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Spain is one of Europe’s most polarized countries. Here’s what needs to change

In recent surveys, Spain scores as one of the most polarized countries in Europe

By: EBR - Posted: Thursday, July 13, 2023

Polarization is a major distraction in Spain’s journey to modernization and reform.
Polarization is a major distraction in Spain’s journey to modernization and reform.

by Miriam Gonzalez,Begona Lucena and Luis Alvarado*

In recent surveys, Spain scores as one of the most polarized countries in Europe. The political debate is riddled with cultural conflict, offensive language proliferates, and candidates on the left and right openly question each other’s right to govern. Given the hostility between the two camps that dominate the Spanish political landscape, one would be forgiven for thinking that the extreme left and extreme right are taking it in turns to wield power. However, and somewhat counterintuitively, the overwhelming majority of Spaniards vote for middle-ground parties like the conservative PP and the left-wing PSOE. The only route to power for extreme parties is as minority partners in coalitions led by the moderate parties.

Polarization is a major distraction in Spain’s journey to modernization and reform. Spain has outstanding infrastructure and excellent health and education systems. The Spanish workforce is serious and hard-working. The redistribution model works. The professional class is accomplished. From engineering or construction to fashion, banking or energy, big Spanish companies compete globally with ease. Madrid has become a fashionable business centre and Barcelona is one of the top European cities for innovative start-ups. In addition to traditional sectors like automotive, agri-food and tourism, the country is well positioned on renewable energy and green hydrogen. And to top it all, Spain is ideally located between the Mediterranean, Europe’s gate to Africa, and the Atlantic – with strong historical links to Latin America, too.

Wasted potential

All that potential has been wasted by almost two decades without significant reforms: productivity remains at 1997 levels; youth unemployment is the highest in Europe; and the country keeps requiring periodic injections of EU money to be able to finance its needs. The changes that the country requires are pretty straightforward and known to most Spaniards: lifting the burden of an antiquated public bureaucracy that is preventing an evolution towards more productive, tech-based sectors, whether on their own or in combination with traditional ones, such as automotive and agri food; adapting university education to meet economic needs; reorienting the education system towards more flexible skills and STEM; putting in place sensible environmental policies, especially related to water, since the country is already feeling the effects of climate change; minimizing the ongoing waste of public funding due to political clientelism; and introducing basic checks and balances in the political system.

Most Spanish citizens rally around those priorities; they want solutions that will modernize the country and make it financially self-reliant. What political parties offer them instead are culture wars, hostility, emotional spin and a maintenance of the status quo. The distance between politics and reality becomes wider and wider. So much so that the “behaviour of politicians” is consistently ranked by Spaniards as one of their top concerns. The political parties, with their rigid hierarchies, organized according to tribalism and patronage rather than talent retention, are not in a position to deal with the challenges of national modernization. It’s almost as if Spain, a country with a difficult infancy in its democratic journey, has now passed puberty and reached adulthood, and has outgrown its political elites. There are generations of people calling for a more modern, innovative, climate-ready and international Spain.

Spain, like many other polarized countries, is crying out for a more practical, sensible and solutions-oriented democracy, one that works for all. There are many Spaniards who are eager to contribute to improve their country, but they do not want to have to become politically tribal to do so. We need new ways to contribute to policy-making through non-partisan, open and inclusive organizations. Spaces where citizens can focus on their real preoccupations rather than on the animosity and rivalry between political parties.

A better Spain is possible

That’s why Espana Mejor was founded, which translates as a “better Spain.” As a non-pro­fit, non-partisan political incubator, we promote innovative and pragmatic public policies to boost Spain’s potential – and we do so with the direct participation of Spanish citizens.

We are open to all, and aim to get people from different ideologies working together and putting the interest of the country above their own differences. We are not a think-tank, though we develop public policy solutions with experts who use dispassionate empirical methodologies. We are not a lobby group, though we advocate for policy proposals in the public interest. And we are not a political party, though we aim to influence the national political agenda through the direct participation of citizens and civil society groups. Espana Mejor takes a true hybrid model – one long needed to counteract the political tribalism that is alienating citizens and blocking the country’s potential.

In the month and a half since it was founded, Espana Mejor has done things with young people that have never been done in Spain. For example, we’ve given them a chance to be heard, carrying out a poll of 50,000 young Spaniards. We’ve also set up behavioural science consultative panels, teaming up experts with young people to develop public policy proposals.

Participatory politics and policy-making

The world has experienced countless transformations in the past 20 years. We now travel, communicate, educate ourselves, work, get medical treatment and entertain ourselves differently. Technology has empowered us so that we can organize ourselves with far greater autonomy and, for any of those activities, stop relying on top-down rigid structures. We have cut intermediaries and now have many more options at our disposal, options that can be adapted, and personalized, to our needs. But paradoxically, the only area where there have been no changes, is the area that matters most: politics. It is high time to start exploring alternative options for policy involvement without compromising the basic guarantees of our democratic systems.

Countries like Spain need innovative ways for people to participate in politics and policy-making, open political platforms that are focused not on political hostility, but on finding concrete solutions. Democracy cannot be alien to innovation. In fact, innovation in citizens’ participation is the best way to guarantee the sustainability of democracy.

*Co-Founder, Espana Mejor and Co-Founder, Espana Mejor and Head of GAEA Program, World Economic Forum
**first published in: Weforum.org



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