Madrid, Spain—“How does Podemos propose to solve Spain’s most important problem?” Albert Rivera, 36, asked Pablo Iglesias, 37. The two young party leaders—Rivera of Ciudadanos (“Citizens” in Spanish) and Iglesias of Podemos (“We can”)—were sitting across from each other in a cafe in the Nou Barris district in Barcelona, home to three of the five poorest neighborhoods in the city.
The casual conversation, which took up the entire hour of the popular documentary program Salvados in October, was watched by 5.2 million viewers—intrigued to see what might happen when political leaders talk to each other face to face, at a remove from the highly staged format of a debate. Neither Podemos or Ciudadanos is currently represented in Spain’s Congress of Deputies. Yet between the two of them, they are poised to sweep up more than a third of the country’s votes in the general elections on December 20—the biggest change in Spanish politics in thirty years. Rivera or Iglesias may well become the next prime minister.
Rivera was asking Iglesias about the country’s unsustainably high unemployment numbers. Despite government assertions that 2015 would witness “the greatest reduction of unemployment in Spain’s history,” it still hovers at around 21 percent officially overall, with youth unemployment at just under 48 percent. Iglesias’s answer to the question? “Not to look like Bangladesh and look instead like Denmark.” And, he added, “In order to look like Denmark, we have to raise salaries.” “But you can’t do that by decree,” responded Rivera. Yes, you can, Iglesias rebutted, “you can raise the minimum wage from what it is today.” (The minimum wage in Spain is $690 a month.)
For many on both the left and the right, Rivera and Iglesias represent a possible changing of the guard from the two-party domination of the ruling conservative Popular Party (PP) and the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE). But the back-and-forth they shared on the show is telling. While Iglesias approaches the state as an instrument for repairing and building social welfare, Rivera sees that use of state power—often invoking the specter of Venezuela and other populist governments in Latin America—as evidence of creeping authoritarianism. Rivera’s answer to the unemployment problem is an even more flexible labor market, further reducing job security and workers’ rights.
Spain’s slight but much-touted drop in unemployment this past year is largely due to the rise of contratos kleenex (“Kleenex contracts”): short-term, badly paid, precarious jobs. Though the country’s median yearly salary remains a meager $24,000, the most common salary is around $16,500. All the while, income inequality has soared in Spain since the beginning of the crisis, going against the trend elsewhere in Europe. Today, some 3.7 million unemployed have run out of benefits and receive no income whatsoever.