A middle-aged man with a Che Guevara beard and a black and white keffiyeh smiles down from an election poster attached to a lamppost in Gines, a middle class suburb on the outskirts of Seville. Below the photograph a single word instruction emblazoned in bright red ink: ‘Rebelate’. But there is little sign of rebellion on the neat, tidy streets of Gines, just a weary fatalism about the prospects for Seville, and for Spain.
The main road into Gines is pockmarked with empty office blocks and faded signs advertising housing developments that never materialised, victims of the Spanish construction bubble that popped four years ago. ‘Since the 80s, all the business here was building, but now that’s finished and politicians have done nothing to help the situation,’ says local resident.
Opinion polls suggest voters in today’s election to the regional Andalusian parliament are unlikely to heed the (largely former Communist) United Left’s calls to rebel. Indeed after more than 30 years of continuous power in the sunny southern region, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) are set to lose control of Andalusia to the conservative People’s Party (PP), previously a marginal concern in an area with a long history of left-wing activism and support.
‘I don’t think PP are any better than PSOE but after all these years Andalusia needs a change,’ says Solina, who has seen many of her friends immigrate to Germany, France and even Brazil and India in recent years. Defeat for PSOE in Spain’s most populous autonomous community would leave conservatives in control of every regional administration. This comes on the back of PP president Mariano Rajoy’s crushing victory over the ruling Socialist government in national elections in November.
Although a weary electorate endorsed Mr Rajoy’s manifesto of austerity and budget cuts last winter, jobs remain the most important issue for most Spanish voters. According to figures released by the Spanish Ministry for Employment last month, the country’s unemployment rate stands at 22.9 per cent, the highest in the euro zone. Among 18-25 age group, work is even scarcer: over 40 per cent are not in education and without work.
Of Spain’s regions, Andalusia has been hardest hit by the downturn. Historically an economically deprived area, official unemployment now stands at a vertiginous 31 per cent. Julio is typical of many in the picturesque regional capital, Seville. The 34-year-old studied music at university before gaining a scholarship to study at a famous conservatory in Colombia. On returning to Spain he completed another degree, in history and science of music.
‘When I was finished the only job I could get was in a supermarket, stacking shelves,’ says Julio, who now ekes out a living teaching music in Seville. ‘I have three degrees and a scholarship paid for by the state. I passed five civil service exams but I didn’t get a public job because there isn’t any anymore.’
Diego Beas, a Spanish policy analyst and journalist based in Washington, describes youth unemployment as ‘the biggest problem facing the next generation’. ‘Spain’s is a very structural unemployment that isn’t going to just go away with an upturn in the world economy.’
Mr Rajoy’s proposed labour reforms – which will make it easier for employers to hire and fire workers – are strongly opposed by trade unions. A nationwide general strike has been called for Thursday. Meanwhile, Mr Rajoy has asked the European Union for more flexibility on Spain’s deficit-cutting commitments: it is estimated that the deficit will be 5.8 per cent of total economic output in 2012, higher than the agreed target of 4.4 per cent. The Spanish economy contracted by 0.3 per cent in the last quarter of 2011.
In January, Mr Rajoy outlined €8.9bn in new budget cuts, as well as tax increases designed to raise €6.3bn. Such austerity proposals are unpopular with many young, unemployed Sevillians. ‘Politicians here try to look at the Irish model – but after four years of cuts we are worse than at the beginning. (The new measures) look like they will make things even worse,’ says Francisco Jurado Gilabert, a bright, articulate 29-year-old studying for a PhD in the University of Seville.
‘We are fighting with each other for internships earning €400 or €500 a month. It’s impossible to think of the future, of having your own house with a wife and children. It’s very difficult to think in a stable way about the future anymore.’
Gilabert is a leading member of Real Democracy Now (DYR), a public platform against corruption in politics and unemployment that played a pivotal role in a wave massive demonstrations and occupations across Spain on May 15. The 15M movement – named after the protests’ hashtag on Twitter – has garnered strong support among the young and unemployed, the vast majority of whom are deeply disillusioned with mainstream politics.
‘We are not happy with the political system in Spain,’ says Gilabert. ‘Voting every four years is like giving a free cheque for four years. The two big parties (PSOE and PP) are the same, it doesn’t matter who wins. Most people don’t vote or only vote because they feel they should. They don’t believe in politicians.’
Real Democracy Now is not running in the Andalusian elections, or any other for that matter. ‘We don’t want to run for election, that is the first step to joining the system. We don’t want to have any structure. We are a network only, without leaders, without public speakers,’ Gilabert says of a movement that became known around the world as ‘the Indignados’, inspiring Occupy protests from Nigeria to New York, via Dame Street and London.
Diego Beas says that the scale of the May 15 demonstrations, which saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets of cities and towns across Spain, was a ‘complete surprise’. ‘It created a sense in which young people could participate in the political process in a way that was completely unheard of before May 15,’ says Beas.
If Mr Rajoy’s government is unable quickly to provide jobs and opportunities for the next generation he could feel the wrath of this new, still inchoate political voice. ‘Unemployment needs to come down significantly within the next year. If it doesn’t start dropping, that could cause huge problems for the current government,’ Beas remarks.
This article originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post, 25 March.