All unextraordinary men, the Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti once wrote, are “already coming apart” once they’ve turned 40. After that, it’s the beginning of the end. This may be nowhere truer than in politics, where the younger you start, the more likely you’ll turn a premature gray.
In Spain now, the political class is aging and, as Onetti warned, it is a maturity that smacks of senescence.
On Nov. 20, the 36th anniversary of Francisco Franco’s death, Spaniards will choose between a 60-year-old Socialist, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, and a 56-year-old conservative, Mariano Rajoy. By the standards of this fledgling democracy, only 34 years old itself, these men are old, and a sign that that their parties have not aged well. Since the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975, all of the elected prime ministers had been young, in their 40s when they took office.
The reformer Adolfo Suárez, 48 at the time, was forced to quit in 1981 amid an irrepressible tide of disenchantment with his leadership, which a younger generation felt was stained by the institutions and mentalities of old. The charismatic Felipe González, who resoundingly won election the following year, at 40, left the Moncloa Palace, the official residence, under scandal in 1996. His successor, the conservative José María Aznar, was 43. But by 2004, after embroiling Spain in the Iraq war, Mr. Aznar had soured his party’s chances; after a terrorist attack days before the election, the 43-year-old Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero emerged as the victor. Now his unpopularity has brought early elections.
Mr. Zapatero’s demise seems to mark the end of the line. In lieu of a fresh visage to replace him are stalwart survivors of partisan infighting, facing an electorate ever more cynical about political solutions to an economic and social quagmire. Call it a democracy’s midlife crisis.
The choice now, one columnist lamented in El País, is between politicians who have long been the “No. 2 men” of their parties — Mr. Rubalcaba a tactician and technocrat and Mr. Rajoy a two-time loser (2004 and 2008). Neither has sounded the clarion call of youthful renewal that echoed from Mr. González to Mr. Zapatero.
“The political class could have renewed itself but has not,” said the Spanish novelist Javier Cercas, who wrote “The Anatomy of a Moment,” an account of a 1981 coup attempt and the fall of Mr. Suárez.
The history of Franco’s twilight years, and the transition to democracy that followed, explains the generational trend. With a young left taking shape in the mid-1970s, and a right desperate to outrun its associations with Franco, fresh-faced leaders embodied regeneration. At every turn since, candidates talked of new beginnings — until now, when fresh ideas are scarce. Spain’s government is in thrall to Brussels, and the social safety net is fraying. Both parties vow not to cut social services too deeply, but the public knows that more austerity is coming. So there is no change to believe in, and the public has turned salty in its indignation.
And this is the fatal twist: the longer a politician has been at it, the harder it is to wash his hands of a partisan taint.
A big part of the disillusionment, said the historian Santos Juliá, “is the dominance of partisanship and politicization.” Mr. Cercas agreed: “This is not a democracy, but a partitocracy, a government by the parties. When democracy took root, the political class was concerned that political parties didn’t exist.”
Back then, many parties were still illegal, as they were under Franco. So, Mr. Cercas said, “the political class made sure to create a strong partisan tradition.”
Now, however, the formulas for apportioning electoral districts have effectively concentrated power in the hands of the two major parties, and Spain’s myriad smaller parties cannot compete.
In the late 1970s the formulas made more sense, but in 2011 they rankle as an odd residue of the transition. Meanwhile, exhausted politicians use the ethos of strong parties as an excuse to invoke party unity, and answer to the electorate later. After the Socialists were decimated in local elections last May, the party closed ranks around Mr. Rubalcaba to avoid divisive primaries before national elections. It was a puzzling, but revealing, reaction to a public rebuke at the ballot box.
Popular ire, meanwhile, has shifted to the two-party system itself — especially to “closed” or “blocked” lists of candidates that voters don’t control. A recent study of select provinces revealed that more than half of conservatives and one-third of Socialists on the lists were being investigated for corruption.
A youth protest movement has been decrying the unresponsiveness of the political class with twin slogans: “The politicians don’t represent us” and “They call it democracy, but it’s not that.” Recent polls found that only about 55 percent of these “indignados” turned out to vote in municipal elections (10 percent less than the national average). Of those who did, 15 percent cast blank ballots.
If Spain’s famed transition brought it democratic institutions, the present moment may well be exposing the limits of their promise. Many Spaniards are still proud of the transition as a model for achieving civic maturity. But in a newer age of enfeebled democracy, a younger generation is having a falling-out with government itself.
By Jonathan Blitzer, a journalist and translator based in Madrid.