The unexpected, explosive surge of Podemos in Spain, which according to the latest polls has emerged as one of the country’s top three political forces in just a few months, has created a mix of surprise and astonishment.
The list of adjectives elicited by the latest polls is broad and contradictory. Terms often heard are ‘populists’ and ‘demagogues’. Some situate the movement in the centre, others qualify Podemos as covert social democrats, while others see it as an anti-social democratic force and part of the extreme Left. At the same time, some argue it is a project created by a closed and conspiratorial intellectual clique, while others say that it draws inspiration from Chavez – or have simply decided that it is a sort of Trojan Horse of the United Left (Izquierda Unida).
Many have made analogies between Podemos and Syriza, the new Greek alternative leftist party, headed by Alexis Tsipras, or France’s Melanchon and his Front de Gauche, as well as the new Slovenian left, Zdruzena Lerica – the third most popular party in Slovenia, headed by Luka Mesec. There are even those who see Podemos as a Southern Europe’s counterpart of certain Extreme Right movements in countries in the North, as in both cases they exert great appeal to protest voters.
The hasty recourse to more or less apposite adjectives seems to be a strong attempt to exorcise the bewilderment and concern caused by the surge of a new and unknown phenomenon that questions and challenges the conventional explanatory models as well as the current expectations. Giving a name to things is an exercise in domesticating and controlling what escapes the categories of perception, to put the unexpected in a cage with the hope that it will render it inoffensive. It is true that there are many who instead of adjectives and cages, prefer to play ostrich and bury their head in the sand. All of these approaches seem mistaken.
Trying to come to grips with this political phenomenon, so that we can launch an in-depth discussion about Podemos and how to deal with it, is a matter of urgency for the Greens in Spain and throughout the European Union. In order to contribute to this discussion, it might be useful to present certain considerations intended to go beyond superficial names and epithets.
I would like to start with quoting Pablo Iglesias, the charismatic leader of Podemos – a quotation taken from his interview published in the Revista Sin Permiso dedicated to one of his most important issues – corruption:
“Podemos is the result of the political breakdown of the 78 regime, and perhaps one of the clearest expressions of this breakdown is the corruption, which has come prominently to the fore in recent weeks and have put the parties of the political caste up against the ropes, i.e. Convergencia i Unio [Convergence and Union], Partido Socialista Español [Spanish Socialist Party], or Partido Popular [People’s Party].”
To understand properly what Pablo Iglesias and his people understand by the fight against corruption, it is necessary to bear in mind that for them, corruption is connected with the system of government and organization of the economy. As Pablo Iglesias would put it, “it is not a problem of a massive proliferation of rotten apples in the parties that have shared power;” for him it is a structural phenomenon.
“I believe that it is a design problem of the Spanish economic system and development model. I say that to understand corruption it is necessary to understand the liberalization policies of José Maria Aznar,” Pablo Iglesias adds in the same interview. We should perhaps add that for Podemos, the corruption of the elite, or as they say, “the caste,” cannot be reduced to a problem of generalised corruption in Spanish society. For them, “the caste” is not nor can be considered a reflection of Spanish society.
Another key aspect of the programme of Podemos is inequality. “Inequality,” Iglesias tells us, “is the highway to economic inefficiency.” For them, the fight against inequality is not so much a moral problem as it is a social and economic one: “the most presentable, most advanced societies, are the societies with fewer inequalities,”.
In this context, they criticise very harshly the legislation and the court decisions that lead to evictions and repossessions of those who are not able to pay their mortgages as required by the banks (considered by the way as a violation of humanitarian principles by the European Court of Justice). At the same time, they criticise the increase in VAT on consumer goods and basic needs.
To the question as to whether his policies constitute a threat to the system, Pablo Iglesias limits himself to replying that those who are threatening the system are the ones who want to dismantle the welfare systems and public services and those who exert violence against those who are opposed to this.
Right, left or centre?
At the same time as its leaders resist taking a clear position within a supposed political spectrum of left and right, they emphatically reject any attempt to position themselves in the centre, whilst not denying that the current leaders of Podemos come mainly from the left, including many from Izquierda Unida [United Left]. In any event, instead of the right-left dialectic, they prefer to be considered as representatives of the concerns of the middle classes and lowest strata of society.
To prove the point and to demonstrate that the left-right scheme does not work, they argue that polls show that they received a comparable share of votes coming from the PPE (17%) and Izquierda Unida during the European elections.
Democracy and ecology
In all their statements, they emphasise the need to deepen democracy, make it more participatory whilst noting that motivating citizens is of the utmost importance. They see themselves as the direct product of the “Indignados” movement and other similar forces.
In their programme for the European elections, they proposed a “moratorium” on nuclear energy. The precise meaning of this proposal needs to be clarified. For instance, what is the relation between a moratorium and all-out abandoning something?
As to their positions on the environment, in relation to the electoral platform presented during the European elections, they focus on the protection of the environment and are strongly geared to reducing CO2 emissions. At the same time, the link with the indispensable green economy and a radical energy efficiency policy does not appear, at least not clearly. In any case, they are against shale gas and the introduction of genetically modified plants in agriculture.
It is no simple matter to establish a clear line when it comes to their European policy. The clearest points for their European policy are as follows: criticism and rejection of the Maastricht Treaty, harsh criticism of the austerity policy and in favour of an investment policy; renegotiating the Spanish foreign debt (following the example of certain Latin American countries and drawing a distinction between what they call “legitimate” and “illegitimate” debt, without explaining what they understand in that respect).
With regard to the Euro, at first glance at least, their statements are extremely ambiguous while implying an exit from the Euro. They bitterly criticise its opaque nature and increasing influence – at least if there is no radical change in the rules governing the European Central Bank. Their recent public statements point to an inclination having a Euro for the North and a Euro for the South, or a new currency that could be called the Euro, but established on more a democratic basis.
Paradoxically, perhaps as a result of the complex approval process for NATO membership, some of Pablo Iglesias’s statements are favourable to a closer cooperation on the military level by and between European countries, to the point of looking at the development of a common military force that would enable the Union to distance itself from NATO.
Podemos are very critical of the international policy of the US and the West in general. More particularly, Iglesias criticises European governments for surrendering the Union’s foreign policy to the United States.
The classic example, according to him, is Libya. Pablo Iglesias spoke strongly against the military intervention and considered it as an extremely hypocritical measure which rests on the intention of the United States and its allies to prevent countries like Russia, China and others from obtaining oil export licences that belonged to Western companies.
Whilst criticising the international policy of the West, he does not rule out the option that, under certain very particular circumstances, armament and the army may be necessary to secure peace, and he does not exclude off-hand the need for humanitarian interventions as a last resort. As to Ukraine, while he says he has no sympathy for Putin, he makes no clear statement about the sanctions and criticises the policy of “pressure” pursued by the EU against that country, probably inspired from an amalgam of the policy of the European Union and NATO.
The Latin American appeal
Certain aspects of Latin American governments’ experiences and heterodox economic policies are very prominent in Podemos. As I see things, this inspiration is based on a sort of mystification of the situation of countries in that region (although Pablo Iglesias showed far greater caution in his recent statements when assessing what is happening in Venezuela, for instance). In any case their programmatic texts and declarations show a generic sympathy for some specific points put forward by certain governments and left movements of Latin America: revision of debt, public control of mining and energy sectors as well as other sectors (transport, communication, etc.), a relaxed monetary policy intended to promote consumption, refusal to follow the advice of the IMF and the World Bank, opposition to the trade policy of the United States in the region, etc.
Some preliminary conclusions
The political tsunami represented by the overwhelming surge of Podemos (they have gained more than 200,000 members in a very short period) has not left any of the forces of the centre-left untouched.
According to some reports, Izquierda Unida has shrunk by nearly half, whilst PSOE and others are also suffering from serious deterioration. To see how to deal with this challenge, Izquierda Unida has resorted to appointing a new leadership, doing away with the old guard. Equo calculates that 20% of its voters have been absorbed or are at risk being taken by Podemos, and the same could be said for ICV, albeit to a lesser extent.
Local elections will be held in five months and legislative elections within a year. The challenge of the new situation for the ecological parties of Spain that are members of the European Green Party is enormous. Deciding on the policy line to follow is a very delicate task. In any event, to the extent that the Spanish case has important similarities at least with what is happening in Greece, but perhaps more generally with what is happening in Southern Europe, the discussion about how to behave in the face of these recent developments affects us and is a matter for all of us. The sense of urgency is all the more comprehensive when taking into account that some of these forces may assume government responsibilities soon.
Issues which have emerged from the rise of Podemos…
- The speed of the phenomenon and its importance that has taken by surprise journalists, political analysts of all traditional and less traditional parties, and even the initiators of the movement, has led to a flourishing of different questions about the real nature of Podemos and its sustainability.
- The question about the possible political implications that the emergence of these movements may have cannot be ignored. The initial evidence is that in the countries mentioned, at least, the traditional two-party system has been plunged into a crisis by the emergence of these movements. What other conclusions can be drawn from it that are relevant for the Greens?
- Looking at the strain on traditional social democracy the emergence of Podemos has caused, the question emerges as to whether their emergence feeds the thesis of Norberto Bobio, for whom the fall of the Berlin Wall not only entailed the disappearance of Communism, as we knew it in the Soviet era, but also of European Social Democracy, the Western counterpart of imploded state Socialism.
- In any case, reacting to this phenomenon in a simplistic, conservative, timorous manner, or by putting our heads in the sand – trying to ignore what is happening or by minimising the phenomenon – would be a mistake.