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Where have all the youth gone? A Madrid protest reflects disaffection and polarization

April 30, 2024 • By Alistair Scrutton
Socialist Party demonstration in Madrid, Saturday, 27 March, Source: Photo by Alistair Scrutton

      As thousands of Socialist Party supporters chanted ‘presidente, presidente!’ in a downtown street in Madrid at the weekend, in an ultimately successful demonstration to get their Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to stay in office, a slightly dissenting voice could be heard under the din of the shouts and the pop songs.      

      ‘Look around. We look like dinosaurs’, said Angel, a 60-year-old Socialist Party activist. He gestured to marchers, many in leather jackets sporting grey beards and thinning hair, squeezed together in the narrow street. He did not have to elaborate further. The point was made among the 12,000 or so marchers. Most people looked over 50 whom mostly appeared males. The UN has also made this point, listing youth participation among a list of 12 commitments for the future. 

   Sanchez had shocked Spain a few days earlier by saying he could resign—prompted, he said, by a corruption investigation into his wife’s business dealings. Sanchez says it was just the latest in a dirty political campaign by rightist opponents. His resignation threat prompted street protests from his Socialist Party supporters, calling him to stay in office.

      The episode underscored the challenge facing one of the most politically polarized nations in Europe, where Sanchez has riled the right with policies, such as his amnesty of Catalan separatists jailed after an illegal independence referendum. The rhetoric I have heard in the Brexit-divided UK—with a prime minister using words such as ‘betrayal’ and ‘surrender’ for opponents—often paled with the language used by Madrileños, spoken as if it was the most normal thing in the world and often infused with slogans from the Spanish Civil War. 

     I had accompanied some Madrid Socialist Party friends to the demonstration. ‘You know you are going to a fascist neighbourhood’, said one colleague after I told him I would be heading after the march to a famous restaurant—known for juicy ‘tortilla de patatas’—in the wealthy Salamanca neighbourhood. (In fact, the visit to the tortilla restaurant showed Salamanca to be no different from any other well-off neighborhood in any European city, populated mostly by tourists, wealthy expats and deep-pocketed shoppers.) It was part of a cocktail of often incendiary language that has also seen Spain’s far right Vox party leader saying people will want to ‘string Sanchez up by his feet’.

      But there was also soul searching. ‘We have no message for the youth’, said Angel, who discussed how difficult it was to recruit young people. In his Socialist Party committee organization, he estimated around 10 per cent of the 500 registered activists were under 30 years old.

      Spain’s Socialist Party dilemma underscores the challenge of many mainstream parties in Europe to attract the youth vote. In Spain, many youths may be turning to the far right Vox party

      Young voters in Europe may be fuelling the growth of the far right, whether in France, the Netherlands or Sweden and youth are more likely to support non-democractic governments than any other age group. For young people mainstream parties appear to have few answers to high unemployment, low wages and sky-high accommodation costs. Indeed, the average age of leaders elected between January and March 2024 is 62 years (See graph below), in stark contrast to the median age in the EU—44.5 years. 

      Spain has one of the Europe’s highest unemployment rates for youth, who are often forced to stay at home with parents into their 30s. But many of the elderly Madrid socialist protesters enjoyed central flats bought decades ago that are now worth hundreds of thousands of euros.

       Leaving the demonstration, eager to try the renowned tortilla de patatas, Angel guided me to the window of a gym in the street. ‘There they are—the youth’. Fit looking youngsters were on running machines, headphones on, seemingly oblivious to efforts outside—in the chilly morning wind, Socialist Party members trying to keep their government in power.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.

About the authors

Alistair Scrutton
Head of Communications and Knowledge Management
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