The gains in Spain

Víctor Manuel Hernández reports on the achievements and potential next steps for Spain’s leftist grassroots movements

August 1, 2014 · 4 min read

The European elections in May triggered a potential crisis for the political establishment in Spain. Two main parties have dominated Spanish public life since the end of Franco’s dictatorship: the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the People’s Party (PP). Both suddenly seem in trouble, after winning just 23 and 26 per cent of the vote respectively. They are used to polling 75–80 per cent between them.

The main challenge is coming from the left. Candidates running under the Podemos platform polled 8 per cent, exceeding expectations. Podemos, which is not yet a party, emerged out of the 15M and indignados movements that saw thousands of Spaniards camp out in city plazas in protest against austerity policies. At the same time, Izquierda Unida (IU), the Communist Party coalition with green and other social justice movements, received 10 per cent of the vote.

Journalists and intellectuals are describing the current situation as signifying the end for the ‘1978 regime’, the establishment of the crown, the constitution, and the bipartisanship of the traditional centre-left (PSOE) and centre right (PP) parties as stabilising forces during the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Indeed, the election results reflect how public opinion in Spain has changed since the indignado movement and its variants were broken up. The protests have dissipated, but change is still possible. Rising discontent with the PSOE and PP – and the 1978 regime more broadly – has been reflected in the strengthening of grassroots movements, the republican spirit that greeted the abdication of King Juan Carlos I, and the rise of independence movements. It appears that in all the political battles quietly raging across the country – including the secessionist nationalist movements – the left has a stake, and a voice.

The European election results suggest that a coalition of the left might have a chance of presenting the voting public with a viable alternative to the current government. It may, at least, become the main opposition. Although an eventual convergence between Podemos and IU is accepted as inevitable, there remains some reticence on both sides, though they would never consider each other rivals. For Podemos, policies of power to local assemblies, election of candidates by all members and radical transparency are non-negotiable.

What is Podemos?

Podemos (which literally translates into English as ‘we can’) has an interesting story. De facto leader Pablo Iglesias is a famous social justice activist educated in the Communist Youth of Madrid, and later involved in the alter-globalisation movement. Iglesias started to regard television as a crucial battlefield to be conquered by the Spanish left. After leaving the Communist Youth he gravitated between the militancy of autonomous alter-globalisation movements and the official campaigns of IU and the Communist Party. Parallel to his involvement in the various mobilisations at Seattle, Genoa, Prague and so on, he served as a campaign advisor producing TV spots and writing communication briefings for national and regional IU leaders.

Over the past 18 months he has become famous for directing an online political debate programme, La Tuerca, which, as he likes to put it, rapidly made people militant. He soon became an invited guest speaker on prime-time political programmes, always keen to convert his political messages into popular mobilisation and action rather than simply talking to, or for, a leftist audience. His years studying and advising Latin American governments in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia appear to have taught him the importance of appealing to el pueblo (the people). While many others have contributed to Podemos’s success in getting an 8 per cent vote after only four months of existence, Iglesias’s charisma and media savvy have undoubtedly played an important part.

Many on the left have come to Podemos’s understanding that IU was a necessary partner in any regime change, but definitely not a party to simply join. Members of grassroots movements, as well as ordinary voters, associate IU with the old politics, and even with la casta – ‘the caste’, understood as the political and administrative class. Podemos has also tried to draw upon the class cleavage in Spanish society. ‘We are the ones from below and we go after the ones in the upper level,’ announces one of its many slogans.

The closest advisors to Podemos candidates are highly reputed political scientists in the Spanish speaking world, including Carolina Bescansa, an electoral specialist who Hugo Chavez once called his ‘oracle’. Bescansa and her colleagues reached the conclusion that there is political space for a new language of doing politics. Their new framework of practising and talking about a politics of and for the people recalls the principles and practice of the 15M movement.

Víctor Manuel Hernández lives in Malaga, Spain, and is a member of Izquierda Unida and the Spanish Communist Party

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