What is Podemos? A consequence of the crisis, and at the same time, of the inability of the elites that have governed this country over the last 30 years to create an innovative and competitive economy that can generate growth and quality employment. Which means that it brings together the sectors that have lost out as a result of the crisis: young people whose only experience of work is part-time, low-quality jobs. They are further united by their rejection of the ethics of mainstream politics. The party has come from the left, because it is there that you will find the politicians who can capture the mood. It could have been Ada Colau and her Mortgage Victims’ Platform, but instead it was a group of politics lecturers from Madrid.
It has articulated a discourse that aims to defend ordinary people in the face of an economic system that has spread uncertainty throughout society, particularly after the labor reforms of recent years. Spanish society has now split into two groups, with very different expectations: in May, ahead of the European elections, 25 percent of the middle-to-lower social status groups, and 17.6 percent of middle status, said they felt they were likely or quite likely to lose their jobs in the coming months, while more than half of middle and lower status now believe that their income will drop, or do not know how it will evolve; whereas the middle-to-higher and higher status groups in work, the survivors of the crisis, see no problems down the road.
Podemos’ discourse is focused on “institutional violence” (evictions; short-term, badly paid work; corrupt bankers enjoying impunity, etc.), a response to demands for greater social protection from the market by people who feel that the state, the politicians and the labor unions have abandoned them to their fate.
Podemos has been dubbed by some as an anti-system party run by a bunch of malcontents. This is not the case. Its leaders are people who aspire to stable jobs, mostly in the public sector. Several, into their thirties, are university lecturers on short-term contracts being paid around €1,000 a month and who will have to put up with this until they are into their forties, when they might be given a long-term contract. Many of their peers have already emigrated to universities abroad. They are fragments of the younger generation that want to join and change the system, with some members of the over-fifties who are terrified they will be made redundant, whose wages have been cut, and whose pensions are now in doubt.
Podemos has been dubbed by some as an anti-system party run by a bunch of malcontents. This is not the case
Youth unemployment and low-skilled jobs have further extended the mood of frustration: young people cannot find work to match their education, and so cannot plan their lives. Evictions and worsening labor conditions have families and the partially employed over the age of 50 living in fear: Podemos garnered just 3.6 of the vote, but 7.5 percent of those in part-time work.
It has attracted the young vote (5.5 percent of those between 18 and 24 years of age, 4.3 percent of those between 25 and 44 years of age), and all from the left. It has drained the United Left (IU): 370,000 of its vote from the 2011 general elections; 250,000 from the Socialist Party; plus 325,000 of Socialist Party voters who abstained; and 150,000 from the residual left. All of its voters are politically engaged, and on the left.
Podemos is still taking shape, and that shape will depend on its decisions and on other parties. The Popular Party’s policies are based on privatization and aggressive reform of the labor market; its priorities are protecting the banks, cutting the welfare state and public spending: all aimed at preserving the status quo whatever the cost. For many voters it is seen as having bailed out the bankers and thrown the poor to the sharks. In this light, its vote in the European elections of May 24 makes sense: in the 2011 general elections it won 10.8 million votes; last month it garnered 4.1 million. It has destroyed its electoral base among the lower middle classes, one of its main bastions, who are terrified by labor market reform. If the PP wants to survive, it needs to ask itself just who it is governing on behalf of.
IU has been hit hard by the appearance of Podemos, and there will be calls within the grouping for alliances, which will create tension.
Podemos is still taking shape, and that shape will depend on its decisions and on other parties
Socialist Party leader Alfredo Rubalcaba has announced that he will stand down, and that a new leader will be elected at the party conference in July. The primaries will take place under the usual opaque conditions. It does not seem as though the Socialist Party has really taken on board the gravity of the situation, and that it is seen by many voters as part of the problem, not the solution. Meanwhile, its leaders continue to talk vaguely about regional issues and constitutional reform. The Socialist Party was in power during the first phase of the crisis and is largely responsible for designing the power structure that Podemos wants to dismantle. It has been in office for 21 of the last 32 years. It is responsible for many key aspects of what Spain is today (the regions, the legal system, the universities, the savings banks, the civil service, capitalism dependent on government decisions, etc.), not to mention the corruption and inefficiency of so many layers of government and society, all of which is preventing the younger generations from taking their place in society. Will the Socialist Party think about these issues?
Podemos is the response by this country’s younger, left-leaning electorate to the failure of the system. In France, where the far right triumphed in the European elections, the center right UMP has called a conference for November: six months for the party to analyze, come up with new ideas, rethink its organization, and for new leaders to emerge able to engage with the electorate it claims to represent. Here, the Socialist Party will simply change the names of its candidates.
If the big parties do not change their policies, and instead miss this opportunity to reflect and to come up with new ideas, the two-party system will simply fall apart. Rebuilding a political system will take years, using up the energy needed to revive the economy, politics and the regions. The PP will still hold onto its power base in the center-right, but it won’t be big enough to govern alone.
If the Socialist Party continues with its navel gazing, ever more distanced from the generational and social challenge that has changed the left, then the left will split into myriad factions, and the Socialist Party will wither away. Podemos has given a voice to a generation and to certain sectors in society that was no longer represented politically and brought into sharp focus the problem: Spain, with its uncompetitive economy, is shifting toward a model with huge income inequalities, while the country itself slides ever-closer to the edge of the developed world.
Podemos has given a voice to a generation and brought into sharp focus the problems facing Spain
Podemos does not have the real answers; it is simply recycling old ideas; but its purpose now is as an expression of discontent, not to offer a program for change. It captures the anger of people who cannot understand how the members of the board of a savings bank that was bailed out with public money who stole €28.5 million can evade prison simply by returning the money.
Today, Podemos has more votes, thanks to the courts. The party has been accused of being a Spanish branch of the left wing popularism that has taken root in Venezuela and Ecuador, but the truth is that it is Spain’s political elite that has failed the test of democracy, and its lack of ethics is deplorable and destructive.
In any event, what cannot be allowed to happen is that 18 months down the road we have a coalition government of two KO’d parties and a Congress that is out of control.
José Antonio Gómez Yáñez is a lecturer in Sociology at the Carlos III University and a partner at Estudio de Sociología Consultores.