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State of the Left - Spain

Podemos: can they really?

David Mathieson - 16 September 2015

Support for the radical left party is waning, but Podemos may still carry influence if this year’s elections produce a fragmented parliament

Just over a year ago the new party, Podemos (‘we can’) burst onto the political scene in Spain when it scooped over a million votes and won five seats in the European elections of May 2014. Their leader, Pablo Iglesias, promised more and that, in the redolent phrase of Karl Marx, they would “storm the heavens”. Now, however, it looks highly unlikely that Podemos will form the next government of Spain or that Iglesias will be moving into the presidential palace of the Moncloa. The next general election is just a few months off – probably on 20 December – but support for Podemos is waning. Last year polls suggested that one in three Spaniards were prepared to vote for Podemos and that it might emerge from the general election with more support than any other party. But the latest polls suggest that that level has almost halved with only around 15 per cent of the electorate indicating that they will support Iglesias. The declining enthusiasm for Podemos has multiple causes but there are five main reasons why the ‘we can’ party probably won’t.

First, the Spanish economy appears to be picking up. The macroeconomic trends for Spain look better than they have done for several years. Spain has one of the highest growth rates in Europe (3.1 per cent) and new jobs are being created. There is still plenty to worry about. Not enough are quality jobs and the unemployment rate remains alarmingly high – especially for young people – while the opposition parties complain that many Spanish families have yet to feel the benefit of new growth. But, as the Labour party discovered in the British general election earlier this year, a campaign message focused on a ‘cost of living crisis’ has limited appeal. If voters decide to credit the current Conservative (PP) prime minister Mariano Rajoy with taking the tough decisions which have pulled Spain out of the crisis they may decide to stick to the ‘devil they know’ and it seems that they are beginning to shy away from the main opposition Socialist party (PSOE) and the insurgent Podemos.

Second, the recent politics of Greece has had a negative effect on support for Podemos. Until the summer of this year Podemos made much of its support for and from Syriza – Alexis Tsipras even wrote an introduction to Pablo Iglesia’s most recent book. With the crisis of the Syriza government and the many unresolved questions about the Greek economy, however, Podemos has been exposed. It is a mantra amongst Spaniards now that Spain is not Greece but there is a suspicion that a Podemos-led government might lead Madrid down the same path as Athens. That is not where most Spaniards want to be.

Third, Podemos are campaigning on a confused policy programme. It is almost impossible to get a definitive policy line from Podemos and questions are deflected with the stock response that the programme is still being drawn up. This lack of clarity is especially worrying when it comes to questions about the economy. Anti-cuts and anti-austerity are constant themes but the party seems unable to articulate a consistent, credible alternative to the current government policy. At times the Podemos model has appeared to be one of ‘Chavista’ populism (many of the party leaders have strong links with Venezuela). At other times Sweden is cited as an example. What is frequently lacking is any kind of detail.

Fourth, there is the issue of a reliance on Pablo Iglesias as a personality. Like Beppe Grillo in Italy, Tsipras in Greece or Nigel Farage in the UK, Pablo Iglesias is highly accomplished media performer and by far the party’s best-known figure.  Where other parties used their logo on the ballot papers for the European elections in May 2014, Podemos put a photograph of Iglesias. Yet Iglesias has so dominated the public space over the past couple of years that many Spaniards feel that he no longer represents an insurgent party but has now becoming part of the establishment.

Finally, the party is beset with internal divisions. In theory Podemos is driven in both organisational and policy terms by grassroots activists who form assemblies or ‘circles’. This lateral structure, however, has led to tensions with the national leadership in particular the charismatic Iglesias. He has been accused of attempting to impose a national slate of trusted candidates for the next general election and interfere with the negotiations of regional groups after the local elections earlier this year. Many activists have become disillusioned with what they regard as the Leninism of the party hierarchy and have drifted away.

Despite these important negatives the issues on which Podemos campaigns are still potent concerns from which the party should draw significant support. The benefits of the economy upswing are patchy. Around the country there are shocking cases of corruption, the details of which are only now coming to light. The entrenched political class and established party bureaucracies remain remote from the electorate and seem unwilling to engage in real reform.  Polls suggest that the next election may well result in a parliament which is more fragmented than at any time in recent history. If that happens, Podemos will certainly not be ‘storming heaven’ but they may yet be part of a coalition for change.

David Mathieson was special adviser to the late Robin Cook and is an executive member of Labour International. He tweets @MathiesonMadrid

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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