By Alyssa McMurtry
MADRID (AA) – Ahead of Spain’s second general election since December, recent polls suggest a new left-wing party – United Podemos – has overtaken the traditional left, increasing the possibility of a radical-led government.
United Podemos is the product of a recent merger in Spain’s far left. It consists of the anti-austerity Podemos [We Can] party, which skyrocketed to success after the country’s financial crisis, plus the smaller United Left party – led by a self-declared communist.
A recent poll by Metroscopia poll published on Saturday by El Pais claims United Podemos has now taken second place from the establishment Socialist Party (PSOE) but is still trailing behind Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party.
Spaniards will go to the polls again on June 26, three days after the U.K. referendum on leaving the European Union.
The last time Spain voted was in Dec. 2015, but the results produced a fragmented, minority government with the parties unable to form a functioning administration.
Last time around, the Socialists came second and tried, but failed, to form a government. Rajoy’s Popular Party did not even attempt the task, seeing an impossible lack of support in parliament. Now, with the merger boosting support for the new party, it could be United Podemos' leader Pablo Iglesias’ turn to try to put an end to the political deadlock.
- Changing face of Spain's left
Podemos was founded in 2014 and since its inception has been led by Iglesias, a ponytailed political science professor from Madrid.
It was born in the aftermath of the grassroots 15-M protests in 2011, in which protesters occupied Spanish plazas for months in response to growing inequality and harsh austerity measures.
Spain has not been the same since the 2008 financial crisis swept in from the United States and ravaged the country’s economy.
Overall unemployment rates shot from eight per cent in 2007 to as high as 27 percent by 2013. Since then, Spain’s economy has started to recover, but the latest figures from Spain’s Labor Ministry show unemployment is still above 20 per cent – the second highest in Europe after Greece.
Since the crisis, inequality has increased considerably and 72 percent of Spaniards blame harsh austerity measures for the failing economy and growing inequality, according to a June poll conducted by Metroscopia.
The crisis, combined with widespread disillusionment with Spain’s two traditional parties, gave rise to a completely new political landscape. The traditional bipartisan system that has existed since Franco’s dictatorship ended in 1975 was shattered in the last election, with four parties closely splitting the vote.
More than a third of Spanish voters chose to move away from the traditional parties and vote for either Podemos or the newly-formed Ciudadanos [Citizens] party, which is politically in the center.
Podemos’ merger with the United Left, founded in 1986 amid protests against NATO, has added much-needed votes to Podemos’ project and pushed the movement farther to the left. While uncommon in Podemos rallies, communist and republican flags abounded at the first United Podemos demonstration on June 1, according to Spanish media.
United Podemos aims to boost social programs to improve the situation of Spain’s poorest. Thirteen million are at risk of poverty in Spain, according to the National Statistics Institute. In order to do this, the new party has proposed renegotiating debt conditions with the European Union and to raise income tax on Spain’s wealthiest.
Podemos has always been an ally of Syriza in Greece, but “luckily, Spain isn’t Greece,” Iglesias told Spanish daily La Razon in May, before mentioning the fact that Spain has the Eurozone’s fourth-largest economy.
The possibility of a radical-left government, fronted by “ponytails” (a disparaging nickname for Iglesias), has caused alarm among Spain’s conservatives. Political opponents fear a situation similar to Greece and are quick to link Podemos to leftist dictatorships in Latin America.
"Podemos represents a left-wing totalitarian project whose consequences, I think, any citizen can see with what's happening at the moment in Venezuela,” said Ignacio Cosido, director of Spain’s National Police, during an interview on 13TV in May.
Susana Diaz, Socialist president of Andalusia called Podemos “the biggest camouflage operation” in Spain’s recent history, pointing to the undemocratic tendencies of left-wing communists, at a news conference on Wednesday.
Spanish politicians also accuse Podemos of admiring former Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and of being financed by the oil-rich South American state.
Venezuela’s situation has been deteriorating under the left, with the country suffering “brutal repression”, a lack of food and medicine and high crime rates, according to Human Rights Watch.
Albert Rivera, leader of the fourth-place Ciudadanos party, went to Venezuela on the campaign trail and came back accusing Podemos of supporting the regime there and of not cooperating to help free Venezuelan political prisoners.
“Some people understand that talking about Venezuela is a question that benefits them politically,” Iglesias, 37, said to the leader of Ciudadanos, Albert Rivera, 36, in a tense one-on-one debate that aired Sunday on La Sexta. Prior to December’s elections, the two fresh-faced candidates had an unexpectedly cordial conversation on the same network, but the friction of the last six months has notably embittered their relationship.
-Little change since December elections
Beyond the rise of United Podemos, polls suggest that little else has changed since December’s inconclusive elections. If history does come close to repeating itself, the majority of the votes will be split between four parties which were unable to form a government the last time around.
No party except the centrist Ciudadanos is currently willing to support Rajoy’s Popular Party, which polls predict will win another minority. Still, that is not likely to produce enough seats to govern.
The traditional foes of the Popular Party, the Socialists, want to form a progressive coalition between Ciudadanos and Podemos. That is what they tried to do after December’s elections but the proposal was turned down by Podemos, which rejects Ciudadanos’ neoliberal economic policies.
If United Podemos comes in second, perhaps the most tempting offer for them would be joining with the Socialists and smaller separatist parties. Still, this is a long shot for the new group.
A similar agreement could have been made after December’s elections, but was not accepted by the Socialists, whose base is largely against independence movements. However, if United Podemos surges into second place, an anti-austerity government fronted by Iglesias is considerably more likely.
On Monday and for the first time in Spain´s democratic history, the four major parties will face off in a televised electoral debate. Before the last elections, Rajoy refused to debate Podemos or Ciudadanos in public and only debated his traditional Socialist rival.
This time around, even Rajoy has given into the new reality of Spanish politics—that the two traditional parties are no longer in control.