The rise of a "Spanish SYRIZA" transform’s country’s politics

Agora Contributor: Arturo Lopo
Photo by Podemos Uviéu via Flickr
Photo by Podemos Uviéu via Flickr

The dramatic entrance on the political scene of Podemos, a nine-month-old far-left party, does not have any precedent in the nearly 40 years of democracy in Spain. Nut nor has the country experienced the scale of the crises that have pounded it since 2008, forming the breeding ground in which the “Spanish SYRIZA” has sprung up.

Consequently, national politics in Spain seems to have turned into a David versus Goliath battle. Podemos (‘We Can’ in English) is seriously threatening the current status quo of Spanish politics and, more importantly, the three-decade-long duopoly of today’s ruling Popular Party (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE). Two polls have recently shown it, placing Podemos as the most strongly supported party in Spain last month.

Its emergence is a result of an explosive cocktail. Billions of euros in cuts to social welfare and a steadily high unemployment rate are some well-known ingredients. But there is an increasingly widespread sense of impunity for those politicians charged with graft. There’s also the continuous fresh waves of corruption scandals revealed in recent weeks - in which former ministers, regional leaders and members of trade unions were involved - that have definitely underpinned the popularity of Podemos.

In this context, in the eyes of many, whether conservative or not, the two traditional parties have failed to take any convincing decisions or resolute actions that could somewhat satisfy voters. That has invigorated Podemos. 

“What Spain really needs right now are people like Podemos. Someone who would dismantle the shadowy, lucrative business of the PP and the PSOE; someone who would immediately warn them ‘Hey, this is illegal and you will not do this’, a party that can make them fear losing their grip of power,” says Javier, a 59-year-old taxi driver, a former socialist voter, now a convinced supporter of Podemos.

“Although Podemos seems to have risen due to the catalyst of popular anger, the majority of Spaniards do not perceive it as the unique party in which they can trust. [Its current share of voters] are probably volatile and of doubtful fidelity when the time of voting arrives,” José Juan Toharia, the president of the pollster Metroscopia, argues. “But it does not seem inconceivable that [Podemos] can barge into the national political arena, sparking its restructure with unforeseeable consequences,” he adds. 

Online muscle, weaker on paper

Its initial low-key presence in the media –limited to the regular interventions of its leader, Pablo Iglesias, on several TV talk shows– contrasted with the huge support Podemos gathered on social networks was the key to its success.

The party became the fifth political force in the European elections a few weeks after it was formally created. Since then the number of online followers has soared while its presence on TV has exponentially risen to an extreme that nowadays it might be rare not to see one of its leading members on a morning show or participating in a TV debate.

As a result, Iglesias has 100,000 more followers on Twitter than the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, and seven times more than the secretary general of the PSOE, the young Pedro Sánchez. Podemos has almost three times the number of followers of the two traditional parties and is still larger than the sum of both parties’. But that is not what its rivals envy most: Podemos has recently superseded PSOE as the political party with the second highest number of affiliated members, more than 210,000 people –four times less than the PP, though.

However, these outstanding figures have not dismissed doubts over its political program, which would be difficult to accomplish and, hence, should be modified, as Iglesias has even publicly acknowledged. Whether Podemos is poised to be just a flash in the pan or is here to stay may rely on how credible its proposals can be.

The economic ones attract most criticism. According to a survey, more than half of the participants do not believe that its proposals are realistic and plausible, nor think that Podemos has a clear idea of how to overcome the economic crisis. A chorus of economists has also raised its voice to reproach them, describing their measures as “populist” and “unviable.”

In political terms, Podemos seems close to SYRIZA. In June, both parties signed up to a “strategic alliance” for coordination at the European Parliament and Iglesias participated in a conference organised by the Greek party in October. It has some echoes of Italy’s Five Star Movement by calling the traditional parties the “political caste.” The detractors of Podemos frequently allude to the past links of some of its leading members to the regime of Hugo Chávez, and to their sympathies to Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. All this has fuelled claims from the ruling party that Podemos is a “totalitarian” and “populist” political force. Open Europe, a think-tank based in Brussels and London, indicates that Podemos could be described as a “shadow eurosceptic party,” citing its opposition to austerity measures mandated from the European Union and comparing it to SYRIZA.

Its leader, Alexis Tsipras, attended on Saturday the political conference that enshrined the structure of Podemos, headed by Iglesias and full of academics.

"Who should be afraid [of us]? Those who do not pay taxes," the newly-appointed, first-ever secretary general declared. He outlined, without elaborating, the three pillars of his political program: an "equitable" fiscal reform, debt restructuring and a reformulation of Spain's economic model "that pushes us away from the one based on real estate".

Strategically focusing all its efforts on the general election, expected in late 2015 or early 2016, Podemos has opted not to go to the regional polls, due to be held in May. As national elections get closer, the party will be forced to actively participate in the public debate, but not only from its online and TV barricades. At the moment, Podemos has only taken the lead in two relevant polls and overturning a deep-rooted political establishment is not that easy. But its triumph may well depend upon others’ errors too.

*Arturo Lopo is a journalist based in Madrid, author of the blog Spanish Sphere and markets correspondent for TVE, Spain’s state TV. Follow him on Twitter: @Arturo Lopo

4 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: Arturo Lopo

    Mr. Trickler,

    I think you can find the strengths and weaknesses in the different lines of arguments used for portraying the rise of Podemos.
    For example:
    Punishment vote vs. Volatile vote
    Success on the social networks vs. doubts over its program.
    On the alleged "conclusions for Greece," here you have some links in which you can find those comparisons -in addition to the links already included in the article.
    - The expression "Spanish SYRIZA," for instance, was coined by SYRIZA's leader.
    - Open Europe's comparison It was quoted by the WSJ too, I have just found out:

    And, thank you very much Nick for your comment. I really appreciate it.

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  • Posted by: Nick Malkoutzis, MacroPolis

    It's unfair to suggest that Arturo is showing sympathy towards Podemos.

    He has simply done a very good job of charting its rise. A party that has come out of nowhere to perform will in the EU elections and now lead some opinion polls cannot be ignored.

    I think he is also careful in drawing comparisons with Greece. He makes it clear that others are calling Podemos the "Spanish SYRIZA." Analysing the similarities and differences between the two parties deserves an article of its own.

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    • Posted by: H.Trickler

      You seem to have overlooked that I did not "suggest" but "asked" ;)

      I did not suggest to ignore Podemos, but I think that the significance of them are overrated by some journalists.

      Imho Greece currently has much heavier aspects to discuss than that Spanish party.

  • Posted by: H.Trickler

    Could it be that author Lopo does sympathize with that rather small party?

    Wait for the next elections in Spain before you insinuate to make conclusions for Greece!

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