Disenchanted voters help small parties take seats in EU election

By Amanda Hoover, Carly Metz and Mackenzie Nichols

MADRID – Despite predictions that Spain’s Popular Party and Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party would maintain their hold over Spain’s representation in the EU Parliament, smaller parties stole 24 seats in Sunday’s election.

A man places his vote at Colegio Reina Victoria in the Salamanca District. By 3:00 pm, he was one of 150 voters to cast his ballot in this particular zone. Photo by Carly Metz.

At one of nearly 3,000 polling places in greater Madrid, a man places his vote at Colegio Reina Victoria, a school, in the Salamanca neighborhood. By 3 p.m., he was one of 150 voters to cast his ballot in this particular zone. Photo by Carly Metz.

On what has been dubbed “Super Sunday,” 20 of the 28 European Union member states voted to elect or reelect members to the 751 seats of the European Parliament. An uncharacteristically low 46 percent of voting-eligible Spaniards turned out to send 54 delegates to Parliament. Frustrations with Spanish politicians and their lack of leadership resulted in major gains for fringe parties, experts say.

“Institutions [in the EU] are far away. It’s a very complex process. Many do not understand very well what happens there and the impact,” said Francisco Javier Moreno Fuentes, a research fellow at the Institute of Public Goods and Policies at the Spanish National Research Council, or CSIC, in Madrid. “In theory, citizens should be thinking about what is best to do on the European level. This should happen in every country. But in fact, what happens is the opposite. People are thinking more in national terms than European terms.”

The trend was seen across Europe, with peripheral parties gaining ground while populists and socialists suffered. The European People’s Party – which is also the ruling party in Spain – lost 55 seats, while the Party of European Socialists lost another 32.

Since joining the EU in 1986, Spain has cultivated ties with neighboring countries. In an effort to establish a single market system to increase the influence of smaller European states in a globalized world, the EU creates policies to ensure movement of people, goods, services and capital. Together with the European Commission and the Council of the EU, the directly elected EU Parliament enacts legislation in agriculture, justice and trade that influences 75 percent of national legislation in Spain.

Despite underlying similarities across member states, the EU has often struggled to find its place as a ruling body while also incorporating countries’ differences. Evolution of the EU has moved in cycles of expansion and stagnation. Some want to take a common market approach, while others have pushed for stronger political integration. The recent economic crisis has only heightened tension between member states, creating a divisive cleavage between the wealthy, northern states and the struggling, indebted southern states such as Spain, said Moreno Fuentes, whose research at the CSIC focuses on citizens, institutions and policies in a comparative perspective.

“People are tired of politicians and not very interested in Europe. I feel like I have to vote. It’s just a matter of responsibility,” said David Garcia, 39, who voted for the Convergence and Union Party, or Ciu, a center, smaller party based on Catalan nationalist ideals.

Standing next to his wife and young daughter after casting a vote at Colegio Decroly in the Chamberí district, a wealthy but small neighborhood in central Madrid, Garcia said he feels more Spanish than European, especially after the economic crisis. He believes that the EU and powerful countries such as Germany are working to create two Europes rather than one, unified body.

“A rich one and a poor one,” Garcia said.

Garcia is just one of many who feels frustrated with the state of the EU and Spain’s political parties. Many turned to smaller parties such as the socially liberal Union, Progress and Democracy, or UPyD, and the left-wing Podemos, seeking other solutions to the traditional conservative and socialist groups.

Midday, outside the PP headquarters – a towering, bright blue building that sits on the corner of  Calle Genova in downtown Madrid –  technicians built scaffolds to hold a big blue banner for a celebration later in the evening. In big bold letters it read, “lo que está  en juego es el futuro” or  “What is at stake is the future.” A man walked by and stopped for a moment as he looked up at the sea of slogans. He took out his camera phone, held it up to face the propaganda, and extended his middle finger. He snapped a picture.

Outside the headquarters of the Popular Party in Madrid, slogan reads "what is at stake is the future." Photo by Carly Metz.

Outside the headquarters of the Popular Party in Madrid, the ground floor window is filled with a poster bearing the slogan, “What is at stake is the future.” Photo by Carly Metz.

“I’m not voting. I think everything is a lie. I don’t believe any one of them,” said German Lozano, 33, a technician from Madrid. He believes that recent conservative policies from the PP have made them the worst political party in Spain.

He’s not alone. Many have condemned proposed abortion restrictions, welfare and health care cuts and tuition increases. But other voters said they still value the opportunity to have a voice.

“People are disenchanted, sad about the politics. I don’t feel that way. I think we have to vote anyway,” said Bianca López, 22, a law student at Complutense University of Madrid.

López chose to vote for the PP, valuing their experienced management skills. She was confident in their leadership of the national government, and believes they are the best choice to lead the EU.

Volunteers at four tables in Colegio Reina Victoria in the Salamanca district of Madrid chatted and scanned their iPhones waiting for more ballots to add to their half-full plastic ballot boxes. A single voter stood behind one of two tan curtains to mark his ballot.

“It’s a little bit more than what we have expected,” said Iñaki Ortiz Martín, 20, a medical student at a private university in Madrid who was working at Colegio Reina Victoria as a volunteer. He said that the turnout could definitely be worse, but he still thinks that many people don’t care enough about the election to come out and vote. According to Martín, only 150 turned out from the bustling neighborhood in the wealthy Salamanca district and already half the voting day was over.

“I think that [voting] is really important. I think that it is important we have really good people that represent us,” he added. “I feel that I can help in this process.”

As night fell in the modest Chamberí neighborhood of Madrid, bright lights continued to glow from the PSOE headquarters. Inside, party members gathered downstairs to anxiously await results. With the traditional Spanish dish tortilla espanola in hand, along with Coke cans, a crowd of 100 stood around red tablecloths. Some paced the length of the room, passing banners that read “You move Europe with your vote,” while others stared stoically at their feet waiting for the hour of 11 to arrive.

Just a few minutes after 11, the crowd gathered around flat screen TVs. A hush fell over the room as results flashed on the screens. The PSOE earned only 14 seats, a nine-seat drop from the 2009 Parliament elections. The room sighed as people saw that the PSOE lost to their rival PP by nearly 10 percent of the vote in Madrid.

The loss didn’t send PSOE supporters packing. The room remained filled to capacity as people watched party leader Elena Valenciano make her speech on TV.

PSOE supporters watch party leader Elena Valenciano address the election results. Photo by Amanda Hoover.

PSOE supporters watch party leader Elena Valenciano address the election results. Photo by Amanda Hoover.

Outside the headquarters of the opposing Popular Party around 10:30 p.m., a series of police cars and news vans lined the street. Microphone stands were set up at the top with the expectation that the president of the party, Mariano Rajoy, would speak to acknowledge the successful night and thank the crowd for voting. However, there was no real “crowd” to be seen; the audience peaked at 30 around 11:30.

People seemed bored as they leaned against walls of the building and peered up at the massive blue structure. As it got closer to midnight, they started to disperse. Suddenly, there was a flurry of action and confusion. The remaining citizens walked away, and workers began to pack up. Wires were rolled and put away, equipment was shuffled into bags, and it was evident that the night wasn’t going as expected.

“The score was bad,” the videographer said. So, no speech.

Still, the People’s Party will remain dominant in the EU with 212 seats. When the 16 representatives take their place in Brussels, they will sit in the largest coalition. Delegates from these newly elected fringe parties may fit in with one of the six other major EU parties, but 105 more representatives remain ungrouped or undeclared, representing marginalized ideals that have a minimal say in the policies of the EU.

“Smaller parties don’t have a group. It’s more of a mix group. They can lobby and push much less. They cannot coordinate policies, they can only stand up and say whatever they want to say,” said Moreno Fuentes. “When it comes to influencing public policies, their role is much weaker.”

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About carlenehempel

I teach journalism at Northeastern University in Boston, and am leading a team of students abroad to report and write.

Posted on May 26, 2014, in Reporting from Madrid and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Peggy Kiefer

    I really learned a lot about the Spanish political system from your article. It doesn’t sound much different than the ones in the United States, does it? It was very well written and informative. You ladies did a great job. Carly, how is the camera working? I see that you took two of the pictures for this article. Mimi

  2. Very informative & well written, like seasoned reporters. Keep up the good work…….

  1. Pingback: Second Story is Posted Too | Carly Metz in Spain

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