Spanish general election results, anti-business culture, and civil servants

July 24, 2023

Some lady is angry at me on Instagram.

The reason is a meme: a meme suggesting that while the far left has recently suggested giving every eighteen year old in Spain 20,000€, they’re forgetting to help business owners and workers, and haven’t even mentioned the self-employed “autónomos” in their program.

I shared it in the run-up to the general election which finally took place yesterday, 23 July 2023.

And it’s a meme. A joke. Barely even a political statement.

Really, I meant it as a comment on Spanish politics in general.

We’ve got several parties all over the political spectrum, specializing in different sorts of issues, but making things easier for small businesses and the self-employed doesn’t seem to be on anybody’s radar. It’s not even talked about.

But, over on Instagram, some lady lost it and declared she couldn’t bring herself to listen to my podcast or buy my books if I was going to keep talking about my “political opinions”.

Well, okay, some lady.

I guess she’s probably offended by anyone who dares to question the far-left “subsidize everyone except business because business is evil” dogma. That’s pretty common.

Anyway, I blocked her. Haters gonna hate. And I’m just a lowly non-voting immigrant who’s not represented by any political party in Spain.

Sad! But as a busy third-class citizen, I’ve got things to do other than coddle her feelings. (Running a business, for example.)

We’re going to talk about the election results in a minute.

But first, while we’re here, let’s talk a bit about Spanish work and business (or anti-business) culture. and Why doesn’t anyone want to be “autónomo” in Spain?

Funcionarios vs autónomos: the battle for Spaniards’ soul

A few years ago I wrote an article about working in Spain, where I talked about some of Morena’s coworkers sitting around the office hoping to be fired so they could live off their severance package for months (or years) and not have to find a new job.

It’s not polite to talk about, but it’s just one aspect of Spanish work culture: the contracts that make it hard to fire people who have been around for a while, even if they’re useless or incompetent.

In other words, it’s another example of well-meaning laws intended to protect workers’ rights that are later exploited by an unscrupulous and lazy few.

If you’re self-employed, of course, you have no such options. You work, you pay taxes, and (hopefully) you keep your head above water so you can continue working and paying taxes next year.

You have to sign up to be “autónomo” for any kind of self-employment, no matter how tenuous, and pay into Social Security every month whether or not you’re making any money – all of which leads most Spanish people to think (rightly) that being autónomo is not a very good deal.

Just getting all the papers in order to start working for yourself can be a complex process – and remember, you’re officially supposed to do all this before you’ve earned your first euro.

No wonder most Spaniards dream of being civil servants, o sea, funcionarios.

Why don’t Spaniards want to work in the private sector?

The anti-business culture is sort of a general tendency in Spain.

Years ago I was with some old-school Spanish friends up in Cantabria, the cool, green northern region you should totally visit when you have the chance.

We were visiting some caves in the area and so we had to buy tickets from a guy in a glass booth. The ticket guy was reading a book of poetry between customers (it wasn’t a very busy cave) and my friends struck up a conversation with him.

He seemed friendly, and intelligent. But my comment was, “What a terrible job! Sitting in that little booth all day, just doing one thing…”

“Oh no,” my friends corrected me. “That’s a really good job. Steady salary. Work from nine to three. Government work. And afterwards, you go home, and have a life!”

I wasn’t seeing it, but a lot of Spanish people seem to agree: better to work for the government and have a bad salary every month, and a job where you can’t get fired, than to work in the private sector.

And looking into the numbers, they’re right. The private sector jobs often pay pretty badly. Some have permanent contracts where they’re close to unfireable, but many don’t: there are also temporary contracts where you can be fired with little notice or severance pay, and seasonal contracts where you’re expected to be on unemployment for part of every year.

Finally, the working hours, in the private sector, tend to be much longer – the “culture of presentismo” that I’ve mentioned elsewhere tends to value people who put in long hours, whether or not they actually get anything done.

The dream of becoming a “funcionario” in Spain

For those reasons and more, many of Spain’s brightest and best prefer to become funcionarios, like the guy in the ticket booth outside that cave, many years ago.

Getting a government job means you don’t have any of those problems – plus your parents will probably approve, and support you while you prepare.

And even more than that, as a funcionario, you’re basically unfireable as long as you don’t do anything that blatantly subverts the Constitution. (There are cases of funcionarios out there who don’t show up to work for 10 years or more and still get paid. Vaya.)

Hay bales in Girona, July 2018.

The main downside to becoming a funcionario is that you have to take a civil service exam – known in Spanish as oposiciones.

These are (allegedly) very difficult tests, and many people take several years of study and various attempts to pass them. And they’re for any kind of government worker. Public school teacher? Mail carrier? Bus driver? All have to take the oposiciones.

Looking at the salaries online, I can see the appeal of this sort of job. It’s not very glamorous, but apparently a bus driver for the EMT in Madrid earns almost 37,000€ per year, which – in Spain, at least – is a pretty good salary.

To give you some context, when I was an English teacher working at various language schools back in the day, I doubt I ever made more than 13,000€ per year. That takes into account some seasonality – no work at all from July to mid-September. Plus I was illegal or semi-legal at the time. But still, Spanish private sector salaries can be pretty bad even for Spaniards.

Good enough for government work

So if you’re a young Spanish person finishing up your degree, a life in government work doesn’t exactly seem like a bad option. Your parents will probably support you: live at home as long as you want, study 12 hours a day for the oposiciones…

It’ll all pay off eventually, when you get your first job and can finally move out of mom’s house and into a rent-controlled flat… at age 30. (I’m not exaggerating about that last bit.)

I’m sure I’ll get some hate for this large generalization, but a lot of Spanish people aren’t really encouraged to have huge ambitions. Most people aren’t walking around bragging about their 6-figure consulting jobs. Becoming a doctor or a lawyer is still desirable because of the status, but not particularly well-paid, compared to wealthier countries.

free speech in spain
The Spanish parliament building in Madrid.

On the other hand, there’s a greater respect for people with regular jobs than we tend to have back in the US – and a lot of “regular jobs” actually pay pretty well, compared to the national average.

And autónomos, incidentally, often do much worse – according to the data I’ve seen, about two thirds of self-employed people in Spain make less than minimum wage.

(As usual, the caveat is that there’s a lot of underground economy that’s impossible to calculate. But – evil capitalist that I am – I’d like to insist that if the taxes were lower and the paperwork less onerous, there’d be fewer under-the-table payments as well.)

All this without even mentioning that I’ve had multiple landlords refuse to rent to me because I’m autónomo, and the general stigma of being “basically unemployed” to most members of polite society, and, well, I get a bit annoyed about the whole thing.

Have fun at the office, though.

Spain’s July 2023 general election results

The general election, like I said, was yesterday, and there was no clear winner.

The (center right) Popular Party got the most votes, but even in coalition with (far right) Vox they don’t have a majority.

The current coalition between the Socialist party (center-left PSOE) and Sumar (that’s this week’s coalition of leftist groups) has fewer votes than the right wing bloc, but may be able to keep governing – depending on who votes and who abstains when they open the new session of Parliament and try to form a new government.

This is all a bit unexpected – as little as a week ago, it was assumed that Pedro Sánchez was going to be out, and we’d have a right wing majority with the PP and Vox running things. That did not happen, and at this point it looks possible that we’ll have a few more years of Sánchez.

Unfortunately, it looks like the Catalan independence parties are going to be the swing votes who get to decide who governs – La Vanguardia “newspaper” up here in Catalonia is basically declaring the whole thing to be a victory for Puigdemont, the leader of Junts who’s been hiding out in Belgium for the last several years after sorta-kinda declaring independence back in 2017.

The suddenly-essential Catalan parties are asking for amnesty for their crimes against the Constitution as well as “self-determination” as conditions for their help. And this is even taking into consideration that the independence parties have lost a lot of votes over the past several years as people move on to other, more pressing issues. (I’m hoping not to have to write a follow-up here when we try to figure out what “self-determination” actually means.)

The Spanish political adventure continues…

Somebody told me years ago that all Spanish elections were the same: no matter what the result, everyone declares victory.

I didn’t know what she meant at the time, but I’ve been watching since then and it turns out she’s mostly right. This time the Catalans won, even though they lost. Sumar is claiming that they changed the tone of the campaign – helping to hold off the far right is a victory, even though they lost. The socialists might still govern, even though they lost.

The party that actually won, the PP, “didn’t get the result they expected” but I guess they also have some chance of governing – although basically, they lost. Being the most-voted party doesn’t help unless you have an absolute majority – or can form a coalition.

All this to say: politics is lame.

I’ve probably said that before, though.

Oh well. Here’s to another few years of Pedro Sánchez.

Guess I’d better go earn some money – I’ve got 17 tax bills a year to pay, over here. And they’re only getting bigger.

That’s all I’ve got for today.

Hope you’re doing well, wherever you are.

Stay democratic,

Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. If you liked this article, feel free to subsidize me. Yes, Yolanda Díaz (and other lefty politicians) will never support this blog or podcast, but you can. Buy me a virtual coffee here. Thanks!

P.P.S. Recently, the government is trying to import talent by creating a digital nomad visa. Hopefully that’ll bring some small business into the country, but I have my doubts about all their criteria. We’ll see.

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. As an autonimo for the last 15+ years I wholeheartedly agree that we get NO help from whoever is in power and as for the monthly payment well!!! I was also self employed in the UK for a similar time and it was so much cheaper. Not being able to vote in the general election is a farce

  2. A very accurate description of everything, from autónomos and funcionarios to everybody winning elections.
    But, on this occasion, there has been an exception.
    Rufian described the results of the election as the most Spanish ones ever, and, being him an independentist it means they lost. Once in a while someone recognizes having lost. Hurra!

  3. I had to giggle when reading this as it’s 100% spot on. I tried explaining this to my friends and family back in South Africa and they just could not believe it. How in today’s world do entrepreneurs or startups not get supported? And the oposiciones craze haha

    1. Hey Robyn, thanks for commenting! Since I’ve only ever been “autónomo” in Spain, I have no idea what support for entrepreneurs would even look like. But I’m pretty sure what I’m getting here is the opposite: active discouragement. Oh well. Así es la vida…

  4. So, true. I’ve been here for 40 years and most of that time as an “autónomo”. I really thought (naïvely) that they were starting to listen when they announced they were going to review the system. Alas, I’m now paying a little bit more than I was as a result of the “reform”. Even the “reformists” don’t get it. It really should be means-tested. As it is, it discriminates against those who make the least money and who need helping out the most.

    1. Wow, 40 years! Yeah I don’t think anyone in the government realizes where money comes from, so they’re probably going to keep right on making autónomos’ lives more difficult. Thanks for commenting!

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