Spain's general elections show another generational divide

Article published on July 27, 2016
Article published on July 27, 2016

The Spanish general elections have made two things clear: the Spanish people will have to continue to wait for a functioning government, and when it comes to politics the generational divide between Spain's young and old is as wide as ever. Sound familiar, Britain? 

The electoral results of 26 June came as a slap in the face for many Spanish people who feel powerless against the continued rule of the centre-right party, the Partido Popular (PP). The PP came into power in 2011 with the economic crisis in full swing, following victory over the Spanish socialist party, the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE). Since then, Mariano Rajoy's party has maintained its dominance in the autonomous communities and, consequently, in central government.

However, among this political 'dominance', the voice of the Spanish youth can be heard above all others; they want change. They no longer believe in their ability to alter or influence the direction of their country. With youth unemployment at 45.3%, many young people claim they feel helpless and invisible in light of Spain's current political stagnancy.

This feeling only worsened on election night as the political right, in the form of the PP, was again confirmed as the leading political force in Spain. As in December, support for the Partido Popular came largely from the 65-and-overs, while the youth vote was shared most notably by new political formations such as the leftist coalition Unidos Podemos and, to a lesser extent, the more centrist Ciudadanos

Three things explain why Spain's over-50's have seemingly decided the direction of the country for the next 4 years: Spain's aging population, the abstention of young voters and the difficulty found by young Spanish people working abroad. It's reminiscent of the situation in the United Kingdom, where the recent Brexit referendum saw the nation divided in two: young and old. It is estimated that 75% of people between 18 and 24 voted to remain, while 61% of people aged over 65, and 56% of people aged between 50 and 64, voted to leave. 

In order to better understand the parallel generational divides in Spain and the UK, we speak with Guillermo López, a doctor of political communication at the Universitat de València... 

cafébabel: Was this new generational divide expected? 

Guillermo López: Not only was it expected, it's really one of the most important factors that sets the old and new parties apart. The PP, for example, was the fourth most popular party (behind Podemos, Ciudadanos and the PSOE) among the under-50s, according to the pre-election poll carried out by the CIS (Centre of Sociological Research). By contrast, practically half of the retired population (over-65s) voted PP. With the PSOE, this differentiation is not as obvious, but the basic trend is the same, in the same way that the majority of people who voted for Ciudadanos and - above all - Podemos belong to a younger age group. 

cafébabel: Is this a recurring theme throughout the history of Spanish democracy or is it something new? 

GL: It is certainly the case that the ruling political party tends to count on the more conservative older voters as a stronghold. We saw this with the PSOE under Felipe González and it happened with the PP from 2000 onward. What we are seeing now is that this trend has become even more pronounced, because the two dominant parties have lost a large amount of their electoral support among the Spanish youth. They have been weakened as young voters have fled to Podemos and Ciudadanos, while their support from older voters has, on the whole, been unaffected.

cafébabel: We have seen this generational divide in both Spain and in the United Kingdom; why is this? How can we explain it? 

GL: In my opinion, the fundamental factor that explains not only why people are voting the way they are, but also the success of these emerging parties, is the economic crisis. The burden left by the crisis has not been shouldered equally in a number of ways, and one of those is generational. Governments have done all they can to preserve the purchasing power of pensions, while salaries and job opportunities have fallen through the floor. This has given way to a young population disenchanted with the traditional parties. It has also further fuelled the conservatism of older citizens that want to hold onto the rights and wellbeing they currently enjoy. In the case of the United Kingdom, people saw immigration as a threat to the status quo. In the case of Spain, citizens associated a similar threat with the uncertainty generated by the rise of the new parties, especially Podemos.

cafébabel: Could it be said that the older population is more susceptible to a fear-led-rhetoric, be that a fear of a reduction in pensions or a fear of immigration? 

GL: I think so, but I would add that it is a fear of things changing in general, with regard to what has already been obtained. Young people aren't as scared. You could say they are more innocent, as they have less to lose.