The Rise of the Southern European Left The Guardian
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and leader of the Spanish Podemos party Pablo Iglesias Turrión

The Spanish municipal and regional elections have put the Spanish Podemos party on the verge of breaking the Spanish two party system that has ruled the country for over 40 years.  Its charismatic leader, a lecturer of political science turned TV presenter/journalist has set a new aim for the leftist group, trying to put an end to the post-Francoist political tradition by delivering the final blow to Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party and rendering the Spanish Socialist party a second grade rallying point for left-wing voters.

The leftist movement’s coalition managed to win Barcelona and was only narrowly defeated by the governing conservative Popular Party in Madrid.  After the counting of the election votes, the upstart Podemos (We Can) party became the third largest party in 8 out of the 13 regions of Spain. These results have replicated the success set last year when Pablo Iglesias’ radical leftists secured five MEP seats in the European Parliamentary elections. The traditional two main parties of Spain, PP and PSOE found themselves in a precarious position after suffering combined losses of more than 3,3 million votes, including the loss of some of their key historical strongholds.

Syriza, in Greece, was the first party in the crisis-hit European South to manage to break the local electoral duopoly. Its anti-austerity, anti-establishment rhetoric capitalised on the Greeks' discontent with the political establishment responsible for the crisis. It is Syriza’s success that Podemos aspires to replicate. In contrast to Syriza, that has had prior parliamentary experience by participating in Greek Parliamentary elections since 2004, Podemos has no political experience whatsoever. The movement came about as a consequence of the 2011 Indignados protests, which had become genuine popular democratic forums for grassroots movements and individuals that wanted to bring about a bottom up change.

The debt crisis policies dictated by Germany, the ECB and Brussels are a recipe for disaster for the European South. Cutting wages, raising taxes, and providing bailout packages for banks and investors only depresses growth. These policies produce a dwindling Spanish economy and a rising unemployment rate that comes second only to Greece. Even the 2.7 percent growth of the Spanish economy could not help Rajoy’s government from losing 2.5 million voters since the last regional elections. The corruption scandal around the governing Popular Party has propelled Podemos to being seen by many as a viable alternative. It is the need for reforms coupled with the inability of mainstream politics to deliver that has pushed the radical left to the forefront of the Spanish elections.

It is not only the good relationship between its respective leaders that binds the Podemos and Syriza parties together. The call of Pablo Iglesias “First we take Athens, then we take Madrid” in the final Syriza rally of the Greek 2015 elections indicated the ideological affinity between these parties. This ideological affinity is based on Ernesto Laclau’s political thought, namely the avocation of populist politics as a means of genuine democracy and a rejection of the traditional left wing parties such as the Communists and Socialists. These parties managed to reposition the debate along new lines between the masses and the elites.

Greece’s and Spain’s post junta kleptocratic corrupt regimes have driven popular sentiment against the governing parties towards a greater democratic participation, with Podemos and Syriza finding a lot of sympathy in the crisis torn South.  LIVRE and Juntos Podemos in Portugal and to some extent the Five Star Movement in Italy demonstrate similar traits. Regeneration of the democratic practice, anti-austerity, the fight against corruption and elites and populism are key elements of their ideological underpinning. 

As austerity has moved the European Southern countries to the left, the North has steadily moved to the right of the political spectrum which has resulted in an ideological chasm between them. What remains to be seen is whether Podemos and the other radical populist left parties in countries such as Spain can deliver when the rules are being dictated by Berlin, Brussels and the EU North.