The Podemos ‘earthquake’ could spell real reform in Spain.
The focus in last week’s European elections was on the seismic waves of the distinct currents of Euro-populism and reaction that “earthquaked” to the top of the polls in France, Britain (or at least England), Denmark and Greece. But arguably the most intriguing insurgency was Podemos (We Can) in Spain, a phenomenon worth examining outside the swish and swirl of populism.
Much of what I have seen written about Podemos has them “coming out of nowhere” –a cliché employed by politicians and analysts that means “we didn’t see them coming”. Yet a three-month-old party with a budget of barely €100,000 shot into fourth place with one and a quarter million votes and five seats in the European Parliament –similar to Syriza, the Greek left-wing party they plan to hitch up with.
The eruption of Podemos and its compellingly outspoken leader, Pablo Iglesias, has already triggered the fall of Alfredo Perez Rubalcalba, the Socialist secretary general who has presided over the party’s worst electoral performance since democracy was restored in 1977-78. But while obviously a rising current of a new left, Podemos could be a broader catalyst for political change in Spain and beyond.
The most obvious origins of this cleverly improvised party are in the mass movement of indignados that took over some 50 public squares across Spain three years ago, proclaiming that the EU-wide crisis was not so much a crisis as a scam by bankers and politicians that denies employment to more than half of Spain’s youth.
“If people don’t do politics themselves, they get it done to them, and that’s when they [the politicians] steal your democratic rights as well as your wallet,” Iglesias, a 35-year-old political science professor, said in an interview on Tuesday.
The embryonic party’s emphasis on grassroots participation –through some 300 “circles” across the country– and voting for candidates through a system of primaries, also has obvious inspiration in the indignados assemblies. But Podemos also links back nearly five decades to the soixante-huitard tradition, through figures such as the former Trotskyist leader Jaime Pastor, or Publico, an online newspaper owned by Jaume Roures, Trotskyite-turned-media-tycoon owner of the Mediapro group. Publico’s TV programmes turned Iglesias into a sought-after guest on a range of mainstream current affairs programmes, and this made him a national figure.
The tendency of some media and political analysts to fixate on the internet and social media as the all-powerful enabler in modern politics and, especially, of political insurgencies misses the fact that it was TV that was key to the Podemos breakthrough. It used the web for crowd-funding, for the primaries and to convene meetings. But with almost no money, it pragmatically personalised the campaign in the TV personality of Iglesias, a media scholar who says “the main space or political socialisation in this country is television”.
Podemos policies are vague, populist, anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation. It rages externally against Germany and the troika (the European Commission, European Central Banks and International Monetary Fund) for imposing untenable levels of debt and joblessness on the EU periphery –as they see it– to save German banks. Internally, Iglesias never speaks without lambasting what he calls la casta (the caste) – the ossified hierarchs of the governing Partido Popular and the Socialists, most of whom have never done anything in life except rise inexorably up their parties, all the while (Podemos says) failing or betraying the country.
But this has struck a note amid Spain’s crisis, which is institutional as well as economic –a message that extends beyond the usual leftie suspects to the thinking and sinking middle classes.
Practices emphasised by Podemos such as selection primaries did not come out of nowhere. One of the root causes of institutional decay in Spain is its political parties, in which the list system vests all power in the party leadership. In the course of last year, for example, a group impelled by diverse independent figures such as Carles Casajuana, former Spanish ambassador to the UK, called for wholesale democratic reform of Spain’s parties, which habitually politicise other institutions such as the judiciary. Another of the 100 initial signatories of that manifesto, the economist Cesar Molinas, said this was essential to overcome the “extractive elites” plaguing the country. A smaller group of left-wing independents around the controversial crusading magistrate Baltasar Garzon called somewhat optimistically for a new and unified politics of the left to overcome the crisis.
So no, Podemos did not emerge from nowhere. However well it goes on to perform, the momentum it has already generated could be a catalyst for reform.
Podemos ‘earthquake’ – By Gideon Rachman