As the Syriza government in Greece shows that the new emerging politics requires constant creativity in seeking to change the rules of the economic game, developments in Spain as it faces into a crucial electoral cycle also hold fascinating lessons.
A new opinion poll in El País today shows support divided remarkably evenly between four parties, indicating just how much has changed in Spanish politics over the past year. Podemos, founded at the beginning of last year has the largest support at 22.1% but the socialist party, the PSOE, is closing the gap and is on 21.9%. This shows a clear left-wing majority after four years of right-wing government.
Yet, the ruling right-wing PP is on 20.8% a slight improvement on their recent showing, while the new Ciudadanos party comes in just below them at 19.4%. This addition to the Spanish political scene was formed in Catalonia in opposition to its independence movement and has surprised many observers as it emerges as a national party, contesting the right’s base of support. For Ciudadanos, while gaining support through its firm stance against political corruption, espouses strong neoliberal policies.
For the pollsters, this is statistically a dead heat between four parties, a remarkable situation for a country in which two parties, the PSOE and the PP have dominated politics since the early 1980s. This alone shows that fundamental political change has arrived and the elections in 13 autonomous provinces on May 24th as well as the general elections in November are now certain to see a dramatic re-alignment of politics throughout the country.
Yet, the focus on party support can distract attention from the even more fundamental change in the conduct of politics being undertaken by Podemos. At a time when politics worldwide is dominated by party machines, sophisticated PR strategies and policies honed and tested through focus groups and pollsters, Podemos is instituting a politics from below.
The party is organised in ‘circles’ which any citizen can join; these are organised at local and district levels and among different sectors such as lawyers, university lecturers and so on. These circles have a significant input into the process currently being undertaken to translate the party’s rather utopian declaration of political perspectives (see www.podemos.info/programa) into concrete policies for the forthcoming cycle of elections.
The politics from below found expression two weeks ago when the party chose its candidates for the regional elections. In most parties, these lists are chosen by the party machine with only the candidate for leadership (president of the autonomous province) being selected by the vote of party members. For the first time, Podemos constituted its lists of candidates (with the number of candidates chosen being equivalent to the total number of seats in the regional parliament) through an open election by the members of its ‘circles’.
Interestingly, this process led in at least three autonomous provinces, to the selection of Podemos candidates for president who are critical of the party leadership in Madrid. Only time will tell if this proves a weakness at the polls or a strength but it is testimony to the reality of the party’s internal democracy.
Over the months ahead, therefore, Spain is going to teach us a lot about the prospects for some fundamental political shifts that have major implications for Europe as a whole. While Greeks elected the Syriza party amid a deep social and economic crisis, Spanish voters are going to the polls as evidence mounts of an economy recovery and, at last, an accelerating decline in unemployment. It’s not quite as marked as Ireland’s recovery but it is a major turnaround after six years of deep recession.
But the Indignados movement in Spain in 2011 also showed a far deeper and more widespread disillusion with the ruling economic and political elites than has been evident in Ireland so far. The remarkable emergence of Podemos last year is due to them giving voice to that alienated sector of civil society. Ciudadanos, on the right of the political spectrum, is showing that this alienation can also be channeled in a more neoliberal direction.
There is therefore a struggle for the definition of this new grassroots politics that has emerged so strongly in Spain. If Podemos can capture most of this and give it a more left-wing orientation then it will mark a major shift in the politics of a large European country. As today’s poll shows, the real struggle is now beginning. How it plays out holds major lessons for Irish politics.