How economic despair pushed Spain to embrace a new party

June 9, 2014

An anti-eviction activist of the PAH (Platform of People Affected by Mortgage) holds up a sign saying “Honk against the PP” during a protest outside a hotel during a meeting attended by Popular Party leader of the Catalonia region Alicia Sanchez Camacho and Popular Party’s candidate for the European elections Miguel Arias Canete in Barcelona on May 23. (Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images)

Sofia Perez is an associate professor of political science at Boston University.

Events over the last few weeks in Spain have surprised many observers. A new party – Podemos  (“We can”) – got an unexpectedly high vote in elections to the European Parliament. This has shaken up the party system, long dominated by two large national parties (the Socialist PSOE and the ruling conservative Popular Party (PP)) along with a number of established local nationalist parties important in Catalonia and elsewhere.

The elections were a debacle for the PSOE and PP, which experienced large losses in their vote shares from past elections (both European and national).  Podemos, a party founded just four months before the election, garnered an astonishing 8 percent of the national vote, while several other smaller parties (in particular the United Left (Izquierda Unida) to the left of the PSOE) also increased their vote. The election was also a landmark within Catalonia, where Esquerra Republicana (the Catalan Republican Left) for the first time beat its coalition partner in the regional government, the center-right Catalan nationalist coalition CiU.

There is now an intense debate going on about the “Podemos” phenomenon. Should Podemos be seen as a “populist” party  (as critics have labeled it);  is it a party of economically disenfranchised youth pitted against a privileged older generation; a formation of opportunist political entrepreneurs capitalizing on the discontent caused by the economic crisis that offers no real alternative; or a legitimate “citizens defense platform” trying to put a stop to the economic hardship imposed in Spain through austerity measures demanded by Brussels and Berlin? Initial evidence suggests that Podemos is an anti-establishment party that has successfully tapped the discontent and despair of a significant segment of the population (see data below) and that  it draws its vote from non-voters and voters of other Left parties. Its rise seems to mark a leftward shift in the electorate in reaction to the crisis.  It does not seem to be a generationally defined party but draws support from all age groups.

What is Podemos?

Podemos was launched in January by a group of Madrid professors to oppose the austerity policies imposed in Spain. Spain had signed an agreement with the EU to obtain a credit line to finance a banking rescue in 2011. The agreement required Spain to simultaneously liberalize labor markets and impose austerity measures that deepened the economic downturn. This resulted in a sharp rise in unemployment.

Podemos’ party list was headed by Pablo Iglesias, an articulate politics lecturer with a strong presence on various political talk shows.  Iglesias and his colleagues built an electoral base by allowing anyone providing a name and e-mail address to form a local Podemos  circle (without needing conventional forms of party membership). Hundreds of these circles across Spain participated in selecting the Podemos party list to the European parliament and drawing up its program.

Podemos’ program includes calls for higher minimum wages, a universal basic income, the nationalization of utilities and publicly rescued banks, abolition of the PP’s new restrictive anti-abortion law and repeal of a balanced budget amendment passed jointly by the PSOE and PP in 2011 to calm bond markets.  It also calls for the suspension of deportation centers and EU border control programs (which have been associated with a number of recent tragedies along Spain’s southern coast).

The economic and migration-related parts of the program look utopian to many, given the political climate in Europe.  But unlike nationalist and Eurosceptic parties elsewhere in Europe, the Podemos program is in the tradition of a Left that appeals to higher principles and speaks to those who have lost faith that markets alone will end the economic crisis. The new party’s reliance on the television presence of Pablo Iglesias — and his argument that Spain’s establishment parties have formed a single “political caste” co-opted by big money — have led it to be tagged as a populist movement. But as sociologist José Antonio Gómez Yáñez writes in El Pais (June 6), its condemnations of  ” ‘institutional violence’ (foreclosures, precarious work contracts, and corrupt bankers that have gone unpunished)” appeal to the weakest members of society, who feel abandoned by political “institutions, parties and unions.”

Who has voted for Podemos?

The debate is now whether Podemos  truly represents those most victimized by the crisis. There is some evidence it does and that that it may also have played an important role in raising voter turn-out.

Political scientist Jose Fernandez Albertos kindly provides two graphs: Figure 1 shows that Podemos’ vote in Madrid correlates strongly with unemployment rates across voting precincts  (Fernandez Albertos notes that a preliminary examination of Barcelona voting districts would lead to similar findings).  While it can be tricky to draw strong conclusions from this kind of data (patterns in aggregate data can be misleading), it is at least quite indicative.  Figure 2 shows that the Podemos vote share across precincts (vertical axis) has the single strongest positive correlation (r = .8) with the change in voter turn-out between the 2009 and the 2014 European elections across precincts (horizontal axis). Fernandez Albertos estimates that Podemos garnered about half of its vote by mobilizing non-voters.  From this and other data he concludes that Podemos does seem to have given voice to segments of the population hardest hit by the crisis.  [His full analysis (in Spanish) can be found  here http://www.eldiario.es/piedrasdepapel/voto-Podemos-graficos_6_264983501.htm]

Figure 1
Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 2

A post-election survey of voters by Metroscopia (a polling company) for El Pais shows some other interesting results regarding the profile of Podemos  voters.  First, Podemos voters are as well educated as those of other parties  and concentrated in the 35-to-54 age group. Juan Jose Toharia, who heads Metroscopia, notes that these are not the segments of the population hardest hit by the crisis.  The Metroscopia survey also shows that 50 percent of Podemos  voters are employed (a proportion similar to that of the voters of other parties).  However, people who are older or not themselves unemployed still may have been hit by the crisis because they are relatives or friends of those who have been affected.

What impact is Podemos likely to have on the party system?

Both Fernadez-Albertos’s analysis and (by deduction) the Metroscopia survey suggest that Podemos  draws votes among non-voters and from other parties on the Left — the PSOE and IU.  The Metroscopia data suggests that 34 percent of Podemos voters previously voted PSOE and 17 percent  were IU voters.  At the same time, the fact that IU’s vote share also rose suggests that the Podemos vote is part of a leftward shift in the electorate (see the average left-right self-placement of Podemos voters vis-a-vis the PSOE in Toharia’s  El Pais graphs). In either case, the data suggests a splintering of the vote on the left.

Toharia notes that as many as 43 percent  of respondents in his survey listed the PSOE among parties that they would “definitely not” vote for in the next general elections.   That, combined with the heavy decline in the vote of the PP, may mean that Spain will have difficulty forming a government after the next elections due in 2015. The alternative possibility is that the Podemos  vote will end up being an ephemeral protest vote typical of European elections.

Another Metroscopia survey suggests that 60 percent of Podemos voters had not made up their mind three days prior to the election. But if Podemos has managed to articulate and mobilize a vote of despair, that is likely to give it a different role from traditional protest parties (such as the Eurosceptics and nationalist far Right that did well elsewhere in Europe). The Podemos phenomenon is more in line with the success of Syriza in Greece. Although the parties are organizationally different, they both seek a Europe that follows very different economic policies rather than wanting to limit the idea of Europe.

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