Thu, Nov 20, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Viva Podemos: the left shows it can adapt and thrive in a crisis

The explosive ascent of Podemos in Spain proves there is nothing inevitable about UKIP-style anti-immigrant politics

By Owen Jones  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

It is almost a political cliche. If a country is battered by economic disaster, its ever poorer citizens will turn in droves to the crude xenophobia of the populist right. A lack of secure jobs and affordable homes, plummeting living standards — Johnny Foreigner proves an all-too-convenient scapegoat.

This is a script that seems to have been followed to the letter in austerity Britain. Anti-establishment fury has been funneled into an anti-immigration party led by a former City of London broker who wants to stick it to the man by privatizing public services, slashing taxes on the rich and attacking hard-won British workers’ rights, but, as Spain shows us, it does not have to be this way.

Spain is in a mess, with unemployment at almost 25 percent and more than half its young people without work, a plight that can damage an individual for life. In comparison with Britain it has been transformed by immigration at lightning speed — in the early 1990s fewer than one in every hundred Spaniards were immigrants, in the noughties the number surged sixfold, from 924,000 immigrants officially registered in 2000 to 5.6 million in 2009. Yet, despite rampant joblessness, poverty and insecurity, parties that have prioritized clampdowns on immigrants have failed to thrive. Instead, disaffection has found a different expression — a party whose premise is that ordinary Spaniards should not have to pay for a crisis they had nothing to do with.

Podemos is founded on the politics of hope — its English translation is “we can.” It was founded only this year, but won 1.2 million votes and five seats in May’s European elections and now it has topped opinion polls, eclipsing the governing right-wing People’s party and the ostensibly center-left PSOE — the Spanish Socialist Workers’ party.

There are few precedents for such an explosive political ascent in modern western Europe — in Spain, a discredited political elite appears to be tottering.

Not that Podemos simply materialized out of nowhere. In the buildup to Spain’s 2011 general election, hundreds of thousands of indignados took to the streets in protest at the political elite. Yet without political leadership and direction, such movements — although they can mobilize the disengaged — invariably fizzle out. As Inigo Errejon, the Podemos election supremo, has written, before May’s European elections, “social mobilization had been in retreat. Among large sections of the left, the most pessimistic assumptions prevailed.”

However, Podemos was the child of the indignados movement, a party that emphasizes bottom-up democratic participation — where the indignados had neighborhood assemblies, Podemos has “circles” that take similar forms. There are even circles among Britain’s Spanish diaspora in London and Manchester. The funding for its European campaign was largely crowd-sourced, and its policies and priorities are decided partly through online voting.

While older voters are more likely to remain loyal to a decaying PSOE, it is younger, educated voters who flock to Podemos. In part this is the “graduate without a future,” to use the journalist Paul Mason’s characterization, on the march.

As Errejon has put it, Podemos rests on the assumption that Spain’s two-party regime — founded in the aftermath of former dictator Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 — is in crisis, resulting in a “breakdown in consensus and the dislocation of traditional political identities.”

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