Politics from the ground up

For the first time in decades, a grassroots organisation in Spain has the potential to unseat the country’s major political parties. Could this herald the beginning of a Europe-wide political revolution?

What would it take for a quirky Spanish talk show host to start an organisation that, within a year, has the potential to unseat the only two parties that have run Spain since the fall of its dictatorship?

Surprisingly little, it turns out. Podemos (“We can” in Spanish) was founded early last year by Pablo Iglesias, a talk show host and political science professor whose ideas and populist rhetoric have helped launch the party out of relative obscurity and into the spotlight. Four months after the party’s founding, Podemos won a substantial number of seats in the European Parliament. Now, less than a year later, it stands a chance of beating Spain’s two establishment parties in December’s national election.

Podemos was born out of the public encampment protests of 15-M, Spain’s precursor to the Occupy movements in Britain, the US and elsewhere. Like Syriza in Greece, Podemos built its support on the popular dissatisfaction with the country’s lagging economy, high unemployment, austerity programmes and widespread corruption. Its platform stresses social equity, transparency and taking substantial public control of the economy. But above all, Podemos is trying to fill spaces that it says Spain’s two ruling parties have missed: transparency and local participation.

“Podemos is trying to fill spaces that it says Spain’s two ruling parties have missed: transparency and local participation.”

In January, Syriza tapped into similar discontent to win Greece’s general election, coming just two seats short of an absolute majority. Polls show that Podemos has a chance of doing the same in Spain’s next general election, though new party Ciudadanos (Citizens) has also grown rapidly in popularity in recent months.

Could this surge on the left happen elsewhere in Europe?

L’Hospitalet de Llobregat would seem like a clear base of support for Podemos. A working class suburb of Barcelona with a quarter of a million people, unemployment here hovers below the Spanish average, but still lags behind neighbouring Barcelona. National austerity programmes and funding cuts have hit hard here, and while voters in Hospitalet have consistently favoured Spain’s centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) in the past, Podemos organisers say the response at their meetings and to their platform has been strong.

This was Ricardo Burgos’s first Podemos meeting. Burgos, who has long lived in Hospitalet, lost his job in construction four years ago, and says he has been unable to find work since. Convinced that the austerity programmes favoured by both the ruling People’s Party (PP) and the opposition PSOE are not going to help Spain’s economic crisis, Burgos says he developed an interest in Podemos as an alternative. He has never voted in a national election, but is contemplating a vote for Podemos in the general election; Burgos sees this as a protest vote.

“Like everyone here, my main concern is that there is some sort of change,” Burgos says. “I worry about what we’re leaving our kids.”

This idea is front and centre for Podemos supporters, explains Teresa Pozo, who organises for the party in a handful of Barcelona suburbs. Unemployment, evictions and funding cuts have hit the community hard, Pozo explains, and supporters want a change in the status quo.

Others note that Podemos’ growth goes beyond economic issues. There has been a general loss of faith in Spanish institutions and politicians, says Maria Jose Canel, political communication professor at the Complutense University of Madrid.

“Much of Spanish society feels that the political class has misused public funds,” Canel says, pointing to recent high-profile corruption cases on all sides of the political spectrum, involving the ruling PP, the opposition PSOE, and even nationalist parties in separatist Catalonia.

The public is now demanding real accountability and transparency of their elected leaders, she explains. And Podemos, which recent polls put neck and neck with the PP, PSOE and Ciudadanos, is running on a platform of political change in direct response to these concerns.

This surge in the European left might not be limited to countries on the Mediterranean. In Britain, Left Unity was formed as a sister party to Podemos and Syriza, embodying many of the same ideas. At the same time, the Green party has sought to tap into public discontent over budget cuts and what they describe as non-responsive Conservative governments.

“This [election] result shows that challenging business as usual politics can win the support of the people,” two Green MPs said in a statement following Syriza’s election victory. According to the party’s own statistics, Green membership has more than doubled in the last year, emboldening it to take on a mandate beyond its environmentalist roots.

“Syriza’s election win shows that challenging business as usual politics can win the support of the people.”

“Build a Syriza here,” reads the Left Unity’s website. The party was founded in 2013 to follow the same trend, pushing for a reverse in austerity programmes, raising the minimum wage, bolstering the NHS, expanding housing and taking a broad public control over the economy. Now, their platform echoes those of Podemos and Syriza – as does their anti-establishment rhetoric.

“In Britain we have two parties that are the same class of people saying the same things in a slightly different way,” says Salman Shaheen, one of four principal speakers for Left Unity. “They have absolutely nothing in common with ordinary people in this country.”

Still, Shaheen concedes that the UK’s situation is substantially different from Spain and Greece. While Left Unity’s platform was built on public discontent with the current system, the recession in Britain has not been as deep and unemployment has not hit the same record levels.

“The conditions for the left are very different from Spain and Greece,” Shaheen says. “They’ve both had bailouts – there the austerity hit a level that we’ve never seen in Britain.”

It is also much more difficult for minor parties to get elected in Britain’s parliamentary system. Where seats in the Greek and Spanish parliaments are divided proportionally based on the votes each party receives, an MP in Britain can win an entire district with 51% of the vote.

“Left Unity is not focusing on elections, simply because it doesn’t expect to pick up a lot of votes,” says Sebastian Balfour, a retired Spain specialist at London School of Economics, and a Left Unity supporter.

Because of the way each country’s electoral systems are designed, Balfour explains, it is much easier for new parties in Spain to build momentum. He argues that the goal of Left Unity is more about building support against austerity programmes and pulling Labour’s politics to the left. Left Unity and the Green party, as well as Podemos and Syriza, all seek to work in the areas where their countries’ respective social democrat parties have shifted to the right.

“In the end, it’s about shifting the national debate to the left,” echoes Shaheen of Left Unity.

At the Podemos meeting in Hospitalet, speakers were quick to point out where Spain’s socialist left had fallen short, rattling off a list of corruption scandals and railing against acceptance of budget cuts. They say the grassroots philosophy of Podemos, with its claim to bottom-up decision making and a robust online voting system, is something completely new to Spain.

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Still, it is unclear how much of this philosophy is just good marketing. Teresa Pozo, Podemos’ organiser in Hospitalet, is quick to note that anybody can step up to their election lists, and that the party is very receptive to proposals coming from local meetings. Unable to provide specific examples, Pozo concedes that the party’s rapid growth has made participation difficult, quipping that “the central organisation in Madrid is total chaos”.

“Podemos’s growth has made their processes of creating and maintaining a political platform and a brand very difficult,” adds Maria Jose Canel, the Madrid political science professor, explaining that Podemos has not always been as open as it claims and pointing to cases of political favouritism on Podemos’ election lists.

“It’s been a grassroots process,” Canel says, “but controlled from above.”

In Hospitalet, Podemos members were focused on recruitment through direct political actions, such as immigration outreach, eviction defences and creating video and other materials to show how the suburb has been affected by austerity programmes and the crisis. But December’s general election looms in the background, and many are gearing up for the campaign.

One woman, unemployed and in her 50s, interrupts the meeting, asking what many were thinking all over Spain: “So how is what happened in Greece going to affect us in December?”

Another responds quickly, resigned: “No one can know for sure.”