economy than their parliament members, but also because many of them do not acknowledge the power that their votes have.

 

What I loved most about Spanish politics was that I got the most important insights not from the classroom, Internet, or TV, but rather from excursions, conversations with my host family, and spontaneous strolls around the city. Although it’s not a political center like Madrid or Washington D.C., Cádiz gave me a great sense of politics in Spain and how the gaditanos contribute to it.