A recent headline in Spain’s digital newspaper El Diario announced that, according to spokesperson Pablo Casado of the right-wing People’s Party (PP), Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had “won the debate he didn’t attend.” Rajoy happens to head the PP.
The debate in question was organized by the prominent Spanish paper El País ahead of the country’s general elections on December 20. Rajoy had refused to grace with his presence the other participants: the leaders of the PSOE, Ciudadanos, and Podemos—the three political parties that appear poised to take second, third and fourth place, respectively, in the elections, at least according to an opinion poll by the state-funded Center for Sociological Research. (Other pollsters have warned of the extreme unpredictability of the outcome.)
It is of course the function of spokespeople everywhere to warp reality in favor of whatever product they’re selling—otherwise they’d be out of a job—but Casado’s declaration of victory in absentia is particularly misleading. After all, the real loser on Dec. 20 will be, hands down, the two-party system that has traditionally dominated Spanish politics, of which Rajoy’s PP constitutes one half.
Additional delusions surface in Casado’s claim that it’s wrong to assume that “new politics are better than good politics,” the implication being that the “old politics” are automatically good. Consider the fact that it was none other than the bipartisan stewardship of crippling austerity measures and home evictions in the aftermath of the financial crisis—itself also incidentally a hallmark of politics as usual—that spurred the eruption of Podemos in the first place.
In 2012, some 500 people were reportedly being evicted on a daily basis, while the surge in unemployment saw nearly 60 percent of Spaniards between the ages of 18 and 25 jobless in 2013. The enthusiastic popular response to Podemos, and its impressive performance in the 2014 European parliamentary elections shortly after its creation, underscored the extent to which the old politics of corruption just weren’t cutting it anymore.
The breath of fresh air provided by Podemos has not been without a counter-breath: Ciudadanos, the party referred to by The Guardian as the “Podemos of the right.” Despite hailing from Catalonia, Ciudadanos opposes the region’s right to vote on whether or not to pursue independence from Spain—a nation that has more than proven its dedication to mistreating the Catalans.
“Democracy is something beautiful. When something doesn’t function, the people can change it.”
So while the dismantling of the Spanish duopoly is without a doubt a cause for celebration, it’s not necessarily a victory in itself. Any real victory must entail not only an expansion of voting options but also an attendant expansion of political willingness and ability to actually act on behalf of the general public interest.
To use a more infamous duopoly as an example: imagine that the Republicans and the Democrats in the United States—who are forever cast by their respective proponents as diametrically opposite in orientation despite being equally devoted to serving the domestic elite while pillaging and otherwise wreaking havoc across the globe—were to suddenly be given a serious run for their money by new political forces. If those forces simply put a new face on business as usual, you might call it a democratization of oppression, but you certainly wouldn’t call it greater democracy.
In the case of Spain, Podemos is arguably the only of the top electoral contenders that shouldn’t immediately trigger the gag reflex of any reasonably principled, socially conscious person. Strongly committed to transparency and the elimination of corruption, its anti-austerity program entails reversals of health care and education cuts; other laudable proposals include reducing the workweek to 35 hours and focusing on renewable energy. Unlike the PP, PSOE, and Ciudadanos, which are all hysterically opposed to Catalan independence, Podemos is at least in favor of a referendum on the issue.
However, the party is not without its own defects. As Catalan architect David Bravo of the progressive political scene in Barcelona remarked to me, Podemos has significantly altered its discourse since its surprise triumph in the European elections: “It has diluted the radicalness of many of its proposals (like basic income) to win votes in the center, which may disillusion many potential voters on the left.”
And while a retreat from the radical may indeed lure in more votes overall, it necessarily reduces opportunities for structural change.
“Sunday, my grandmother, my mother and me, will will return to live now, because together We Can.”
On political fronts slightly farther from home, Podemos has also adopted a curious stance, with Secretary-General Pablo Iglesias advancing the idea of a national referendum to determine whether or not Spaniards want to participate militarily in Syria (as they’re being urged from certain corners). The semblance of democracy here conveniently overlooks the fundamental moral repugnance of the military option—not to mention the fact that the demos on the receiving end of Western bombs would have no say in the matter.
But for the moment, there’s no reason to drown ourselves in pessimism. In a recent email to me, activist Xavi Ferrer of En Comú Podem—a coalition involving Podemos and Barcelona En Comú, the party of that city’s new left-wing mayor Ada Colau—offered some reasons for encouragement.
In 2011, he recalled, the PP and PSOE took over 75 percent of the vote, but “now they’ll be lucky if together they exceed 40 percent.” Bipartisanship, Ferrer wrote, “is over, and this is much worse for (the powers that be) than losing an election.”
In sum, he said, “el miedo”—fear—now resides on the side of power. And frankly, there’s no better place for fear to be.