by Jerome Grapel…….
(6/15, Spain) (“Podemos” is a new political party that has made its debut in Spanish politics about a year and a half ago. I consider it one of the first credible challenges to the current form of capitalism that has bullied its way to world dominance. Optimism would be too strong a word for its future, but, as of now, they are still in the game and seem to be gaining ground. This essay is an expression of hope for its growth and survival.)
After writing a series of essays a year ago about this new political force in Spanish politics, I’d be remiss if I did not follow up as my 2 month stay in the Spanish Mediterranean nears its end. In truth, it’s taken me the 6 weeks I’ve been here to get a firm enough hold on the intricacies of Spain’s form of democracy to be able to express myself on the subject — and even then — well, let’s give it a try.
We will start with a brief refresher course. Months before the “Occupy” movement in America took to the streets, a close relative of it in Spain known as “Los Indignados” (the indignants) had already filled Madrid’s most public spaces with tens of thousands of demonstrators. The movement soon spread to the nation’s most important cities and beyond. It was kind of like the French Revolution without the Bastille and its message was a strident repudiation of Spain’s political framework and its forms of power brokering in general. The economic debacle in the neo-liberal system had left large segments — not just poor people — of educated, professionally formed, middle class people feeling disenfranchised and defrauded. Los Indignados were an informal, spontaneous outlet for this discontent and it lingered in the Spanish reality for months to come. Spain’s mainstream media, as well as the country’s traditional political apparatus, treated it with the same condescension a parent might look upon the passing fads of their children.
Perhaps, as the Spanish establishment had hoped and expected, this would have all faded away into the forgotten basement files of history if not for the appearance of one Dylan-like professor of political science named Pablo Iglesias.
All during the Occupy movement in America, which was something I greatly sympathized with, I somehow knew there was not enough political sophistication here to mold this popular outrage into a viable political force. This feeling was a logical extension of my general lack of faith in America’s political IQ, and, unfortunately — have you heard much about the “Occupiers” lately?
That is why what is happening in Spain is so exhilarating for me. Los Indignados have actually taken that next step. They have evolved into a political party called “Podemos” (we can) that has entered the playing field of the country’s formal political machinery. Led by Iglesias and his university technocrats and academics, they are youngish, aggressive, intellectually prepared, articulate, and ready to defend and propagate their leftist point of view (in truth, the terms “left” and “right” become somewhat outdated with regard to Podemos, whose approach to politics seems to transcend such nomenclature). In less than a year, they have developed a national political strategy, a well enunciated platform, a cohesive leadership machine, a logo, a color (they are referred to as the “purples”), and have changed the landscape of Spanish politics.
Podemos faced its first true test on May 24th of this year during Spain’s nation wide elections of local governments — autonomous regions, provincial councils, municipalities, and such. These elections are meaningful and generally considered a trend setting warm up for Spain’s national parliamentary elections in November. This is how it works:
(Before getting to the nuts and bolts of it, it should be said that what will be explained here is a simplification of a complex montage with more variations and combinations than what is being described for now. However, for someone who is a novice with regard to the Spanish political landscape, it will suffice in providing a useful foundation of understanding).
Spanish democracy is based upon a parliamentary system where the chief executive of each respective political jurisdiction is chosen by the party or parties that can form a governing majority with the number of seats they’ve won in the election. This means that if no political party can win an absolute majority, it must find other formations to “pact” with in order to form a majority coalition. Spain, like most western style democracies, features a political lineup with much more variation on the left than on the right. Conservatives are a more tight knit group who know who they are, know what they want, understand the interests they are protecting, and, in general, know what side their bread is buttered on. The left is usually a more disparate hodge-podge of romantic notions and idealistic concepts that can be difficult to harness. (It is interesting to note that in America, this right wing cohesion has been somewhat disrupted by the social conservatives. In Europe, “social conservatives” are not a factor)
In a socio-political environment of unrest and anger, this cohesive element of conservative politics, which would usually be an advantage, can become a disadvantage, but only if someone on the left can motivate a reaction.
This is what Podemos has done.
Being that the conservatives in Spain, represented by their traditional umbrella party, the “Partido Popular” or PP, is this galvanized entity that pretty much represents all of the Spanish right, it generally has few parties to pact with if they do not win absolute majorities or something very close to it.
In the last 5 years or so, the PP has generally been able to do this, not because they’ve energized the Spanish people and increased their base of support — indeed, they are just as reviled as any other version of Spanish politics — but because their chief rivals on the left, the PSOE, has so alienated much of its base that many have been driven into abstention. The initials PSOE, in English, mean the Spanish Socialist Workers Party. This name has always been a slightly exaggerated description of its leftist qualities, but today’s PSOE has absolutely no relationship at all to the name. It has been moved into that no man’s land of centrist politics that really stands for nothing (for all you Democrats out there, it sounds familiar, no?). It has become a political organization that exists to serve itself and has colluded with the neo-liberal system as part of the burlesque of democracy (for all you Democrats out there, blah, blah). If the PP has had success in the last few election cycles, it is not because of what they stand for, but more for what the PSOE has ceased to stand for. They are the main reason for the abject cynicism that has handed the Spanish right the government without them having energized the country.
This is the vacuum Podemos has been able to fill. In just one year of existence, they are challenging the PSOE for supremacy on the left and have made it very difficult for the PP to procure the majorities they need by themselves. In general, the PP gets the most votes of any single party, but they cannot form governing coalitions. This means the PSOE, Podemos and its affiliates have the numbers to form governments.
But it is not as simple as that.
It must be remembered that Podemos considers the PSOE in much the same way it sees the PP, that is, as corrupted pieces of status quo malignancy (and rightly so). But this is where Podemos has to understand that now that they have entered the game, their mode of behavior has to become more nuanced and sophisticated. It is always easier to tear down a house than to build one. They are real players now, subject to the same scrutiny (even more), the same for or against (mostly against) propaganda as the other players. They must learn to use the system without destroying their core beliefs. This takes patience and realism. Laudably, they have accrued some genuine power and leverage within the bounds of legitimacy. How to manage and use it is a delicate operation.
The coalition negotiations between the PSOE and the Podemos affiliations have been difficult, but they seem to be hammering it out. In most instances, the PSOE, with its well developed organization and base militancy, is still the most voted entity on the left. This means they will preside over most jurisdictions with their chief executive and their agenda. In such cases, Podemos becomes the conscience of the system, one that makes sure the PSOE lives up to the bargain forged. This means Podemos is dragging Spain’s political center back towards the left. In almost all these coalition forming negotiations, 4 central premises of Podemos ideology have been agreed to: 1) Not just the reinvigoration of public sector services, but the return of many such functions, especially in health care and public education, that have been privatized. 2) A halt to all housing evictions, both for owners and renters, many of which have been caused by unscrupulous, dishonest banking practices. Podemos is not being naïve here. They realize this has to be paid for, sooner or later, somehow or other, but they have well conceived plans to lessen the burden on the most innocent victims. 3) As a reaction to the endemic corruption in the country, a demand for pristine clarity in the bookkeeping of public funds, with the mechanisms and procedures to follow in order to reach this goal. 4) A demand that all publicly elected officials take a pay cut. Although there is little of substance in this gambit — indeed, it could be considered a grandstand play — in a society where millions of people have seen their standard of living degraded, there is some symbolism of worth in the gesture.
But Podemos has aspirations that go beyond just being this fulcrum party effecting policy from the fringes. Attention! In Spain’s 2 world class cities, Madrid and Barcelona, Podemos affiliates have captured City Hall! They are the Mayors, they set the agenda. The coalition is captained by them.
My purpose in writing this essay is not to give the reader a lesson in civics or a course in political science. As an American, I write this essay as an indictment of the fraud we call “democracy” in the United States. What I see here in Spain is a democracy that is actually responding to the socio-economic conditions in the country (what a strange concept). In the United States, I see a government castrated by the same special interests that have tyrannized the country since Ronald Reagan, a tyranny that has only strengthened and consolidated its power since that time. Other then to spend inhuman amounts of the nation’s wealth on military hardware and heinous, counter productive bellicose actions, one would be hard pressed to find any other governmental act of substance. The fact that our next presidential election most likely will produce yet another Bush-Clinton “confrontation” (is it really a confrontation or is it just the same old stuff?), speaks loudly of the petrified nature of American governance.
Although the Podemos phenomena is taking place in what might be called a peripheral country in the huge burlesque of global capitalism, it could have more widespread repercussions. It is not unreasonable to think of it as the first salvos of artillery in the war against the dictatorship of neo-liberal, global corporatism (perhaps we could add the Greek situation to this engagement). If it continues to grow, chances are, the Pyrenees will not hold it back.