By Alexi Hastings for Global Risk Insights
Young, pony-tailed, and a university lecturer by trade (at La Universidad Complutense de Madrid), Pablo Iglesias is not your typical party leader. But then, Podemos is not an ordinary party, and its seemingly inexorable rise has shocked the traditional Spanish parties, PSOE and PP, to their core.
Surveys conducted by El País and El Mundo have put support for Podemos at around 21% to 25%, in second place behind the PSOE, which would have around 31% to 34% of the vote were an election to be held today, a year ahead of December 2015.
Support for Mr. Iglesias’ party has risen quickly. Having been formed in January 2014, Podemos now occupies daily newspaper columns, talk shows and social media. This high volume of coverage illustrates the seriousness of their challenge to the two main parties in next year’s election.
Many see Podemos as a legitimate threat to the duopoly held over Spanish politics (power has shifted between PSOE and PP since 1983), a view supported by the party’s results in May’s European elections. With 1.2 million votes (7.9%) and 5 seats in European parliament, the party’s supporters demanded attention and, as Mr. Iglesias asserted, an end to the ‘bipartisanship’ which has ‘ruined [the] country.’
That such a brand of socialist populism resonates so well with Spaniards may not come as a surprise. Unemployment has fallen, but remains among the highest rates in Europe at 24% with joblessness among young people especially troubling at around 50%. Indeed, 6 in 10 young people claim they would leave the country in search of work.
At the peak of the Euro crisis in 2012, fiscal restructuring, austerity and anti-Brussels sentiment brought the indignados movement together in the form of mass protest at the heart of Madrid. Born from these demonstrations, Podemos has capitalized on a shared consensus that the system itself is broken.
Its momentum has only increased as a string of corruption scandals has shaken confidence in political parties, especially in Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular (the party’s treasurer Luis Bárcenas was jailed in 2014). Indeed, Spaniards now rank corruption as their second biggest concern, just behind unemployment.
The mass mobilization and anti-system rhetoric of Podemos is not unique to Spain. The rise of nationalist, Euro-sceptic parties is well documented. Yet, while the UK’s Independence Party (UKIP), France’s National Front and the Netherlands’ Freedom Party campaign on comparable platforms (and to some success), Podemos’ direction is more aligned to Syriza of Greece.
The radical left party has mobilized support in a similar way and demands an alternative to Greece’s debt restructuring package. Elections brought forward to December have spooked investors who fear that Syriza may actually win.
Whether a win for the radical left is possible in Spain will very much depend on Mr. Iglesias’ campaign over the next 12 months and the reactions of incumbent Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Pedro Sanchez of the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE).
Mr. Rajoy remains confident that improving economic conditions (the economy is expected to grow by 1.3% in 2014 and 2% in 2015) and his party’s image of stability and prudence will deliver a second term in December 2015. However, the Prime Minister may well underestimate the negative impact that corruption has had on the PP and government as a whole (Spain fell from 30th to 40th in Transparency International’s world corruption index). The Partido Popular languishes in third place with a year to go until December 2015.
Therefore, the 2015 elections may well be contested between PSOE and Podemos, both competing for the country’s political left. Indeed Mr. Sanchez has accused Mr. Iglesias and his crew of fellow academics of stealing the PSOE’s political programme. While it may have been established as an ‘anti-capitalist’ movement, the leader of the PSOE claims that Podemos is learning that ‘social democracy is the only way out of the crisis.’
For Mr. Iglesias, this means establishing a definitive ideology. His political rivals are all too ready to point out that Podemos appears confused in this area and wants to pursue the populist measures of Venezuela’s fallen leader, Hugo Chavez. The specific measures that have been promoted include a 35-hour week, a reduced retirement age of 65 and a nationalized deposit bank.
Recently, Podemos appears to have loosened its radical stance as the party realizes that it will have to appeal to more moderate socialists to have a chance of victory in December 2015. Mr. Iglesias has taken his campaign to Catalonia where he intends to compete for a share of the independence movement, which would favour neither PP nor PSOE. Indeed, whilst Podemos supports Spanish unity, the party assures Catalonians that it would allow an official referendum on the issue.
Perhaps this increased consciousness of vote counting is inevitable, as the party’s victory in 2015 has become more plausible. Yet a shift away from radicalism may disillusion its vocal supporters, pushing them toward the more established PSOE. While Mr. Rajoy’s chances of a second-term look slim, mud slinging on the left may yet increase them, especially if growth continues and jobs return.
One thing is certain, Podemos is a party that has demanded attention in 2014 and will likely shape the political contest in Spain in 2015.