By Sophie Bustos:
A new political force emerged in the May 2014 European elections. Being the third Spanish political force in the European Parliament, the far-left party Podemos proved that a new political struggle had just begun in Spain. Or, to put it more accurately, the political and social struggles annihilated by Franco’s dictatorship and marginalised by the transition strongly resurface today.
Since the European elections, various polls show were released which demonstrate the increasing popularity of Podemos and the decadence of the two major Spanish parties, The People’s Party (PP) and Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), conservatives and social democrats respectively. In June 2014, for instance, a poll indicated that in a general elections context the PP would still be in first place, but that Podemos would follow as the second political force of the country leaving behind the PSOE and others far-left parties, like the communist United Left (IU). Results of this sort seem to indicate several things. On the one hand, they point to the brutal and persistent loss of credibility of the parties of the Spanish left, like PSOE, as well as the inability of IU to gather people around its political message thus making it seems as if it was as antiquated and as inefficient as the others. On the other hand, what is being witnessed is the construction of a social protest. Many people voted for Podemos in May because they were disenchanted with the unchanging routine administration of the country and, in their opinion, Podemos represented a suitable political alternative. It cannot be said for certain how Podemos managed to appear so convincing, though likely a large dose of populism played a part; however, the fact remains that it managed to restore some confidence in the relationship between citizens and politics.
If one considers the Spanish political panorama on a national scale, it could be said that Podemos is like an outsider. This is not only because it is a party which qualifies the ‘austerity policies’ as criminal and rejects the impositions of the troika (the representatives of the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission), but especially because Spain is not used to seeing a party which uses transparency and citizen’s control as a leitmotiv. Also, Spain is forced to recognise the party’s efforts to be open: Podemos gather people with various political outlooks (some of the past voters of PP are now proud members of Podemos); it celebrates open assemblies in which citizens can ask about its political program and make their own proposals; it even has a mobile ‘app’ through which people can anonymously debate with some of its leaders. Setting aside the fact that the accounts of the party are made public in their entirety on its website, several members of Podemos in the European Parliament also show unusual signs of political decency by declaring publicly that they will only accept their deputies’ salaries and reject other remunerations. This sets them apart from the overwhelming number of politicians in Spain who hold concurrently several well-paid jobs, like the late Isabel Carrasco, murdered in May, who had accumulated thirteen jobs with annual earnings of approximately 150,000 Euros.
However, and that’s why a ‘large dosis of populism’ was earlier suggested, the main political propositions of Podemos are not quite clear, and what can be perceived as its most famous theme, the struggle against what they call ‘the cast’, leaves Spain’s citizens peculiarly dubious. It is difficult to determine whom Podemos attaches to ‘the cast’, as the party spokesmen carefully avoid naming persons, companies or organizations, and this expression could refer to virtually anything an anyone: established politicians, banks, multinational corporations, Francoist supporters, major energy conglomerates, and so on.
The most public figure of Podemos is Pablo Iglesias. A detailed description of his career is outside the scope of the present discussion. Suffice it to say that he’s young and successful, a faculty professor of Political Science at 35, with an impressive CV and a facility with public speaking which matches the impressive media coverage he is getting. Iglesias has become one of the most famous Spanish politicians, and a controversial personality at the same time, being a frequent reference of the Spanish media and the target of a smear-campaign orchestrated by political rivals, mostly from the PP and in a lesser way from PSOE. The attitude of the PP towards Iglesias is a telling example. On the one hand he is treated with absolute indifference, with some of PP’s politicians were swift to declare publicly that they are giving no credit to Pablo Iglesias whose political program was just trendy and ludicrous. Their prognostications about the swift political demise of Iglesias and the disappearance of Podemos, it is now known, were erroneous. Simultaneously, however, day after day, newspapers disseminate among their readership the message of people like Esperanza Aguirre, the President of PP for the Madrid district and major party player, who persistently describes Pablo Iglesias as a public threat, a Chavista supporter, ETA friendly, as one craving of bring back the guillotine for cleansing purposes.
Such cheap-shot attacks are a frequent element in Spanish political debate. They are a common way to discredit and marginalise opponents, but also to scare the public by employing classical images of ‘ghosts from the past’ – dictatorship, terrorism, class-extermination, etc. Even so, the intensity and violence of attacks against Pablo Iglesias is both surprising and perplexing. It seems to be an indication that many influential politicians in Spain feel really threatened by Podemos. It is also, however, a reflection of their inability to compromise, modernise or recognise change, preferring to blindly preserve the society they inherited with the transition system, a society which excludes citizen engagement and participation. This denial is well illustrated by the remarks of Antonio Pradas, PSOE’s Secretary of Federal Politics, who claims that he doesn’t understand this new party’s ideology, and that the recent success of Podemos in the European elections is just a ‘punishment vote’. Such declarations reflect, in the opinion of many Spanish, some of the reasons why parties like PSOE are free-falling in the polls and losing elections. By calling it a ‘punishment vote’, it further appears a conscious attempt to depreciate the wishes and political will of thousands of people to put an end to the corruption and the brutality of the austerity policies. The many attacks launched against Podemos and its leader, Pablo Iglesias, reflect to some extent a crystallisation of all sorts of political issues, and demonstrate the numerous taboos of Spanish history and society which are mercilessly resurfacing, taboos associated with the legacy of Franco’s dictatorship, the place and influence of the Catholic Church, or political clientelism. Who will have the final say? Let’s hope that the voice of democracy prevails.
Sophie Bustos is a PhD researcher at the Department of Contemporary History, Autonomous University of Madrid. She focuses her research on the diffusion of political liberalism in Spain in the early nineteenth century, and more particularly on the conflict between progressive and conservative in the constitutional regime known as the Liberal Triennium (1820 – 1823). You can follow her on Twitter @Landaburu9.
 Transition’ refers to the monarchical regime initiated on Franco’s death, in 1975, and confirmed by the 1978’s Constitution. Some of its most important political struggles are the advent of the Third Republic, the fight against the pro-Franco legacy and the acknowledgment of war crimes committed during the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship.