The PDU launches its series of podcasts and accompanying articles with a profile of young and very successful Spanish party, Podemos. By Emilie Mendes de Leon and Korbinian Rueger
AfD in Germany, UKIP in the United Kingdom, Front National in France, Syriza in Greece, Movimento Cinque Stella (Five Stars) in Italy, Podemos in Spain. This is just a selection. In recent years Europe has seen the founding (AfD, Syriza, Five Stars, Podemos) or (re)-strengthening (UKIP, Front National) of populist parties all over the continent. Some of these are right-wingers, some are best described as left-wing parties, others don’t fit any common description. But they all have two features in common: they have garnered massive support in a very short time and they are critical of the European Union, at least in its current form.
Being critical of the European Union in its current form is the attitude that has led to the founding of the PDU. Unlike this think tank, some of the parties, however, have a destructive attitude towards the European project. The AfD, UKIP or the Front National have potentially dangerous ideas, the (implicit) underlying assumptions of some can be called undemocratic and nationalist or even racist.
The Spanish Podemos (“We Can”) takes a more constructive approach to Europe and in contrast to other European populist parties shows no right-wing tendencies. The Podemos movement had only been initiated early this year and was one of the biggest surprises to come out of the European Elections last May. Podemos achieved five of 54 Spanish seats in the European Parliament and a recent poll suggests that around 25% of voters would vote for Podemos if the Spanish general elections were to be held now instead of late 2015. Given that the political system of modern Spain has in fact always been dominated by two parties, the conservative People’s Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE), this development is remarkable. In the following we take a look at the movement’s development to date and evaluate some of its ideas.
Podemos wants to give a political voice to the “Indignados” of 2011.
Podemos is said to have its roots in the 2011 “Indignados” protests at Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. Then, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Madrid to protest against the Spanish political establishment, welfare cuts and European austerity measures. These are the causes that now also drive Podemos. The movement wants to give a political voice to these protesters.
Founded as a party in early 2014 with the intention of providing an alternative for the European Elections, Podemos quickly made Pablo Iglesias their omnipresent leader. Iglesias, lecturer in political science and frequent talkshow guest, became the face of the party and since May is one of their five MEPs which joined the European Parliamentary Group of the United Left/Nordic Green Left after the election. Party representatives themselves don’t call Podemos a left-wing party. They maintain that the party caters for people from all over the democatric spectrum. This is a well-known strategic move for young populist parties in order not to shy away any potential voters and become a kind of “catch-all” alternative.
Their proposed policies and general tone of voice, however, show clear left-wing tendencies. They call for more government welfare spending and public investment, higher taxes on high incomes, a shorter working week and a higher minimum wage. They talk of “ordinary decent citizens” that they want to reach and of “a caste” of corrupt established politicians they want to stand up against. Their MEPs only keep a small fraction of the roughly 8000 Euros base salary that they get from the EU, the rest they give to social causes.
Even more important than these policies and statements, however, is their described origin, which is very much in line with the PDU’s vision for a more engaged and politically interested electorate. Podemos really is a party that has its roots on the streets, that only caters for the people and denies the division between “us”, the people, and “them”, the politicians. According to Podemos, we should all be “politicians” or political beings.
However, Podemos also fashions ideas that the PDU can’t agree with. For example, Iglesias claims that Europe does not want and does not need US military presence on its soil, that Europe can defend itself and be independent. Such proposals are unnecessary and potentially dangerous in times where Europe and North America need to work closer together than ever to maintain their security.
It gives hope to many people that feel more and more detached from its leaders and feel a lack of representation.
Apart from such ideological differences there are reasons to be critical about the practicality of Podemos’s ideas. Many of their proposed economic policies seem unrealistic and lack funding ideas. Due to this fact Podemos has already toned down some of their proposals in their recently published economic plan. They no longer propose a basic universal income, pointing to the enormous costs such a policy would produce. Also, their proposed way of dealing with the Spanish national debt now is much less radical and proposes tight coordination with other European governments.
There are basically two interpretations of these and other dilutions of the party’s initial ideas, none of which seems to speak in favour of Podemos. The first one is that the party has acknowledged the practical limitations and the unfeasibility of some of its proposals. This would mean that once in government, only part of why the party appeals to people will become reality. Podemos will be moderated and that its policies will at some point be not that different from the realist political parties it set out to challenge. The second interpretation is that Podemos is toning down their proposals in order not to scare away potential voters that are sceptical of parties that appear too radical. This could possibly mean that Podemos would only show their true colors when in government and that the party would be far more radical once in power. This would essentially mean that voters may be getting a pig in a poke, not knowing what to expect from a Podemos government.
So there is much that remains to be seen on the way to the Spanish General elections next fall. How will Podemos manage the transition from a grass roots movement to an organized political party? How lasting is its popularity among its Spanish voters? Will they really get as many votes as the recent polls suggest? How critical of the European project will Podemos’s MEPs really turn out to be? All of these and more questions await answers next year. Nonetheless, Podemos has already had a lasting impact on Spanish politics and hopefully will on European politics too. It gives hope to many people that feel more and more detached from its leaders and feel a lack of representation. Podemos has shown that new popular parties do not have to be catering to nationalist resentments and “the crude xenophobia of the populist right“. This is refreshing and promising news in times when Europe is attacked with cheap shots from the Eurosceptic populist right wing.
 The Guardian, 16.11.2014.
Image: “Pablo Iglesias a Barcelone”, courtesy of La Veu del País Valencià. Published under Creative Commons licence.