Nov 3, 2014 | 23:20 GMT

5 mins read

Europe's Anti-Establishment Wave Reaches Spain

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

A recent opinion poll showing left-wing Podemos as the most popular political party in Spain indicates that the Continent-wide rise of anti-establishment groups has finally taken hold in the country with the second-highest unemployment rate in Europe after Greece. Despite widespread joblessness, Spain's mainstream parties have managed to remain in control since the beginning of the economic downturn more than five years ago. But as indicated by a Nov. 1 survey putting support for Podemos at around 27 percent, the ruling Popular Party and its traditional opposition, the Socialist Party, will struggle to maintain their domination of Spanish politics in 2015, when the country will hold municipal and regional elections in May and general elections in late November or early December.

The upstart party is centered on the figure of Pablo Iglesias, a professor of political science at the Complutense University of Madrid, who joined other intellectuals in creating the left-wing movement to compete at the European Parliament elections in May. The party received immediate support from small left-wing organizations, as well as from several grassroots movements, most notably the "Indignados" (the group that organized youth protests against former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in mid-2011). With little money or previous political experience, Podemos' campaign for the European Parliament was based mostly on online activism and media interviews with Iglesias. Podemos won 8 percent of the vote and five seats in the European Parliament. Even though the center-right Popular Party and center-left Socialist Party finished in first and second, respectively, combined support for the two mainstream parties fell below 50 percent for the first time since the end of Spain's dictatorship in the late 1970s.

Podemos' platform calls for a number of radical economic reforms, including reversing labor and pension reforms undertaken by the government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and eliminating a constitutional clause that sets deficit targets for the Spanish state. The party also proposes nationalizing private companies in strategic areas such as energy, telecommunications and transportation, as well as auditing the country's public debt to assess what part of it is actually "legitimate" (and therefore, what part of it should actually be paid). The party is not anti-EU per se, but it strongly criticizes austerity measures and Germany's leadership in Europe. Iglesias has been ambiguous about Podemos' opinion on the euro: Though he has criticized the common currency, he has also said his party is not interested in a return to the Spanish peseta.

Similarities to Greece, Lessons From Italy

Podemos' meteoric rise is symptomatic of the weakening of traditional parties across Europe. Spain's situation particularly resembles that of Greece, where the mainstream center-right New Democracy and especially the center-left Panhellenic Socialist Movement have been losing ground to forces from the left. The two traditional blocs were forced to form a "grand coalition" to remain in power — a partnership that would have seemed impossible before Greece's economic crisis. Recent opinion polls show that if elections where held today, the left-wing Syriza party would probably win.

Spain is similar to Greece for another reason: Unlike most Northern European countries, the main anti-establishment opposition is coming from the left, rather than the right. Podemos and Syriza are similar to other European protest parties in their criticism of austerity measures and the current leadership in Brussels. But they lack the anti-immigration sentiment that characterizes the likes of far-right parties such as France's National Front and Britain's U.K. Independence Party. In Podemos and Syriza's case, corruption and the desire to renegotiate sovereign debts play larger roles in their electoral platforms. History is part of the explanation: Greece and Spain have relatively fresh memories of military dictatorships, weakening the growth potential of their right-wing parties.

In the coming months, Podemos will deal with the difficult task of forming a more institutionalized and coherent party apparatus. Italy's Five Star Movement should serve as a cautionary tale. The party was built largely around the popularity of comedian Beppe Grillo, a charismatic figure who managed to attract a significant number of voters who were disappointed with Italy's traditional ruling elites. But after the party's spectacular performance in the general elections of February 2013, when it won 25 percent of the vote, internal frictions, a lack of ideological coherence and Grillo's futile efforts to micromanage his party hurt its popularity. Podemos is much more ideologically cohesive than the Five Star Movement, and it recently agreed on a political structure with Iglesias as its main leader. However, the Spanish party will need to continue to strengthen its internal structures if it is to survive in the long run.


Time is on Podemos' side: Spain will not see a significant reduction in unemployment before the next regional and general elections, and economic growth will remain timid. If Podemos manages to win in one or more of Spain's regions, it could push for anti-austerity policies that challenge the limits on debt and deficit established by the central government. However, Podemos is relatively stronger in Spain's south, which is dependent on subsidies and funds from Madrid. This relationship would reduce these regions' room for maneuver, even if Podemos ruled them. Thus, a more telling gauge of Podemos' power will be the party's performance in central and northwestern Spain.

In any case, Spain's two-party system has been severely hurt by the European crisis and continuous corruption scandals. The country is getting closer to the phase of the crisis that Greece experienced two years ago, with traditional parties finding themselves in competition with surging opposition forces. Today, a grand coalition between the Popular Party and the Socialist Party seems almost impossible, but so, too, did a coalition between Greece's New Democracy and Panhellenic Socialist Movement. The Spanish elites will be fighting for their survival in 2015, and what seems impossible now (whether a mainstream coalition or even an outright victory by Podemos) cannot be ruled out a year from now.

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