Europe is about to be shaken by another political earthquake as Podemos is predicted to become Spain's second party writes Alastair Stephens
The elites who run the European Union are is about to receive a second massive shock, and this one will be without any political ambiguity. The most powerful new left movement in Europe. Podemos, is about to crash into austerity as as polls predict that it will make serious gains at the ballot box and eclipse the Spanish equivalent of the Labour Party, the PSOE.
The general election, known as J-26, is the second time that the country has gone to the polls in six months. Last December, when both upper and lower Houses of Parliament, the Senate and the Congress of Deputies respectively, were re-elected the result was politcal deadlock.
End of the two party system
Decades of two-party politics came to an end with a bang. Politics had been dominated since the 1980s by the centre-left Socialist Party and centre right PP (Popular Party). The sole exceptions to this dominance were in Catalonia and the Basque Country where moderate (and politically centre right) nationalists ruled the roost.
In December the two big parties saw their votes slashed. Whereas previously they had taken 80%-90% between them now they could not muster half the votes. The PP crashed to just 28% whilst the Socialists, who in their 1980s heyday took half the vote, sank to an even more abysmal 22%. The cause was the rise of challengers to both parties.
The main challenge to Socialists came from Podemos and its regional allies (in Galicia, Catalonia and the Catalan speaking province of Valencia the party took part in broader 'confluences' with other left parties). Formed as a political expression 15-M Indignados protest movement (and the social movements that stem from it) and led by Pablo Iglesias (and a group of radical academics around him at Madrid's Complutense university), Podemos enjoyed a meteoric rise following its breakthrough in the Euro elections of 2014.
It rapidly rose in the polls, and was briefly the most popular party in the country, as it found support in a population angered at sky high unemployment and swinging austerity. It then dipped in the polls, having seemingly peaked too soon, but made a dramatic comeback in December coming only two points behind the PSOE.
The Popular Party on the right has had its own problems. Already unpopular for its failure to restart the economy and assailed by corruption investigations, it saw its electoral base eaten into by the rise of Ciudadanos (Citizens, also abbreviated as C's in Spain). Led by Tory Boy Albert Rivera it is a populist Thatcherite movement calling for the cutting of ‘red tape’ and faster neo-liberal reform.
The party first emerged in Catalonia as an anti-corruption party which also opposed the demands of Catalan nationalists for greater autonomy. It then managed to break through nationally in various regional elections last year. Often portrayed as 'anti-nationalist' it in fact rearticulates Castilian chauvinism, portraying the minority nationalities' desire for increased autonomy as the work of greedy self-interested elites who want to undermine and break up the Spanish state.
Endlessly hyped by the media it underperformed in December taking just 13% of the vote, and giving credence to the belief of many that it was a media confection created as a foil to Podemos, but one which lacks real roots in society.
The result was that nobody won the election. The Popular Party polled the most votes, but fell far short of a majority in the Congress of Deputies, even if it could form a coalition with Ciudadanos, and they had no reason to hold in power a party they wish to eclipse. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy therefore continued in office, as the head of a caretaker government, without evening trying to put an administration to the vote in parliament.
Whilst Rajoy sat tight the younger more telegenic (he had been drafted in part for this quality) leader of PSOE, Pedro Sanchez, put himself forward as President of the Government (the official title of the Prime Minister). Falling even further from a majority than the PP he was rebuffed. He didn't have the votes either.
The PSOE ruled out a formal deal with Podemos unless the 'purple party' drop its demand that Catalonia by permitted a legal (some Catalan politicians have been charged with organising a 'mass consultation' two years ago) and legally binding referendum on the region's status. All the other parties insistent on the ‘indissolubly’ of Spain. This demand has been reconfirmed in the manifesto of the new Unidos Podemos.
Whilst Sanchez tried to portray himself as a coalition builder Rajoy sat tight, hoping the desire for stability after a long period of uncertainty would work to his party's advantage.
United We Can
All calculations have been upset by the deal between Podemos and the United left (IU) creating a new alliance, Unidos Podemos (United We Can). This looks like achieving sorpasso (‘overtaking’, for some reason the Italian word is used) of the Socialist Party, displacing it as the main force on the left.
The new coalition has not come together easily. The two parties ran in the December elections separately. The result was damaging for the left, and almost wiped out the United Left itself, which won only two seats, including that of its candidate for prime minister Alberto Garzón. This was despite the party winning four percent of the vote with nearly a million vote. Spain's electoral system (deputies are elected by each of Spain's 52 provinces on a closed list by the d'Hondt method) works to the disadvantage of small parties, unless their vote is highly concentrated, as the minority nationalities are. It might be noted that a number of other IU members were elected as part of the Podem En Comu alliance in Catalonia).
The United Left's million supporters needn't have bothered turning up for all the deputies they elected. Their votes were in effect wasted.
But the left needs those votes to count if it is to beat the right at the polls. The imperative has always been for Podemos and the United Left to deal.
Quest for unity
Talks between the two parties last Autumn in the run up to the December polls broke down in acrimony. Each side blamed the other, despite each carrying soem of the blame. There were those in the United Left who resented the upstart and saw Podemos as a populist force which had abandoned many of the causes dear to the traditional Spanish left such as republicanism and withdrawal from NATO. They were not in favour of an alliance in which they might play second fiddle to such oppurtunists.
The divide between the two is not just political, it is also generational. Whilst the United Left's candidate for Prime Minister, Alberto Garzon, might be just 30 years old, the activist base and the electorate of the party is middle-aged. The formal party leader, until replaced last month by Garzon, was Lara Cayo, 64, who like most of his comrades were politically formed in the 1970s. The party itself, an alliance centred on the Communist Party was created by the forces on the left which coalesced around the referendum on NATO membership held in 1986.
The leaders of Podemos, and much of its activist base is a generation younger. Its leaders are mostly in their thirties, they were politicised by the events of the last two decades, the anti-globalisation movement, the "War on Terror" and the rise of the new left in Latin America, in particular Venezuela. The activist base is younger still most having been drawn into politics in hte wake of Great Recession and the austerity imposed on Spain by the EU and European Central Bank. Their formative politcal experiences are much more recent, the Inignados movment of 2011 being the crucible in which they were formed. This generational divide is hardly unique to the Spanish left, but only in Spain has it taken this organisational form of rival parties.
So many in Podemos also had their own reasons to avoid an alliance last year. The party had been established as a deliberate break from the old left, which they saw as still obsessed with Holy Cows, such as the aforementioned issues, but which meant little to those struggling to survive in a world of post-2008 austerity. The exigencies of Realpolitik also suggested that the newcomer use the elections to prove its dominance over the older formation, thus allowing it conduct future negotiations from a position of strength.
So when the deal was struck in May Podemos could afford to be relatively generous to its older rivals. The two parties would run as a single list in those provinces where ‘confluences' did not already exist. The parties would also conduct their own campaigns, with some joint events, and both parties symbols would appear on the ballot paper, all demands of the IU last year. However there would only be one candidate for PM, Iglesias whilst Garzon would be integrated as candidate number five on the alliance's list in Madrid (which some in IU took as a snub).
The IU's activist base overwhelmingly accepted the deal though there was still opposition from some in the party's old guard. However there were also party veterans, marginalised in recent years, who have come out strongly in support of the new project and who see this as part of a longer term project of regroupment on the left.
Podemos’s growing pains
This seems to be an idea they share with Iglesias who has also spoken in theses terms and has described the alliance as something which will last.
There is not unanimity in Podemos over this. Many have spoken of underlying tensions in the party between so-called Pablistas and supporters of his number two Iñigo Errejon. The Errejonistas are more hostile to alliances with the old left and favour a more populist approach. How deep these disagreements go is debatable, and there is always a tendency for these things to be exaggerated by the media and in social media.
They did however result in a party crisis in the spring when, after a split in the Madrid organisation, Iglesias sacked the party's national secretary, Sergio Pascual, a close ally of Errejon, who then went to ground for a fortnight. PAblo Echenique, the head of the party in the region of Aragon was elected national secretary on a platform of reorienting the party on the grass roots and the 'circles' from which it had originally grown.
Still the new alliance has brought about at an electoral level certain synergy. Podemos has already conquered the young amongst whom it was the leading party. It lacked though support amongst the middle-aged how have remained remarkably loyal to the PSOE. This gap, according to polls, seems will be plugged by the alliance with the IU. The new alliance also brings together an older layer of activists in the labour movement with the new wave of the social movements.
There is a new sprit of hope in Spain. Unidos Podemos, could just two years since foundation, score a stunning victory taking leadership of he centre left and forcing the creation of a broad left government, an option that is preferred by Spaniards.
Elections are not everything, and Podemos was itself a product of the movment in the streets, but J-26 looks like opening an entirely new chapter in both Spanish and European politcal history.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.