8 July 2015

Spain isn’t Greece… or is it?


With Greece firmly answering ‘No’, both to austerity and to the dominance of high-powered Eurocrats, eyes are now turning to Spain. The radical anti-establishment party Podemos (“We Can”) launched in early 2014 on a platform familiar to followers of Greece’s Syriza: end austerity, challenge government elites, and “make rich people pay taxes”.

So now that Tsipras’ party has won such a decisive victory (or at least won a mandate to fail spectacularly), Podemos and its leader Pablo Iglesias should be celebrating. Instead, as Ashifa Kassam from the Guardian reports, they are hesitant:

“With a general election due in Spain by the end of the year, Iglesias, whose party made substantial gains in local elections earlier this year, was careful to mark the differences between the two countries, worried, analysts said, that any worsening of the situation in Greece could drive crucial middle-class voters away from his party.”

While the Greeks voting against austerity sends a powerful message to the European establishment, playing into the populist rhetoric about “the people against the troika, David against Goliath”, Podemos must be careful. The recent images of Greece have shown endless queues at cash machines, empty supermarket shelves, hospitals exhausted of medicines, and pensioners begging in the streets. Spain, in contrast, is predicted to grow at 3% this year, and its finances are mostly under control.

There is no doubt that the electoral landscape in Spain is changing. In May, I wrote about another grass-roots party on the minds of the mainstream political class: Ciudadanos, which has become “Spain’s insurgent party of radical common sense”.  There is pressure in Spain for change, yes, but for what kind of change? In Spain, unlike Greece, there are no real threats or fears of defaulting on debt and leaving the euro. So what is the argument really about?

Marc Bassets from Dissent thinks the answer is patriotism. He points out that Iglesias’ rhetoric is all about the glory of Spain’s history, associating the rebellion against Napolean and resistance under Franco with Spain’s Occupy movement in 2011. Podemos’ rise isn’t really about Syriza, but about reclaiming national identity (something which has been seen across Europe since the crash). He argues:

“For Podemos, patriotism rhymes with a class-conscious populism. We are the people, they claim, the true patriots. We don’t follow those who steal and are corrupt, who stash their money in secret Swiss bank accounts, who evict homeowners unable to pay their mortgages, who outsource our economic policy to Brussels or Frankfurt, Berlin or Wall Street.”

Bassets goes on to say that Podemos “rejects the categories of left and right in favor of those below versus those on top”, which is either misguided or deliberately misleading – Podemos’ policies are even more radically left-wing than Syriza’s. They include setting a maximum wage, banning profitable companies from ever firing workers, and implementing a 35-hour week. All of these target businesses, whether giant corporations or small start-ups trying to get ahead in one of Europe’s least competitive economies. To say that Podemos rejects the left-wing label is absurd. But there is truth to the idea that revolting against the political establishment, here personified by the EU, is not an exclusively left-wing cause. UKIP in the UK and the National Front in France both come from the radical right, and the voices of their leaders are some of the loudest against European control. Indeed, it is the right-wing Conservative MPs in Britain who are pushing for the UK to leave the EU.

If Podemos’ rise is primarily about anti-EU defiance, watching Greece falter will be a real test. In a country with an unemployment rate of 24% and 50% among young people, insecurity also breeds fear, and Spanish voters watching empty Greek hospitals and collapsed Greek banks on TV will be wary of ‘Syriza’s Spanish sister party’. But there is no doubt that anger and dissatisfaction at the mainstream Spanish government is simmering. If Greece succeeds, either in cutting its debt burden or in leaving the euro and surviving, Podemos can expect to see a rush of support.

In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Jose Fernandez-Albertos, a political scientist at the Spanish National Research Council, says that, in the aftermath of the referendum, “Podemos is successfully managing to take ownership of the idea that a different kind of Europe is necessary”. How the party fares in next election, which may take place this Autumn, will depend on whether Greece has become a beacon of hope or a cautionary tale.

Until then, Pablo Iglesias is happy to set his twitter image to a photo of himself and Tsipras,  while re-emphasising the fact that “Spain is not Greece”.

Rachel Cunliffe is Deputy Editor of CapX.