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  • Spain’s Upcoming National Elections:  Shaking the Foundations of the Political Establishment with a Genuine Alternative in Pablo Manuel Iglesias Turrión and Podemos
Fecha de publicación 18 diciembre 2015 - 12:45 PM

Spain’s Upcoming National Elections:  Shaking the Foundations of the Political Establishment with a Genuine Alternative in Pablo Manuel Iglesias Turrión and Podemos

Spain held local and municipal elections on May 24, 2015. After the votes were tallied, it emerged that the People’s Party (Partido Popular, PP [1] ) suffered significant defeats, including the losses of its majorities in Madrid and Barcelona. On its own, these results are not particularly remarkable, given that the PP has experienced a number of electoral losses and setbacks in the past. The significance lies in the fact that the defeat of the leading PP did not come at the hands of its traditional rival, as the Socialist Workers Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Espãnol, PSOE) realized its worst election results since 1979. Instead, both of Spain’s traditional parties suffered lo sses on account of gains made by two alternative parties that have emerged as potential contenders:  the center-right Ciudadanos (“Citizens”) and left-wing Podemos (“We Can”).

There is some speculation that these exceptional results may be signifying the impending end of the duopoly that has characterized the Spanish political arena since the constitution was ratified by referendum on December 6, 1978 with the support of 88% of the Spanish population. Over the nearly four decades that followed, Spanish voters were effectively limited to choosing between two dominant parties: the right-wing People’s Party and the left-wing Socialist Workers Party [2] . Although some smaller political parties came into existence since 1982, they have essentially been non-factors with no hope of achieving any meaningful influence through elections. However, recent polls are predicting notable success for Ciudadanos and Podemos in the upcoming National Election scheduled for December 20th. While neither of these upstart parties are expected win outright, each is presently forecast to capture at least 10% of the total vote.

Ciudadanos was originally founded in Catalonia in July 2006. It has always been led by Albert Rivera, a 36 year old former lawyer who is well-known for posing nude in a campaign poster during the 2006 elections for the Parliament of Catalonia. Since its inception, Ciudadanos has espoused mixed ideologies of post-nationalism, liberalism and social democracy, in addition to being well-known for its anti-immigrant and anti-abortion agenda. It is also a pro-business party, evidenced by its calls for lowering corporate taxes and downsizing the public service. At present, Ciudadanos is forecast to be the more successful than Podemos in the upcoming national elections, with some polls indicating that it could potentially become Spain’s second-largest party, which would represent a considerable improvement over the 0.18% of the vote it obtained in 2008.

Podemos is a genuine left-wing party that espouses socialism and democracy, and is well-known for its opposition to austerity measures. Since being officially established on January 17, 2014, Podemos has been able to unify people from all age groups and diverse political viewpoints, including those belonging to various movements like anti-globalisation, anti-neoliberalism, anti-austerity, anti-corruption, environmentalists, socialists, and other activists. The rapid rise of Podemos, as evidenced by its success in the most recent municipal elections, is unparalleled in Spanish history. Recent polls have indicated that Podemos will likely enjoy considerable success in the upcoming national elections, though it is expected to finish behind Ciudadanos.

Podemos is led by 37 year old Pablo Manuel Iglesias Turrión. Prior to entering into politics, he was a tenured professor of political science at the Complutense University of Madrid. His academic record is very impressive as he holds a degree in law and political science, a Master in Humanities, a Master of Arts in Communication, and a PH.D. He also studied a number of other disciplines including cinema, acting, and psychoanalysis. Before entering the political arena, Iglesias was well-known for hosting a round-table debate show on the internet called La Tuerka (The Screw). In fact, he became quite popular and gained a reputation as a strong debater while hosting La Tuerka, as well as his appearances as a guest on other political talk shows.

Iglesias regards himself as a leftist and admits to being a member of the Communist Youth Union of Spain when he was younger. He is well-known for his defense of justice and equality, his anti-globalisation discourses, and his opposition to austerity measures. Furthermore, he has openly accused free market capitalism, which was relentlessly promoted during the Reagan-Thatcher era, of facilitating many of the catastrophic outcomes that have emerged globally in contemporary times including pollution, environmental problems, famine, poverty, unprecedented economic inequality, recessions and economic crises, injustice, etc.

When taking his education, training, and modest life-style into consideration along with his opposition to the individualistic and self-interested nature of modern capitalist systems, and his discourses on achieving the best possible outcomes for Spanish citizens, it could be argued that Pablo Iglesias represents a prominent example of a modern “philosopher king” [3] , the term that Plato applied to the ideal ruler of the city-state. His intellectual capacity, achievements in the academic world, dedication to education, commitment to justice, and defense of virtuous actions are similar to some of the characteristics that Plato attributed to the best ruler who will be able to achieve the common good for the city-state in his masterpiece The Republic. Based on his discourse, it appears that Iglesias is not motivated by personal monetary gain or the achievement of selfish ends; rather, he genuinely wants to represent the masses and see to their best interests.

Iglesias has addressed many of the larger issues pondered by philosophers and social, economic, and political theorists throughout history, from the periods of the Ancient Greeks right up to contemporary times. These include the very relevant and related topics of reducing the gap between excessive wealth and excessive poverty, and reforming the unequal and arbitrary system of distributing goods. Contrary to the leaders of the PP, PSOE, and Ciudadanos, Iglesias openly and honestly discusses the prominent influence of finance in the political arena, not just in Spain but also at the global level. More specifically, he claims that the world’s wealthiest people and organizations possess levels of political power that exceed those of any President, Prime Minister, or parliament. Furthermore, he often emphasises the point that such elites exert significant influence over many international organizations and institutions, as well as the Central Banks of many countries.

Iglesias wants the electorate to understand that while the 2008 the global financial crisis was largely caused by the U.S. banking system, the burdens associated with it have been transferred to the people of Spain in the forms of economic and financial hardship and high unemployment. He goes on to claim that the financial crisis, when combined with the structure and rules of the European Union (EU), have led to the emergence of two types of countries in Europe: creditors and debtors. Geographically, creditor countries are primarily situated in the north of Europe, whereas the debtor nations are mainly found in the south. Debtor countries, which include Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and Spain, have paid a high price under the austerity measures implemented in an attempt to resolve Europe’s debt and unemployment problems. More precisely, debtor countries have experienced millions of job losses, reduced salaries, lower pensions, higher taxes, and the privatisation of many public institutions, resulting in dysfunctional public healthcare systems and inadequate social services. In fact, the austerity policies have expanded inequality in Spain and other debtor countries, as the creation of high levels of unemployment and poverty [4] have been accompanied by an increase in the number of millionaires and elites.

Contrary to the leaders of the PP, PSOE, and Ciudadanos, Iglesias has frequently criticized the EU and identified it as a key factor in the emergence of many economic and social problems that exist in Spain and many other debtor countries. However, while he has argued that Spain needs to re-acquire some of the sovereignty that it has given up in exchange for EU membership, he simultaneously acknowledges that outright withdrawal is not a viable option. Based on these views, there is a distinct possibility that Iglesias’ economic and social policies, which would involve greater economic sovereignty and political autonomy for Spain, could conflict with the broader agenda of the European Union.

Domestically, Iglesias recognizes the diversity of identity within Spain. As such, his objective is to attain popular sovereignty with everyone united [5] . Furthermore, he advocates transparency in light of the rampant and high-profile corruption scandals among public officials, primarily those affiliated with the PP, involving bribery, the illegal financing of political parties, fraud, tax evasion, theft of public funds, illegal patronage, etc. He claims that the current political system promotes the interests of these corrupt elites and that it is time to implement reforms that gives power back to the people.

Unlike Podemos, Ciudadanos does not represent a true ideological alternative to the status quo, as it is not substantially different from either the left-wing PSOE or the right-wing PP. In actuality, all three of these parties are perceived as very business-oriented and envision the European Union as the future of Spain. Furthermore, the leader of the Ciudadanos, Albert Rivera openly accepts the principles of neo-liberalism and advocates for the application of neo-liberal economic policies, which were extensively promoted and implemented by both of Spain’s traditional parties when they were in power.

During 1982-1996, successive PSOE governments implemented neo-liberal economic policies and gradually reduced the role of Keynesian policies that are often associated with socialism. These neo-liberal policies, which included the privatization of state-owned corporations, were intended to modernize Spain socially, economically, and culturally in order to bring the country in-line with other members [6] of the European Community (EC) with the ultimate goal of gaining EU and NATO membership. PSOE was able to deregulate the Spanish economy with very little difficulty, given that the PP offered virtually no opposition to such policies. In fact, after prevailing in national elections and presiding over the country during the 1996-2004 [7] period, the PP demonstrated its commitment to neo-liberal economic principles by implementing similar policies to those of the PSOE that were centred on massive cutbacks in government spending, eliminating the welfare state, widespread layoffs, and the privatization of all state-owned enterprises, including those in the energy sector and telecommunications industry [8] .

Thus, both the PP and PSOE share considerable responsibility in creating the current social and economic environments in Spain, which are characterized by rising poverty levels, the highest rate of youth unemployment in Europe (more than 49%), and public debt exceeding $1 trillion as of the end of November 2015. Furthermore, both the PP and PSOE have been embroiled in similar corruption scandals [9] .

The PSOE and PP have always been very business friendly. In fact, bankers and the business elite played key roles in shaping the agendas of both governments during the process of democratizing Spain and modernizing its economy. More precisely, business and industrial leaders pressured the government into implementing neo-liberal economic policies in order to facilitate their ability to collaborate with their counterparts based in Western Europe. In other words, the neo-liberal policies implemented and secured by the PSOE and the PP essentially promoted the interests of the nation’s business elites and bankers over those of common people, which resembles the situation that prevailed under Franco’s dictatorship when these same individuals enjoyed similar privileges.

Rivera has often claimed that, if elected, Ciudadanos will focus on corruption scandals and eventually prosecute the implicated politicians. However, it is very unlikely that he would follow through on these promises, as his policies will inevitably be based on the same neo-liberal principles that guided the agendas of PP and PSOE.

Podemos’ economic program conflicts with those of the PP, PSOE, and Ciudadanos, which amount to little more than further deepening the implementation of neo-liberal economic policies. Conversely, the policies put forth by Iglesias promote distributive justice and include fiscal reforms and increased state investments in public goods and services. He also seeks to create a “public banking system to insure investment and credit for households and small and medium-size companies”, and establish “public ownership…to certain key areas of the economy, such as energy, transport, utilities and other strategic sectors”. Additionally, Iglesias has expressed support for a higher minimum wage, poverty reduction, subsidies to low-paid workers, and publicly-funded education, housing and health care.

The outcome of the local and municipal elections held this past May and recent poll results have indicated that Spanish voters are tired of being resigned to choosing between the two traditionally dominant parties. However, the recent emergence of two legitimate alternatives in the Ciudadanos and Podemos has brought hope that Spain could be moving away from the tyranny of the two-party system that has characterized the political arena since the transition from the Franco dictatorship to democracy.

When considering the rapid success of Podemos with the recent emergence of Syriza in Greece, and Jeremy Corbyn’s victory within Britain’s Labour party, one could speculate that the political climate in Europe is undergoing a significant change. More precisely, it appears that voters, which have been experiencing disastrous outcomes as a result of Europe’s imperial economic and political agenda, are seeking alternative forms of government that do not place the interests of powerful corporations and business elites over those of the masses. These developments, which have shaken the foundations of the political establishments in a number of European countries and have the potential to do so again in Spain’s upcoming elections, demonstrate that the voting public has come to realize that Noam Chomsky was correct when he stated: “If you abandon the political arena, somebody is going to be there. Corporations aren’t going to go home and join the PTA. They are going to run things.”

[1] The People's Alliance (Alianza Popular, AP) was a conservative right-wing party originally founded by Manuel Fraga in 1976. Previously, Fraga served as a Minister in the Franco regime. AP acted as the major opposition party in the 1980s. It was officially re-named the People’s Party in 1989.

[2] Since the transition from the Franco dictatorship to democracy, Spain has been led exclusively by successive PSOE (1982-1996 and 2004-2011) and PP (1996-2004 and 2011-present) governments.

[3] It has been often argued that Plato’s philosopher king is a dictator or despot. However, despite the validity of this type of interpretation, the term philosopher king is not used as a negative connotation for the purposes of this paper. 

[4] In Spain, the poverty rate is about 20%.

[5] While Podemos does not support the idea of Catalonia separating from Spain, it does recognize the right of the Catalonian people to hold a referendum on the matter.

[6] In other words, the PSOE transitioned away from its radical socialist traditions and stopped adhering to Marxist ideals, opting instead to accept the principles of neo-liberalism.

[7] In 1996, the right-wing People’s Party (Partido Popular, PP) came to power under the leadership of José María Aznar and governed the country until 2004.

[8] In 2002, Spain also adopted the Euro as its official currency under the leadership of Prime Minister Aznar, transitioning away from the peseta.

[9] The Gürtel case is one of the biggest corruption scandals in recent Spanish history. It implicated officers from the People’s Party in a number of corrupt practices including bribery, money laundering, and tax evasion.

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