Taking advantage of EU apathy

MADRID — “Live for politics, not from politics” is the catchphrase of candidate Patricia Garrido, whose party is trying to become Spain's third political force.

Her party — UPyD (Progress and Democracy Union) — received more than 300,000 votes (1.2 percent) in its first national elections one year ago. It now has its sights set on the June 7 elections to the European Parliament, hoping it can overcome a lack of media coverage by thinking outside of the box to engage Spanish voters.

The June 4-7 voting in 27 countries will determine the 736 members of the European Parliament, which is the only part of the EU bureaucracy directly elected by voters and is charged with approving the EU budget and drafting laws and regulations.

Joining the European Union in 1986 was a triumph for Spain, but interest in European affairs has waned in recent years and Spain’s leading political parties have exacerbated the indifference by putting has-been politicians at the top of their candidate lists.

UPyD wants to capitalize on the apathy of the leading parties, offering a slate of candidates who are not professional politicians. They hope they can connect with voters, convincing them of the importance of participating in the elections and thus propelling the party to victory.

The European Parliament "is seen as a sort of elephants’ cemetery, a pre-retirement destination,” said Fernando Vallespin, political science professor at Madrid Autonomous University and former director of CIS, the Center for Sociological Studies.

Both Jaime Mayor Oreja and Juan Fernando Lopez Aguilar, the main candidates for Spain’s two largest parties, were government ministers at one time, but they have not been front-line politicians in Spain of late. And citizens feel other names appearing on the tickets are party faithful being “found a place,” Vallespin said.

UPyD candidates — who have careers outside of politics including as a university professor, doctor, writer and expert in international security — aim to play this assessment in their favor.

Garrido has two masters degrees and spent years in Madrid, London and Milan working in investment banking before leaving it all behind to work on development issues for a non-governmental organization.

“I can do something more useful for society than helping a bank make money,” she said. She said she lives off her work and does not get paid for her political activities. And she said that gives her and her UPyD colleagues “independence” and “a broad vision.”

“If one has been a politician for 25 years, he’s going to defend his seat, not citizens’ interests,” she said, adding, “If I’m not elected, my salary is the same and my work is the same, which, by the way, I love.” She believes professional politicians cannot see beyond the next elections, while she and her UPyD colleagues, free from the need to be elected for a living, think in longer terms. “And, unlike professional politicians, we are normal, regular people, connected to reality.”

Party members have set up marquees in the streets so passersbys can ask questions personally, rather than attending a rally with party enthusiasts where there is no interaction beyond the applause.

UPyD complains that the major media outlets in Spain — known for their political leanings — largely overlook it, leaving the party to reach out to citizens directly. From its humble beginnings without an office, UPyD has counted on word of mouth and the internet to motivate voters.

They have resusciated the pregonero, or old town-crier, in Spanish streets and squares and are distributing a video of his message on the internet.

Spain’s two largest parties are using this campaign to highlight each other’s failures in domestic issues. They realize citizens may cast a vote to “punish” the PSOE, the center-left ruling party in Spain, for the country’s 17 percent unemployment rate or the center-right PP for recent corruption scandals.

Defining itself as a “transversal party” convinced that “ideological divisions of right and left wing are obsolete,” as Garrido characterized it, UPyD is angling for those votes in a bid to bring EU politics back to the people.

Forty-five percent of eligible voters in Spain voted in the previous European elections, held in 2004, a far cry from 1987 when 69 percent of Spanish voters participated in the country’s first European elections. At that time, joining the EU was heralded as a return to the international arena after years of isolation under dictator Francisco Franco. Turnout is predicted to be even lower this time.

Initially, EU funds were used to invest in infrastructure, spurring the country’s economic development. But Spain is now a consolidated democratic country with an economy that ranks it above some G8 players, and development funds are diverted to newer, needier EU member states. Being European is taken for granted and many Spaniards can’t be bothered with voting in a European Parliament election.

“Europe doesn’t grab people," said Vallespin. "It’s far away from the life of citizens."

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