Radicals seize Spanish opposition politics

Podemos is tapping into popular resentment and anger.

Why This Matters | Rafael Hernandez | January 28, 2016

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Moderation in Spain is under attack. Many Spaniards now fear for the political future of the country as emerging forces take over one of the most recognized and respected entities in Spanish democratic history.

The Partido Socialista Obrero Español, or PSOE (Spanish for Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), is one of the oldest political parties in Spain. Representing a constituency and an ideology of moderate socialism, it has been a prominent actor in government since the Spanish Transition to democracy (1975-76) after the death of Francisco Franco, a right-wing dictator who ruled Spain from 1939 until his death.

Throughout the 40 years of Spanish democracy since the Transition, the PSOE has represented millions upon millions of center-leftist voters across the country as the party in government (with presidents Felipe Gonzalez from 1982 to 1996 and José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero from 2004 to 2011) and as the natural reasonable opposition when the Partido Popular or PP (Popular Party) was in office.

In 2011 the PSOE was ousted from office by the PP led by current president, Mariano Rajoy, and since then it has been in political and social decline and turmoil. But that would not be the end of the PSOE’s problems.

In 2014, a new threat was beginning to emerge. A new political party arose out of a longing for a stricter, more extreme leftist organization. The party, Podemos (“We Can”), led by former university professor Pablo Iglesias, was the organization that filled that void. Podemos lies further left in the political spectrum than the PSOE. It is a party defined by features of republicanism, social democracy, egalitarianism, distribution of goods, communism and most salient of all, populism. Pablo Iglesias and his political formation have long been associated with the Venezuelan regime and its leftist policies, as well as with certain aspects of Leninist rhetoric. In essence, it has been classified by many, including Reuters and the Associate Press, as an extreme leftist organization.

peibol 2Pablo Iglesias of Podemos

It is no secret that Spain is just now recovering from one of the most devastating economic crises. In this environment, a strong resentment has emerged against the current president, and his political organization. Podemos has tapped into this resentment and anger of the population to establish its rhetoric against a corrupt People’s Party government (which it is, having been entangled in one corruption case after another) and a classist society most unfair to the less financially fortunate.

“Under the circumstance of widespread corruption in government, the success of Podemos is a result of being seen as outside of this whole scandalous system,” said Sofia Calvi, a Spanish sophomore student at George Washington University who is also a Podemos supporter.”The rise of parties like Podemos is just a representation of people’s anger at the antiquated and fraudulent old politics that ruled in Spain since the democratic transition in 1975-76.”

The PSOE and Podemos aren’t entirely opposites, they have some common ground in their attempts to impose stronger fiscal responsibilities on the wealthy, and both have included in their electoral plan proposals to establish a minimum wage. But they differ in many other aspects of their economic and social models. For instance, Pablo Iglesias and Podemos promise to bring economic reform that would benefit the poorest sectors of society (enter populism factor), and while the PSOE wants similar reforms they propose more moderate and “realistic” reforms. Many have accused Podemos of outright lying to the population, promising impossible economic reforms of immediate financial relief (much like many other populist regimes have done i.e. Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela).

One of the most contending issues in Spain today is Catalonia. Catalonia has elected a local government that is aiming to declare independence from the Spanish government. And Podemos, while not explicitly supporting this issue, has supported the project of a local Catalonian vote to decide the future of the region. In essence, Podemos is in favor of letting them decide. The PSOE is not. And neither are any of the most important political formations with the exception of Podemos, leading to a lot of controversy.

The rise of Podemos has signified a terrible blow for traditional socialism in Spain. The moderate PSOE has seen its constituency waning alarmingly, with a great number of its voters joining the new and more energetic Podemos. In the last general elections of December 20th, the PSOE obtained its weakest electoral results of its recent history, receiving only 90 deputies (seats in parliament) out of a total of 350, and Podemos irrupting in Parliament with 69. The feat accomplished by Podemos is a much more impressive one when you take into account that it was the first time this party was represented in parliament.

In this election the PP obtained 123 deputies, emerging once more as the most voted formation, but by a relative minority impeding the formation of a government, for which a minimum of 176 is needed (176 obtained by a political formation itself or through pacts with another).

Since no party obtained a majority, government formation would have to come from pacts between either the PSOE and Podemos to form a left-wing government, or a great coalition between PSOE, PP and Ciudadanos (another new party of centrist ideology that obtained 40 deputies) in the Portuguese style of a multi party and multi ideology coalition to move the country forward despite their differences .

So far no there are no pacts in sight and the PSOE has been placed in an impossible situation. Here is the real crisis of traditional socialism in Spain. The PSOE cannot pact with the PP, its traditional political opponent, as it campaigned on a promise of avoiding negotiations with the PP, nor can it pact with Podemos because of the contending issue of Catalonia which the majority of Spaniards oppose (including many prominent figures within the PSOE itself). So the moderate socialist formation finds itself between a rock and a hard place.

And in an even harder place is its secretary general, Pedro Sanchez, who is facing increasing pressures to retain voters and prevent their escape to Podemos, while at the same time, the possibility of a leftist government with him at its head is dangled in his face. Within the PSOE itself, many are firmly against a pact with Podemos and threaten to oust Sanchez if this pact were to become a reality, while others support a compromise with them that will lead to a left-wing coalition in office.

This confusion is visible in recent declarations by Sanchez, who is starting to resemble a person that has walked into a store and looks around, but can only buy one thing and he knows that whatever he buys he will regret.

What will happen, we don’t know, but the fear of many is that if they don’t form a coalition (anybody) with a sufficient majority soon, the election will have to be repeated, as the constitution mandates. And that is an expensive process that will cost taxpayers a lot of money. Again.

If you have gotten this far into the article, I applaud you. And as a bonus for getting here, I’m going to tell you why it is important that you have. As a student at GWU you have a responsibility not to be ignorant, in politics especially. And it is my responsibility as a Spanish citizen to tell you that Spain is more than a destination for you to study abroad in. Spain is a very intricate society with an even more intricate political system, and at the very least it is in your own benefit to learn about what extends beyond your own borders.

The United States of America has recently seen itself the victim of a strong wave of political radicalization. Traditional and moderate conservatives and GOP members are being stamped out and replaced with loud and radical outside-of-Congress candidates like Donald Trump or Ben Carson. But I’m here to tell you that the radicalization of politics is not a phenomenon localized in the US, it is happening everywhere. Granted, the rise of Podemos is happening at the other end of the political spectrum, but extremism is extremism.

It is important to understand that for a strong political system to function, it needs a reasonable, capable and solid opposition party. Well, the one we had in Spain has just been ousted and is in danger of disintegrating.