The victory of radical-left party Syriza in Greece appears to have driven fresh wind in the sails of left-parties across Europe. This makes centre-right head of governments throughout Europe now shudderingly turning their eyes on Spain’s upcoming elections in the end of the year, in which Podemos, the Spanish counterpart of Syriza, may lastingly alter not only Spain’s, but also Europe’s political landscape.
In a political rally two weeks ago (one week after Syriza’s victory) about 100.000 people took to the streets of Madrid to demand political change on national and supra-national scale. The protestants were shouting “si se puede” (yes, it is possible) and holding up banners bearing letterings criticising the EU’s austerity politics, the inherent corruption in Spain’s political system and the mass unemployment among the Spanish youth. The march was organized by left-wing party Podemos, which was founded in January 2014. Its popularity became already apparent at the European elections, where – after only 5 months of its existence – it received 8% of the votes (5 seats in the EP). However, since last year its reputation did not only persist but even increased. According to the latest opinion polls Podemos would win theupcoming elections with 27,7% ahead of the governing popular party at 20.9%
So how to make sense of such an unexpected ascendancy of Podemos, which until recently was broadly considered a political pygmy on Spain’s political stage lacking the assertiveness and credibility to challenge the virtually hegemonic bipartisanship of the PP and the PSOE (Spain’s centre-left party)? And what may be the implications for Spain and Europe of such a change in the political course?
Instead of trying to change the system from outside through civil disobedience, occupation of public spaces, seat blockades, and so forth, Podemos seeks to bring about social and political change from within the system.
From the ashes of 15-M to a serious candidate for the elections
Podemos’ rise to a serious candidate for winning the upcoming elections can be understood by taking a closer look at the party’s roots and its ideological and programmatic orientation. Podemos was born from the ashes of the 15-M Movement (also known as the Indignants Movement), which started protesting in 2011 against unemployment, welfare cuts, and Spain’s two-party system, but eventually ran out of steam in 2012. Instead of trying to change the system from outside through civil disobedience, occupation of public spaces, seat blockades, and so forth, Podemos seeks to bring about social and political change from within the system. This transformation is to be brought at the national level by objectives such as unconditional income for all, introduction of a 35 hour week (40h at the moment), a referendum on the monarchy, harder punishments for fiscal fraud and corruption, self-determination for Spanish regions, and a recovery of powers delegated to Brussels. At the European level Podemos seeks to increase transparency of EU policy-making, institutionalise more ways of direct participation for EU citizens, limit the term of MEPs to eight years as well as their salaries, and eliminate programmes against immigration such as Frontex and EUROSUR. These goals, particularly at national level, seem to find fertile ground, since most Spaniards are fed up with a public administration that is highly affected by corruption and an economic crisis in its seventh year. According to the UPLCG (University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria) there are around 2000 corruption cases under official investigation, involving at least 500 high-ranking civil servants, which cost the state €40bn yearly. Not to mention the ailing economy, the tolerance for fiscal fraud, the cutting-back of welfare payments and growing socio-economic inequality: 33 of 35 biggest companies in Spain avoid tax through subsidiaries in tax havens; half of Spain’s unemployed no longer receive benefits, while the wealth of the super-rich has increased by 67% since Rajoy (Spanish PM) in 2011 came to power. Yet despite a 1.4% growth of the economy in the last year, every fourth Spaniard remains unemployed. These figures in combination with the parties’ alluring objectives very unequivocally make Podemos’ popularity to a certain extent, comprehensible.
According to the UPLCG (University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria) there are around 2000 corruption cases under official investigation, involving at least 500 high-ranking civil servants, which cost the state €40bn yearly.
Grass-root democracy as a vehicle for credibility
Yet it is the way the party promotes its goals and creates credibility that makes it that attractive to Spaniards of all social classes. Podemos propagates direct participation through its grass-root organisation in “Circulos” (circles) based on collective decision-making, thereby empowering its members to actively and directly shape the programmatic course of the party. 8000 groups sympathising with the party were already founded. Moreover, the party finances itself through crowdfunding, and strictly rejects funding from larger corporations, which ensures its independence. Such an ethos, but also measures like the voluntary decrease of salaries by Podemos’ MEPs according to Spain’s average salary from €8000 to €1930 lends credibility to its objectives. Furthermore, the party openly proclaims an end to the two-party system of the PP and the PSOE, of which, according to Podemos, the former has aggravated the economic condition and is directly responsible for misappropriation of public funds and fiscal fraud of the biggest companies. Alone in Valencia, known for its “city of arts and sciences”, which is a complex of futuristic buildings that have cost €1.3bn. and unfortunately have no real public use, more than 100 politicians from PP have been implicated in scandals in the past years.
Chavism, Bolivarianism & Populism
Considering opinion polls, the public support that Podemos enjoys, and its direct attacks on the mainstream parties, it is no surprise that Spain’s main parties are rattled, and try to fight back by accusing the left-wing party of Chavism Bolivarianism, and populism. In fact these attacks are not fully ungrounded, since general secretary of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, a former university professor of political science at the Complutense University Madrid, has worked during the 2000s as policy advisor for the Venezuelan government. In this context Iglesias has indeed publicly stated his admiration for Chavez’s policies. However, this does not make him per se a Chavist. Furthermore, Iglesias’ speeches certainly contain Marxist and populist elements such as emotionalising language and sentimentalisms, but also direct and debasing narratives. For instance, he usually refers to the traditional political parties and the Spanish elites as “the caste” or states that Spain will not become a “German colony” governed by Merkel. With such language Iglesias falls prey to pejorative narratives of exclusion, which may be justified by figures, however, are incongruous, since they merely serve as instruments for instigating the people against those elites and ensuring their support.
Citizens of debtor nations have not had a say in those decision. Accordingly it is no wonder that radical parties on both sides of the political spectrum are experiencing a surge in membership and are occupying a considerable number of seats in Europe’s parliaments.
Podemos & Syriza vs austerity
However, it has to be admitted that parties such as Podemos and Syriza do seem to have recognised quite contrary to European main stream parties that the causes for low voter turnouts in national and European elections, falls in membership of mainstream parties, growing disenchantment with public institutions and democracy are among others results of austerity politics that have failed to achieve their goals. Austerity measures such as budget cuts, tax increases, and wage cuts, which are meant to create sustainable stability in the Eurozone, have fallen too often on the least-well off and too rare on the well-off. These policies were imposed upon Spanish and Greek, but also on Irish and Portuguese citizen through top-down policies agreed upon by creditor nations and EU technocrats that have not suffered from budget cuts in welfare programmes or wage cuts themselves. Citizens of debtor nations have not had a say in those decision. Accordingly it is no wonder that radical parties on both sides of the political spectrum are experiencing a surge in membership and are occupying a considerable number of seats in Europe’s parliaments. To make matters worse, creditor nations and EU technocrats that vehemently stick to austerity policies do not seem to realise that such political stubbornness may endanger the common European project.
Problem of communication between representatives and their electorates
What seems to happen in European politics is that the policy circle in its simplest form: Input- Throughput- Output, where the input is affected by the quality of the output and is fed back in either demand or support into the political system, seems to be interrupted. In other words, the part in which people feedback their respective position on a particular policy appears to be ignored or simply overheard by mainstream parties and their politicians, in the sense that, only if elections are approaching they turn to voters, may listen to their demands and based on these, promise them the moon. Accordingly we are experiencing a problem of communication between representatives and their electorates, which has led to a crisis of democracy in most European countries.
Left parties as a reminder?
In this sense, the rise of parties such as Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece are an interplay of, on the one hand, ailing political systems characterised by corruption, vested interests, and increasing socio-economic inequality, and, on the other hand, the failure of the European Union and the creditor-nations to incorporate public opinion and concerns of the debtor-countries’ citizen. Hence a rise of a strong left that proclaims a fair Europe should not be subject to demonisation conducted by mainstream parties. Instead it should be conceived of as a reminder to mainstream parties and EU decision-makers that democratic representation requires active and direct incorporation of citizenship’s demands in decision-making processes.