The ruling Spanish socialists find themselves in a seemingly dramatic situation: Since mid-May, mostly young people have been protesting on the central “Puerta del Sol” in Madrid against the over-aging of politics and the isolation of political elites from society.
At the recent elections, the Socialist party of prime minister Zapatero suffered a historic defeat, losing even such long-standing strongholds as Sevilla and Barcelona. Against the backdrop of the country’s sinister economic state – youth unemployment is at almost 40% – and the loss of party prestige, staying in power after next year’s parliamentary elections appears all but certain.
However, particularly the Spanish socialists should be used to dealing with sudden drops in popularity. It was in 1996, when after 14 influential years of governing, the PSOE lost the elections against José Maria Aznar’s conservative Partido Popular (PP). Ruling since 1982, socialist prime minister Felipe Gonzalez had helped stabilize the young Spanish democracy, modernized economy and society. In the meantime, though, he also lost touch with traditional socialist policy, angering traditional supporters and trade unions. The PSOE’s party elite gradually gained the reputation of being detached, resistant to advice, and over-aged.
A program of civic republicanism
It was only after losing two subsequent elections that the party was modernized under José Luís Zapatero, who revived socialist organizations and community. The new generation of socialist party leaders, which had almost entirely replaced the old guard of Felipe Gonzalez, no longer perceived democracy as a fragile plant to be protected from all sides. For them, democratic institutions had become natural, making it possible to focus on controversial issues that had long been ignored. In the mid-90s, the PSOE essentially already made the experience that German Socialists were to later make with the politics of the Third Way.
Reconstruction of the party was based on a programmatic and an organizational pillar. For the former, Zapatero was inspired by philosopher Philip Pettit, who had drafted the idea of a society wherein the state guarantees freedom from repression whilst being controlled by its own citizens through democratization of administration, politics and society. For the party program, this meant emphasizing civil liberties, rights of minorities, autonomous statutes as well as expanding education system and welfare state. Organizationally, the PSOE opened up to participation and included non-members and supporters through structures for citizens and party members to discuss. As such, the PSOE was perceived as a party truly interested in the wishes and propositions of citizens; open to the people. Also, it managed to profit considerably from the Spanish economic boom that had created comfortable fiscal situation allowing for increased state spending.
Against the PSOE
In the summer of 2011, all of this seems to belong to the distant past. The deep and painful recession, particularly the collapse of the construction sector, which had created thousands of jobs for the low-educated, had rid the government of any comfortable room to maneuver. Zapatero was forced to reel in many subsidies, scholarships and grants, as well as coordinate major cuts. Conflict with the unions was inevitable. And even worse: During the boom years, the PSOE had turned a blind eye to economic policy, leaving it with neither politicians nor political credit to appear convincing in this policy field.
Because of this, the latest developments in Spain are not a vote for the conservative PP; they are a vote against the PSOE. Just as in 1996 and 2000, the Spanish socialists will have to retreat and recall their own lessons from years ago. After all, they have long established the structures to turn their ears to the hearts of people.