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Democratic Obligations

March 7, 2008

As Spain goes to the polls on Sunday, March 9, it's time to look at the failings of both political parties in addressing the country's most pressing problems, writes Spanish author Antonio Munoz Molina.


In the middle of this electoral campaign, I noticed that election posters weren't displayed on the streets. This made me think of the first democratic campaign in Spain that I participated in with such hope 31 years ago. I reached voting age -- 21 years old at the time -- at the same time democracy arrived to my country.

We hadn't had free elections since February of 1936, only a few months before the military rebellion against the Spanish Republic and the start of the Spanish Civil War.

Spanish novelist Antonio Munoz Molina smiles after he was awarded a literary prize
Antonio Munoz MolinaImage: AP

In that first election of 1977, street walls were plastered with posters, flags and handbills featuring the candidates' faces. The air was full of speeches emanating from car loudspeakers.

Voting for democracy's sake

This morning I went out to take a walk and realized that none of this exists today. Just as in the past, elections come up frequently and, as usual, the candidates make themselves hoarse repeating excessive promises and launching tasteless attacks against their adversaries. But this time the city is quiet and the people appear to be focused on their personal affairs, removed from the melodrama of political confrontation.

Spaniards will not only vote, but will do so in very high numbers. Those of us with doubts will go as well, despite the fact that we don't identify with any of the major candidates and despite wishing that the campaigns would have discussed more ideas and offered fewer empty slogans.

In Spain, the division between the left and the right, between the Socialist Party and the People's Party is very strong. This is in contrast to the moderate tone of the immense majority of the country and the limited actual differences between the parties' proposals.

Issues such as homosexual marriage, abortion rights and the Catholic Church's involvement in education have provoked large confrontations among some people. But the majority of the population, including Catholics, is relatively tolerant in practice.

Ignoring the big issues

More serious issues are not debated because neither of the two political parties can come up with a solution. No matter how big their electoral victory, some problems would require a major, long-term national agreement.

You need such an agreement to stem the decline of the educational system, which according to the most serious international evaluations continues to worsen, harming both the strength of our citizens and our economic competitiveness. You need such an agreement for international politics as well, in order to regain a position of power in the European Union and to establish more cordial relations with the United States.

The two big national parties also need to decide definitively on the federal map of the country, which is in constant danger of being altered by extremism and nationalism. Without a shared agreement and without giving in to the temptations of xenophobia and demagoguery, it's impossible to create solid immigration policies that accept the rights and obligations of those immigrants that our country is able to absorb.

Most experts, except the government, agree that the Spanish economy is nearing the end of an era of growth. There is also the problem of geographical inequalities in the distribution of water. Spain is the country in Europe most threatened by desertification: one part of our territory receives abundant rain; the other lives in permanent danger of drought.

Rhetoric trumps action

With all of the divisions between parties and regional egoisms, solutions seem unlikely. Is any party proposing the improvement of public services, austerity and public sector professionalism? It doesn't appear that the parties think of this, nor does it seem that they are in favor of toning down their belligerence to concentrate on the search for rational solutions.

Except for the staunchest supporters, the majority of Spaniards are following the electoral campaign only reluctantly and we are glad that there aren't posters on the streets. But many of us, despite our skepticism, will go and vote, if only because we still remember an era in which democracy didn't exist.

Antonio Munoz Molina is one of Spain's best-known writers and commentators. (th)