Tuesday, 14 July 2015 08:19

Podemos: Spain under a magnifying glass

Written by Leire Ariz Sarasketa
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Photo: Bloco (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Spanish party Podemos has been on the rise in Spain gaining popularity in the country's most recent regional elections. E&M author Leire Ariz Sarasketa takes a closer look at the movement and what it means for both Spain and Europe.

When Spanish protesters took to the streets in 2011, they voiced their complaints about corruption and what they considered to be a faulty democratic system. Back then, a few politicians condescendingly suggested that rather than by occupying public spaces, the so-called indignados would be more effective at changing the system by going into politics. "Let's see how good they are in the real world," they seemed to think. Four years on, the new Spanish party Podemos, considered by many an heir of the Indignados movement, has five seats in the European Parliament and recently broke records in the local and regional elections held in May. 

This transformation from street protesters to political heavyweights tells a powerful story of the rise of popular movements everywhere. Take for instance in the fact that the new Mayor of Barcelona, known for her fight against evictions was previously arrested by a police force that will now be under her control.

While few remember the early comparisons of these images to the Arab Spring that preceded the Indignados movement, or the Occupying trend that followed, today the popular comparison is with Syriza in Greece or Movimento Cinque Stelle in Italy. But is there a European story in the rise of Podemos? Is this movement about citizens' empowerment against political abuses or is it populism; is it about improving democratic deficits, or venting about the economic crisis? 

The Second Transition

Many in Spain are labelling the transformations the country is currently going through as a "Second Transition". The first one occurred between the end of Franco's dictatorship in 1975 and the establishment of a democratic constitution in 1978. That shift was praised by many for setting the path to a prosperous democracy through consensus, but it was also criticised for being too soft on the dictatorship's key figures, and for constraining later efforts to further modernise the country. In a subtle way, today's events are a reaction of the political movements that were most damaged by both the dictatorship and the transition.

This is perhaps most obvious from the fact that the demonstration on the 15 May 2011 that started it all took place under the motto "Real Democracy Now" and demanded a reform of the Spanish electoral law that harmed the minorities. At the time, the conservatives hadn't even come to power and the country was at a very early stage of the economic crisis, before it received a European bailout. 

The early days were thus more about Spain than they were about Europe. They were about corruption, the lack of appropriate representation in a duopoly of power, and the need for maturity in a democracy that was too easy to abuse for those who stay in power for that long. They were about so many things that the main criticism was that nobody really knew what they were actually about. The movement's rejection of spokespeople didn't help clarify this issue. But mostly, it felt like it was about the need of angry citizens to tell their representatives about the urge to change things. What that change needed to look like was precisely supposed to be the job of policymakers. In this aspect, Podemos' birth and rise are also tied to the unfulfillment of that duty, and could have been avoided had the main existing parties taken early action.

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Photo: Bloco (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In this regard, the last but perhaps most important question is whether popular uprisings can provide the dramatic shifts in policies that are required for a big systemic change. Podemos' role may be to shake up the way politics is done in Spain by scaring traditional politicians into gradual change. Perhaps change is triggered when a new narrative is brought on stage, and when a debate brings a shift in values that forces a new way of doing things almost naturally. If that is not the case, can we trust that Podemos will be able to design smart policies, negotiate the deals with all the actors involved, and be able to deliver? Is it possible to trust the establishment with that task anyway?

This may be the main issue threatening Podemos' performance in the upcoming national elections. In a way, it is inevitable for the big hope that has been built around a foundation of unspecific symbolism to disappoint, which leads many to conclude it would have been better for the party to have been created closer to the date of the national elections, with all the thrill of the protest movement still intact. Instead, Podemos is already facing scandals like the resignation of their number three over tax fraud allegations or the Madrid representative who tweeted about the Holocaust and ETA victims. Additionally, the success in the European elections can be attributed to the novelty of the party, and that  in the local elections to the fact that Podemos didn't run with its own brand, but through support for local lists linked to popular movements that were well known in local politics. Running later this year, with the Podemos brand, and a controversial candidate like Pablo Iglesias will be a different story.

The European Context

Even though a big part of Podemos' story is exclusively Spain's, the impact on and from the European context is unquestionable. On the receiving end, the party would have never succeeded without the anger provided by the economic crisis and the unfinished European project. When it comes to the impact on Europe, the influence of Podemos is threefold. 

Firstly, it is fuelling the austerity debate by bringing the attention back to social issues and supporting debt forgiveness, which is considered populist by some, but very much needed by economists like the FT's Wolfgang Munchau

Secondly, it is widening the gap between north and south. Countries in southern Europe are experiencing the rise of left-wing populism, but the opposite is happening in the north with the increased popularity of far right parties similar to the likes of the True Finns, Pegida, or UKIP. Even if none of these parties manages to win an election, the way they force the centrists to swing left or right respectively is increasing the differences between European countries and making agreements harder to reach.

Finally, the new left's success is being paid for by the decline of social democracy, though this is also taking place in countries where the radical left is not successful. To sum it up, while the message for the Spanish socialists is that they won't win an election by betraying their left-wing values, the message for Labour in the UK was that they were not able to win by sticking to them.

I cannot predict what this movement's place will be in Spain's history or in Europe's. But after four years of existence, it does seem to be  the beginning of something. Perhaps the beginning of a real political and economic change, or perhaps a failure that will indicate other forms of doing politics.



Leire Ariz a journalist by training, is currently working in communications and PR. When she is not binge reading, she has her head buried in a Lonely Planet to plan a trip. Or she is getting high on peach candies.



Last modified on Tuesday, 08 September 2015 10:48

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