--> -->

A Question of Trust

It was the second attempt to form a government in Spain after socialist Pedro Sánchez gave it a try on 4 March and miserably failed.  On 2 September it was Mariano Rajoy, the leader of the conservative People’s Party (PP) and caretaker prime minister who tried and failed. After two elections and eight months of political bickering, Spain still has no government. Although the PP got the most votes in the last election in June, their victory was not big enough to govern. In spite of an agreement with centre-right newcomer Ciudadanos (Citizens) and a regional Party from the Canary Islands (The Canary Coalition), Rajoy lost the second confidence vote in the parliament.

Whereas the political parties are seemingly unable to find a solution for this deadlock situation, Spanish citizens are getting tired of waiting for a change that never comes. Spain has had no elected government since the December 2015 election and is now well on its way to beat the Belgian record of government formation which stands at 353 days. Yet, the political parties have another two months to prevent the third election with a year and the results of the upcoming regional elections on 25 September in the Basque Country and in Galicia could be decisive to finally reach an agreement.

The current disillusionment of Spanish citizens with politics is a consequence of the political incapacity demonstrated over the last moths, but the Great Recession and several corruption cases had already eroded public trust in politics and politicians. Both the PP and the Socialist Party (PSOE) have been involved in corruption scandals. The structural reforms and cuts in order to overcome the economic crisis did not help either. Citizens feel that politicians promise them improvements in their lives in electoral campaigns but let them down by not keeping their promises when times get rough. Citizens are discontented with their politicians as the data from public opinion shows.

Figure 1 Trust in Political Parties in Spain, source: Eurobarometer

As we can see in the figure above, trust in political parties in Spain has decreased dramatically since the onset of the Great Recession. In spite of the fact that the levels of trust in political parties have never been very high even before the crisis, we can see a clear decrease afterwards. Citizens think politicians are incompetent and the number of those who are becoming disenchanted with politics has been increasing in the last years. Although it looked like there has been a little upturn since 2014, it is expected to drop again in 2016 because of the described political deadlock. The running joke is that maybe the country works best without government.

However, it is not only the national level citizens expressed a lack of trust in; this is also the case regarding the supranational level. Many Spaniards blame the EU for the austerity measures and this is reflected in the erosion of trust in the EU and the European Parliament. We can speak of an institutional crisis beyond national level.

Figure 2 Trust in National Government, National Parliament, European Union and European Parliament in Spain, source: Eurobarometer

Ever since Spain’s EU accession, the Union was seen in positive terms. As I described in a previous post trust in the EU and the European Parliament used to be higher than trust in the national government and the national parliament. As we can see in figure 2, the differences between European and national levels remain over time. The only exception is found in 2004 when the Madrid train bombings took place and the Spanish government offered contradictory information about the culprits. This provoked the anger of many Spaniards and the (conservative) government lost the election. This can explain the loss of trust in the national government that year. However, the Great Recession has caused a decline in trust in all the analysed institutions as public data clearly demonstrates.

These findings are not surprising as the Great Recession has hit Spain very hard. But more worrying is the fact that seven years after the onset of the economic crisis, citizens have not regained their trust in the political institutions. The general apathy of citizens is a serious problem which needs to be tackled. Although it seems that the economic consequences of the crisis are being addressed, this is not the case with the political or institutional consequences. Spain is growing economically and the unemployment rate, though still high, has declined in recent years. However, no measures have been taken to address the institutional crisis and, accordingly, the levels of political trust have remained very low.

Political trust is essential in democracy. It is an indicator that allows us to know how citizens feel about their political system and their institutions. These low levels of trust in national and European institutions should be a warning to politicians. They should look for ways to reconnect Spanish citizens with politics. Politicians should bring politics closer to the citizens; increase its transparency and responsiveness. What we need are more participatory institutions that strengthen the ties between citizens and politicians.

That will only be possible, if the Spanish citizens get involved in the process. While it is true that they turned to the streets in great numbers to protest and some social movements have gained influence in Spanish politics (such as the Platform Against Mortgages), there is also a noticeable apathy concerning ‘organised politics’. According to Eurobarometer data of 2015, 35 per cent of Spaniards never discuss about national political matters and this number rises to 47 per cent in the case of European political matters. Spanish citizens need to be aware that their voices count and that their involvement is absolutely vital to bring about improvements in Spain and in the European Union. And Spanish politicians should take their citizens seriously. Spaniards have voted twice over the last months and have added two new political parties to their preferences. It is time to understand what Spanish citizens want to say with their votes, it is time to move forward. We will see if this will happen or whether we will have a third election in December.

You can download the article in PDF here.

Leave a comment