In politics we trust (just not in our politicians)

Spanish parties sink to lowest rating of all institutions while popular interest in the decision-making process reaches new high

Residents of the Gamonal neighborhood in Burgos protesting the city’s plan to beautify the area with a boulevard.
Residents of the Gamonal neighborhood in Burgos protesting the city’s plan to beautify the area with a boulevard.s. otero (EFE)

The crisis has evidenced the deep divide that exists between citizens and the institutions in charge of representing them and channeling their demands. This is nothing new per se, but Spaniards’ trust in political parties and the political class has now reached historical lows.

Yet at the same time, growing numbers are showing an interest in politics, in the broadest sense of the term. Financial hardship and the feeling that the system is not working the way it should have breathed new life into social activism. As a result, citizens are participating in public life and public protests more than ever before.

Political involvement is being mostly expressed at street level, where citizens are taking up protest placards to defend specific causes. The latest example is Gamonal, the working-class neighborhood in Burgos where residents managed to put a road project on hold after five days of public marching — and rioting by a minority of demonstrators.

Ballots cast, experts admit, are no longer a blank check for representatives to do whatever they want. At least not for a core group of motivated citizens who demand accountability from elected officials. If they are unhappy with the latter’s policies, they will say so in public. Such is the thinking behind movements like the White Tide (organized protests against health cuts), the Green Tide (ditto for public education) and the Red Tide (for scientific research).

The complex political attitudes of Spaniards are reflected in the latest European Social Survey (ESS), presented to the media this week in Barcelona. The figures reflected in this poll are devastating for political parties and representatives, who not only fail to inspire trust among their constituencies, but come across as increasingly removed from the realities of ordinary citizens.

Spain suffers from a crisis of political trust, not political disaffection”

Every single Spanish institution got a failing grade in terms of citizen trust: on a scale of 0 to 10, Parliament received a 3.4, the legal system a 3.7, politicians a 1.9, and parties a 1.9. International bodies fared slightly better: the European Parliament scored a 3.9 and the United Nations a 4.7. The only state institution with a passing grade is the police (5.8), although even this body fared worse than in the previous 2009-2010 edition of the ESS.

It is worth noting that the survey did not inquire about the monarchy because it only includes institutions that are present in each participating country. The study is conducted simultaneously in 29 European states every two years, using random samples of 1,500 to 2,500 individuals. In Spain, the survey is conducted by a team from Pompeu Fabra University in partnership with the Economy Ministry, the Center for Sociological Research (CIS) and La Caixa Foundation.

The scores representing confidence in politicians and parties are at their lowest levels since the survey was first conducted in 2002. The poll further shows that parties are viewed by many voters as being quite similar to one other: agreement with the statement “The various political parties propose alternatives that are clearly distinguishable from one another” was 5.2 in Spain. Sweden, Norway and Switzerland scored highest on this point.

“Although this is nothing new because Spain has always registered very low confidence levels, the deterioration has been spectacular, and our leaders should be concerned,” explains Mariano Torcal, the survey coordinator and chair of political science at Pompeu Fabra.

This expert also adds that even if there is an economic recovery, it will not necessarily mean a return to higher levels of citizen trust in institutions. “Although there is a link with the crisis, the predominant factor is that citizens feel they are not part of the decision-making processes,” he says. “It seems clear that the political system needs to react to this.”

“The new ESS continues to show what other surveys had already suggested,” adds Lluis Orriols, a political science professor at Girona University. “Spain suffers from a crisis of political trust that should not be mistaken for increased political disaffection.”

Failing grade

Josep Ramoneda

A total failing grade: 1.9 out of 10. This is the grade that the Spanish citizens give to their politicians and parties, according to the European Social Survey. Never has the discredit of institutions been so great; but the indignation is directed not against politics, but against those who represent it, their organizations and their practices. In the words of Professor Mariano Torcal, director of the survey in Spain, this loss of confidence is paralleled by a growing interest in “real” politics, and by participation in demonstrations and social platforms. Politics yes, but of some other kind.

The reluctance of the political parties themselves to acknowledge this deterioration and to do something about it is the best proof of the degradation they have sunk into. But what are the causes of this disengagement from society? I can enumerate a few.

First, the lack of empathy with citizens evidenced by a wholly technocratic handling of the crisis, as if politics were merely the handmaid of economics, in which not even unemployment is seen as a sum of personal tragedies but simply a variable statistic. The sense that the political class lives in its own world. There is too much corruption; too much passivity in the face of it; too much blind loyalty to the party (the bent politicians are divided between their crooks and ours). Too many hours spent in restricting the debates in parliament instead of fostering them, and in tinkering around the edge of problems instead of facing them. Too much promiscuity between the world of politics and that of money — and so many photos of political leaders surrounded by bankers and businessmen (the latest of these, Rajoy in Washington) does not do much to inspire confidence; on the contrary, it breeds doubts about the political debts and dependencies involved. In whose interest are they governing?

The inefficiency of the parties in fulfilling their two principal reasons for being: political representation, and the selection of persons suitable for holding public office. Their incapacity for the mission of giving meaning to politics; for setting forth projects that give the public a clear prospect for the future.

In short: “The citizens do not feel they form part of the decision-making process,” in the words of Mariano Torcal. More than this, they are convinced that decisions are not made in function of their interests. The idea is spreading and taking hold that whilst we pay lip service to democracy, we are living under a system of aristocracy.

What do the citizens want? Well, what they want is that the political process be at their service, and not at the service of a few. A set of people who have a weapon in their hands such as the BOE (the Spanish state gazette, in which new laws are promulgated) cannot claim they are powerless.

More concretely, what they want is that there be open discussion of public priorities. And for the citizens these priorities now have a name: social crisis.

In fact, several surveys show that people’s interest in discussing politics with friends and relatives has increased during the crisis. Figures also show growth in nearly all the indicators of political involvement compared with the previous ESS. This activism is measured through questions about people’s participation in authorized demonstrations, cooperation with political parties or citizen advocacy groups, boycotts of specific products for political reasons, petition signing and voter turnout in elections.

The data show a noticeable rise in demonstrations: 25.8 percent of Spanish respondents said they had joined an authorized demonstration over the last year, a seven-point increase from the 2009-2010 survey and much higher in other countries. Meanwhile, 21.9 percent said they had cooperated in some way with an organization or association, while 7.7 percent did the same with a political party or citizen advocacy group (compared to 3.1 percent in 2008, at the beginning of the crisis.)

“The crisis has had a double effect: on one hand, a deterioration of trust in politicians, and on the other, a growing interest in politics and greater civic mobilization,” sums up Torcal.

Even though Spain stands out as one of the European countries with the lowest degree of citizen interest in politics, this interest has risen significantly: people with a strong interest in politics now represent 34.6 percent of the Spanish population, compared with 28.3 percent last time around. There are also fewer people with “no interest” whatsoever in politics: 19.3 percent compared with 31 percent in 2009-2010 and 36.6 percent in 2002- 2003.

The rise in protest actions is closely linked to worsening economic conditions. “Our research shows that the unemployed and the people who once received welfare checks but no longer do are the most active citizens, and the ones who show a greater interest in politics,” explains Guillem Rico, a professor of political science at Barcelona’s Autónoma University.

Making things worse is the fact that Spaniards do not feel politicians are taking a firm stand to protect citizens from poverty or to reduce the income gap between higher and lower classes. The level of satisfaction with the economic situation stands at 2.2 out of 10, less than half what it was four years ago.

Ada Colau, the spokeswoman for PAH Mortgage Victims Platform, an advocacy group which supports homeowners struggling to repay their mortgages, says that these survey figures “reflect what you see on the street.” She also believes that the “unspoken agreement” by which the institutions offered citizens a certain degree of welfare in exchange for the latter not meddling in politics has been broken. “The greatest discredit to democracy is for its leaders to bypass their own laws,” says this activist who feels citizens are increasingly aware that “politics cannot be delegated.”

Torcal agrees: a deteriorating economy affects citizens who are now increasingly aware that politicians live “in oblivion to our demands.” The academic argues that this growing perception of widespread corruption and of political power’s disconnect with its voters has fueled new forms of protest by an expanding group of critical individuals who refuse to accept what’s out there. Events like the neighborhood protest in Gamonal show that “people do not believe that votes are a blank check. A democratic majority does not give you legitimacy to make certain decisions.”

“In recent years we have seen an increase in mobilizations for specific causes, based on the conviction that the legitimacy of a cause is above its legality,” notes Jordi Mir, a professor at Pompeu Fabra and an expert in social movements. Another example of “non-violent civil disobedience” are the PAH’s protests over draconian mortgage conditions and evictions.

Those who once received welfare checks are now the most active citizens”

This rejection of the policies to come out of the crisis has, for the first time in Spain, extended to European institutions. This is a significant indicator, since Spaniards have always been among the greatest supporters of the Union. This new discontent with Brussels could be tied in with “citizen dissatisfaction with the economic conditions imposed by Europe, which run counter to most Spaniards’ preferences,” notes Orriols. Spaniards’ average trust level in the European Parliament has dropped from 4.5 in the last edition of the survey to 3.9 percent today.

The confidence crisis even goes beyond political institutions. For the first time, Spaniards’ trust in public health has taken a hit, even though they still rank among Europe’s greatest supporters of the system. Satisfaction is currently 5.2 percent, down from more than 6.4 in 2010. The same goes for education: for the first time, Spaniards give the system a failing grade of 4.5, almost a whole point lower than in 2010.

This downward trend is shared by other countries in southern Europe, whereas northern countries whose crisis has been less acute posted similar figures to the 2009-2010 survey.

However, experts note that the data should be taken with a grain of salt. “These being questions about citizens’ perception of things, results could vary from one month to the next,” warns Ismael Palacín, president of the Jaume Bofill Foundation, a Catalan research group. In the case of education, the low satisfaction levels could be “the incendiary effect” of the recent controversial reform passed by Congress under the auspices of Education Minister José Ignacio Wert.

Experts also insist that these trends do not herald a change in the political culture of Spaniards. “Politics continues to be an alien experience to most, and we are still below average in terms of our interest in politics and in political debate,” says Orriols.

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