Things got shaken up quite a bit in Spanish politics last week, as they did in much of the European Union. The Union’s parliamentary elections, held just over a week ago, exposed massive discontent toward the traditional ruling parties and were followed by a week of mea culpa’s, resignations, restructuring, and nasty infighting.
The more important implications of the results lie less in the composition of the new parliament, relatively low on the EU power totem poll, than in each country’s upcoming regional and national elections. De facto two-party systems that exist in many of the 28 EU states, despite their European-style multiparty look, are at risk, as smaller parties grow and new alliances form.
In many states, nationalist, leftwing, or simply anti-EU parties advanced at the expense of both center-right conservative and center-left socialist parties. Openly anti-immigrant nationalist parties gained alarming ground in countries with relatively long histories of immigration and foreigner scapegoating, such as France, Denmark, Holland, Greece, Austria, and Britain. But parties with platforms that were simply anti-EU or more left-leaning than the mainstream socialists, such as in Italy, Greece, and Spain, also gained footing.
Here in Spain, it was the left that siphoned votes from the Socialists (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE), who happened to be holding the bag during the first few years of the economic meltdown after 2008. In 2011, an angry electorate voted them out and the conservative Partido Popular (PP) in. An absolute majority allowed the PP, without parliamentary debate, to do the bidding of the European Central Bank and European Commission. They enacted drastic budget cuts, raised income and consumer taxes, and, undeterred by repeated national strikes and massive street protests, ran roughshod over decades of social and labor law gains.
But unemployment, currently over 26%, continued to rise above the now tattered social safety net, in step with record mortgage foreclosures, home evictions, and an exodus of skilled and educated workers to more prosperous countries. The PP’s attempt to sell their policies as successful, based on the fact that the decimated economy is no longer contracting and investors are now willing to buy their bonds at lower rates, has been met with widespread cynicism outside their rank and file. “You can’t eat interest rates,” is a sentiment that was widely echoed in the media. In the EU elections held in Spain on May 24, the PP won only 16 of 54 seats available to Spain, down 8 seats from their 2009 results.
But it was the PSOE, hoping to turn the tables on the PP, that fell the flattest, winning only 14 seats, 9 less than in 2009. The simple and oft-repeated campaign message from top PSOE candidate Elena Valenciano - that the PSOE is different than the PP - apparently did not get through, nor was it supported by the seemingly monthly revelations of new corruption scandals involving either the PSOE or the PP, on an nearly equal basis, over the last decade or so. Moreover, left-leaning voters have other places to go in Spain. And that’s where they went. The United Left (Izquierda Unida), long the 3rd most voted-for party in Spain, formed alliances with other smaller leftist parties and captured 6 seats, 3 more than in 2009.
Other progressive parties gained traction, too, but the big surprise was the success of one that came into existence only 4 months before the election, Podemos (“We can” ). Podemos grabbed 5 seats (8% of the total vote) by promising, among other things, to close tax loop holes for corporations and invest the extra revenues in research, greater government transparency, and an end to the politician-corporate board member revolving door.
Led by a young and ponytailed university professor, Pablo Iglesias, Podemos obviously lit a populist fire. Iglesias cut his media teeth as a frequent political talk show guest before the launch of the party, and far from faux-folksy or prone to “soaring rhetoric,” his style is dead serious, fact-filled, and laser sharp. When he takes on what he calls the political “caste” system, there is inevitably some leftist sloganeering, but his grasp of the complexity of the business-labor-government equation is clear.
Though it remains to be shown that its momentum can be sustained, talk of alliances between Podemos and other progressive parties last week has already sent tremors through the PSOE and PP. While the PP leadership has predictably attempted to minimize its impact, with one presidential advisor calling its members frikis (freaks, in the idealist hippie sense), the PSOE has been forced to take them more seriously.
Socialist icon Felipe González, the first majority leader who became president after the restoration of democracy in the 70’s, warned the nation of the “catastrophic” dangers of “Bolivarian alternatives influenced by regressive utopias.” Not surprising, considering that the dangers of Podemos are already clear and present within the PSOE. The leftist victories have already led to the resignation of PSOE secretary general Alfredo Rubalcaba, followed by a series of botched attempts last week to stop the internal bleeding, with internecine fallouts and maneuvering to topple the old guard.
Looking to their neighbors to the north or east, one has to wonder whether the PP and PSOE realize how lucky they are to have frikis or ‘Bolivarian’ populists to deal with and not the anti-immigrant, if not blatantly neonazi, parties of France, Italy, or Greece. Homegrown neofascists make the news with increasing frequency in Spain and, of course, Spaniards are genetically no less tribal and xenophobic than their neighbors. But, for most Spaniards, these instincts are undoubtedly tempered by a long history of being economic immigrants, themselves, as well as being under the boot of a fascist dictatorship until the mid-70’s. Whatever the explanation, Spain’s own brand of leftist populism has given large segments of the population a non-market-driven, pro-worker political alternative to vote for. And it has exposed the bankruptcy of new ideas of the center-left in ways that would not have occurred without them.
A few days ago I happened cross paths with a hastily called protest march in the northern port town of Gijón, Spain, where I live. It had been organized by the workers of a shipyard where a young worker had died a few days earlier while performing a job under questionable safety conditions. A Podemos banner was one of the many among the marchers, who counted upwards of 2000 or so.
Protest marches are not unusual Spain. People take to streets in numbers large and small when they feel that they are not being listened to, and often in the tens of thousands. The unusual thing, at least for an American, is that they are overwhelmingly normal people, not the just fringe left or right - blue collar workers, teachers, well-coiffed grandmothers banging their kitchen pots, the lady that sells you your fish in the supermarket. It is always heartening to see. Just when you think the country is hopelessly in the hands of a corrupt, mediocre, and self-perpetuating political-corporate elite, with its citizenry meekly under the soporific effects of consumerism or the heel of poverty and social exclusion, that citizenry rises up and demands change. Google it today and you will find that there have been grassroots protests in nearly every corner of Spain over the last year. In a world were the odds look so stacked in favor of the moneyed and political “caste” system, as Pablo Iglesias would call it, it may hearten you, too.