External Affairs

Tired of Politics as Usual, Spanish Voters Jolt ‘The Caste’

London: The results of Sunday’s elections to 13 of Spain’s 17 regional governments and more than 8,000 councils – seen as a test of public standing for the parties before the November 2015 general elections – have come as a kick in the teeth for the country’s bi-party system. They have confirmed that Podemos (We Can), a political formation born only 18 months ago from the anti-austerity protests of 2011 and an ally of Greece’s Syriza movement, has interrupted the happy siesta of Spanish politics.

The ruling Right-wing Partido Popular (Popular Party, PP) has seen its power evaporate in the regions, though even with a 10% drop it still gained the largest vote share, at 27 %. At these levels, it will not get a parliamentary majority in November. Its current Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, is deeply unpopular among young voters and an election liability for his party, which nevertheless remains paralysed before him.

Another party that did well on Sunday was Ciudadanos (Citizens), originally a Catalan party and a Right-wing mirror image of Podemos with another young, intelligent and telegenic leader, Albert Rivera, in charge.

File photo of Ada Colau (Credit: Fernanda LeMarie - Cancillería del Ecuador)

File photo of the Podemos-backed Ada Colau (Credit: Fernanda LeMarie – Cancillería del Ecuador)

The Socialists, PP’s nominal adversary and furtive collaborator at critical moments, too lost votes but seem to have recovered their standing in the provinces, polling around 25% overall. The biggest upset was in Barcelona where a woman anti-eviction activist, Ada Colau, will be the next mayor. She described the results in her city as the start of an “unstoppable democratic revolution”. Madrid might also have a former woman judge as its next mayor, though that will depend on Podemos and the Socialists agreeing on an alliance.

The elections are being compared in significance to the municipal elections of 1931 in which the people voted heavily against the monarchist parties, forcing the abdication of King Alfonso and the founding of the Second Republic. The new government, which tried to redistribute land and wealth, was overthrown by Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, and this was followed by almost four decades of dictatorship.

Under Franco, low taxes, ultra-light business regulation and the absence of labour rights turned Spain into a manufacturing base. In effect, it was an early application of the neoliberal shock doctrine that Pinochet would reprise in Chile in the 1970s.

The dictator’s death in 1975 triggered a wave of labour strikes and the transition government realised it could not fall back on a military regime if it were to join the European Union. Its solution was to draw up a Constitution in 1978, ratified in a referendum, that is heavily tilted in favour of the larger parties and which sets the entry bar for the smaller parties very high. This has allowed the Spanish political establishment – disparagingly known as the ‘Regime of ’78’ – to develop a seamless two-party system, greased with institutionalised corruption, and keep social peace for close to four decades.

Spain first civilian governments from 1982 onwards were led by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), which promoted social mobility and a social security system but also kept to Franco’s light touch with big business. Anthony Giddens, Tony Blair’s ideological guru, took Spain’s example in developing his thesis of the Third Way in politics. When the PSOE was voted out of power in 1996 for the rampant corruption of its leaders, it was replaced by the rightist PP.

The subprime mortgage crisis hit Spain hard in 2008, burst the construction bubble and led to a banking collapse. As its economy entered into recession, Spain asked for a Eurozone bail-out in 2012 to rescue its failing banks and assumed their bad loans. The state, economically hollowed out by decades of neoliberal policies, had no appetite for higher taxation targeted at the wealthy and the tax-dodgers. Instead, it started making swingeing cuts to social spending, hurting the most vulnerable sectors such as the young, the pensioners, the immigrants and the disabled.

Hundreds of thousands have been thrown out of their homes, often violently, for defaulting on mortgage payments while public health and education have been crippled by budget cuts. Spain is now one of the most unequal European societies with a fifth of its population below the poverty line, 30% of its children growing up in poverty and a high unemployment rate that hovers above 50% for the young. The number of Spanish emigrants exceeds the intake of immigrants and its population has registered a net decline.

While the people suffer, its financial and political elite have profited. There is a daily drip of scandal. Many leaders, cutting across the political divide, who held high offices have been charged with enriching themselves with public funds.

The crisis of legitimacy has affected almost every Spanish institution including the monarchy. Juan Carlos, who was installed as King by Franco before his death, made way for his son Felipe last year after being discovered hunting elephants in Botswana in 2012 with his German mistress while public cuts were being enforced at home in the name of austerity. His son-in-law and his youngest daughter are facing criminal charges.

Enter the ‘Outraged’

The Indignados (Outraged), an anti-austerity movement, led a short but tumultuous protest movement in 2011, occupying Madrid’s downtown plaza of Puerta del Sol on May 15. Tens of thousands of young Spaniards flocked to the occupied square and millions marched nationwide with the cry of “we are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers”.

Picture of protest at Plaza del Sol, Madrid, 2011 (Credit: Wiki Images)

Picture of protest at Plaza del Sol, Madrid, 2011 (Credit: Wiki Images)

They were inspired by 94-year-old Stephane Hessel’s book, Time for Outrage. Hessel, who died in 2013, was a member of the French Resistance. He was captured by the Gestapo and sent to various concentration camps, narrowly surviving execution after a fellow prisoner and camp overseer changed Hessel’s uniform for that of someone who had died of typhus. Hessel argued in his book that indifference was the worst crime in the current climate. The Indignados, in turn, inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011.

When the spontaneous social mobilisation ran out of steam after a few months, Spain seemed to have slipped back into its customary political stupor. At this point, Pablo Iglesias, a ponytailed university professor at Madrid’s Complutense University, all 36 years of age, decided to cross the line from academia to activism.

File photo of Pablo Iglesias Turrión by Olaf Kosinsky / Wikipedia

File photo of Pablo Iglesias Turrión by Olaf Kosinsky / Wikipedia

At first, he started courting small television and radio stations to argue against austerity and for a new paradigm in Spanish politics. Iglesias and his closest collaborators, almost all of them fellow academics, created a small television channel, La Tuerka (Screw), which began attracting large online audiences.

Talk shows have a large audience share in Spain that increased when Iglesias was invited. He cut a strikingly different figure with his youth, his casual attire and his critical analyses always delivered simply in contrast to the pontificating studio pundits. Iglesias believed that television was to politics in Spain what gunpowder was to war in earlier epochs.

The Spanish media owners were slow to realise that Iglesias would use his television popularity to gain market recognition and create Podemos in January 2014. He promoted his new party as an alternative to the two traditional ones, on whom he pinned the label of La Casta (‘The Caste’) for their shared networks of patronage and portrayed them as the evil Siamese twins of Spanish politics. Within months, Podemos took 8% of the vote share in European elections and won five seats, among them Iglesias’s.

The ideological inspiration of Podemos came from Antonio Gramsci, who died in Mussolini’s prison, two U.K.-based academics, the Argentinean Ernesto Laclau, and Chantal Mouffe, a Belgian political theorist, and political movements in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

In many ways, Podemos mirrors the Aam Aadmi Party, or least the version that existed before it split. It is media savvy, has a centralised leadership around Iglesias, which was ratified in national assemblies and through secret voting, and refuses to situate itself on the traditional Left-Right fault line. It prefers to locate the struggle as between those above (los arribas) and those below (los abajos)

Podemos campaigned on a platform of transparent government in which citizens have a say, and the rejection of public spending cuts. Like Syriza, it attacked Germany for imposing harsh anti-austerity measures that have benefited German banks but will probably balk at its earlier radicalism of taking Spain out of Europe and NATO.

The Spanish establishment and its European allies have less than six months to work out the Podemos conundrum. The country’s centre of gravity might have suffered a wobble but it is not in any pre-revolutionary fervour. The ruling elites might still bet on riding out with PP and inducing a post-electoral coalition with the PSOE and/or Ciudadanos to stall this subaltern menace.