Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias talks to the press in Madrid. Demotix/Hugo Ortuno Suarez. Some rights reserved.
Last week’s European elections showed a striking splintering of the party vote in Spain, a country whose national electoral rules severely punish smaller parties that aim to have a national reach. The biggest novelty was not the rise of xenophobic nationalists or renegade Eurosceptics. It was the appearance - virtually out of nowhere - of a new party named Podemos (Spanish for “We Can”) whose program places it well to the left of the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), and arguably even the Greek Syriza. Launched by three Madrid academics as a citizens’ platform just four months before the elections, Podemos captured an astounding eight percent of the national vote. The results also showed an increased vote share for other small parties and a sharp fall for both major national parties (the PSOE and the ruling conservative Partido Popular (PP)). In Catalonia, however, it was the stridently separatist Republican Left (Esquerra Republicana) which for the first time surpassed the traditional, center-Right Catalan nationalist coalition (CiU) with which it governs the region.
The extraordinary electoral success of Podemos, given its short trajectory, has had the greatest repercussion because it threatens the electoral strategies of almost all major players in Spain. The reaction of the political establishment was swift. Just a week after the elections, Spanish King Juan Carlos announced his abdication in favor of his heir; a move that closes almost four decades of Spanish history going back to the death of General Franco in 1975 and the democratic transition in which the king featured so prominently. Although both the palace and the leaders of the PSOE and PP insist the decision was taken months ago, it was clearly expedited by the electoral debacle. A law facilitating the unforeseen succession of a living monarch had to be patched together this week with predictable opposition from those who oppose the monarchy itself. The succession clearly appears to be rushed by those who advise the king (not least the leaders of the two main parties) as a game-changing move. The two parties are now negotiating the formula to maintain the king’s immunity from prosecution, while Izquierda Unida (the United Left dominated by former Communist Party members) is calling for an open call vote in parliament in which each member has to express their vote publicly.
Although Spain has seen less violent protest than Greece, Spanish politics has been subsumed in an acute and progressive crisis of legitimacy since 2011 when pro-cyclical austerity measures began to be imposed, first by the Socialist government of Prime Minister Rodriguez Zapatero and subsequently the conservative (PP) government of Mariano Rajoy. A collapse of support for the monarchy and an unprecedented rise in separatist sentiment in Catalonia are but two elements of a much wider loss of trust in the political institutions forged during the country’s return to democracy four decades ago. The asymmetric model of political decentralization adopted as a necessary compromise in the constitution of 1978 has long marred Spanish politics because it rendered regional devolution open ended, encouraging local parties in Catalonia and elsewhere to compete on the basis of nationalist sentiment. However the brinksmanship witnessed in recent months over Catalan independence and the unravelling of the party system in the European elections cannot be separated from the country’s blighting economic crisis: one that has left over 25% of the labor force unemployed for now over two years and, even more significantly, close to 2 million households (one out of every ten) without a single employed member.
The king, in his abdication speech, recognized so much, listing the social scars left by the “long and profound economic crisis” as his principal reason for passing the torch to the next generation, to guarantee stability, as he put it, but also to pursue timely reforms. The abdication speech seemed crafted to presage a process of controlled constitutional reform by which Spain’s traditional parties (including those in Catalonia) will seek to contain their losses. Whether this effort can prove successful in the context of continued austerity measures imposed on Spain from Brussels and Berlin remains a wide open question.
Podemos’ success has been based on its ability to capture the votes of those hurt most by the crisis. The party managed to cut through the thicket of an electoral debate that had little to offer those worst hit. Marred by corruption scandals (which also engulfed the monarchy), and aware that they are jointly blamed for the austerity measures imposed by Brussels, the major parties avoided any serious discussion of Europe. Instead they displaced much of their attention during pre-election debates onto the challenge in Catalonia (where Podemos, refusing to be drawn into the matter, nonetheless received almost 5 percent of the vote). The stand-off over the constitutionality of a Catalan independence referendum has been exploited by the PP to weaken its Socialist rival (blamed for abetting the nationalist escalade under its mandate) and the economic crisis has been exploited by Catalan nationalists insisting that the region’s poor economic performance is due to unfair fiscal treatment from Madrid and that Catalonia would do better if rid of poorer Spanish regions. The PSOE, meanwhile, has sought to differentiate itself by proposing a federal constitution (one intended to settle the conflict with Catalan nationalism but that also has few takers in Catalonia).
The distraction of the territorial debate has provided some coverage for everyone while austerity measures have forced families to deplete their assets to support unemployed relatives. But it has also fueled the idea that the traditional parties are out of touch with the plight of ordinary people; an idea Podemos has capitalized on. The main contention of the party’s telegenic public spokesperson Pablo Iglesias (who coincidentally carries the name of the PSOE’s 19th century founder) is that Spain’s elites have formed a “political caste” too coopted by big money to offer solutions for the urgent needs of its citizenry.
As if to confirm the diagnosis, established news outlets in Spain have been quick to tag Podemos as a “populist” movement, associating it surreptitiously with the rise of unsavory anti-liberalisms elsewhere in Europe. But that charge has failed to stick. The party’s program - fashioned through deliberations and voting in local “circles” that anyone could form without formal party membership - includes calls for higher minimum wages, a universal basic income, the nationalization of utilities and publicly rescued banks, and the suspension of deportation centers and EU border control programs (which have been associated with a number of recent tragedies along Spain’s southern coast). That may be far-fetched in today’s Europe (a reasonable criticism). But it is hardly to be compared to that of Eurosceptic renegades or xenophobic nationalists that advanced elsewhere in Europe. Nor should the party be mistaken as a movement of the young against a privileged older generation. To the surprise of many, a large majority of Podemos voters seem to be over 35 (and a fifth over 55).
Excessive idealism, or a lack of internal coherence given its loose structure may render Podemos a flash in the pan if it fails to redirect political debate effectively towards the immediate needs of people. The political establishment’s reaction to the electoral shake-up (now centered on the hope that the royal succession will afford everyone an opportunity to reset) is leading other left-wing parties to up the ante by focusing on an immediate referendum on the monarchy such as is now being demanded by Izquierda Unida. It is a tempting antidote to the internal conflict the Left has experienced over Catalonia. Yet, even if, if pressed, most Spaniards probably hold republican convictions, it makes little sense for such a referendum to be held if it is not preceded by a clear public debate on what should replace the monarchy (and here there is likely to be much less agreement). The single largest risk, however, remains the prospect that even the abdication of the Spanish king – once a symbol of liberal democracy in Europe – fails to be recognized in Berlin and Brussels as the writing on the wall that it ought to convey.