What a week this has been in Europe! And particularly here in Spain. The elections to the European Parliament have sent shock waves throughout the EU, the most surprising results in Spain. A protest party calling itself Podemos ("We Can"), only four months old, with almost no funds, no staff, no office space, won over 1.2 million votes and got its slate of five neophytes elected and looks like a major contender in the coming national elections. And just this morning, King Juan Carlos startled us by announcing his abdication — maybe long overdue, but unexpected just as the major parties are trying to hide from their spectacular plunge of votes last Sunday. This could be the perfect opportunity to do away with our outdated and silly monarchy, but it will almost certainly be an opportunity wasted.
But before commenting on this Bourbon comic opera, let's look at those European Parliament elections and especially Spain's Podemos. Because in countries as different from one another as the UK, France, Greece, and even (though this may not be as apparent) Italy, voters have massively turned away from the traditional, established political patterns — but the turns have gone in different directions. In France and the UK, the greatest numbers of votes went to far right, anti-immigrant and anti-European Union parties; in Greece, to the new left-wing Syriza. In Italy, the big triumph went to the established center-left party of prime minister Renzi — was this by borrowing tactics and strategy of Beppe Grillo's anti-establishment party?
Except for Italy, all these newly powerful political movements
have been labeled "populist" or "anti-system", which in newspaper usage
mean demagogic and dangerous. The voters for Podemos have even been called "frikis", and I suppose something similar is said about the Greek Syriza voters. But, no, they are in their majority responsible, working people, mostly over 35 but also include many students and other younger voters. The rise of something like Podemos, so suddenly and with no big financial backers, is frightening because it tells the old, established, stodgy parties that, like their name says, the can challnge the establishment.
Spain has nothing like the xenophobic parties of France, Holland, or the UK, because the nominally democratic Popular Party absorbs the whole range of right-wing votes. The PP is not officially xenophobic nor anti-democratic in its discourse, only in its practice (razor-wire immigration controls, administrative laws against protests, and its proposed anti-abortion law, for example), and all this plus its close ties to the Catholic Church make attractive to a wide range of conservatives, from fascists to oligarchs to business interests.
The Popular Party has grown of Franco fascism. The Spanish Socialist Party, from trade unionism, its experience in governing the Second Republic (1934-1939), and from a tradition of resistance to fascism.
But Podemos has emerged from something much newer, mainly from the "15-M", the great mobilization of radicals and moderate democrats that began on the 15th of May 2011 and took over the central plazas of cities across Spain, to protest against the dismantling of the welfare state (cuts in education, health care, other social services), the evictions, and pensions freezes dictated by Brussels and Berlin and implemented by the Socialist government then in office. After that summer of protest and political education, the newly energized citizens went back to their neighborhoods and formed hundreds, thousands of radically democratic movements to confront local problems. It has taken only three years for all that energy to be channeled by a party which is really no more than an open association of like-minded people, joined by Facebook and e-mail and YouTube videos.
Italy and Greece, along with Spain, suggest that, yes, "We can" — Podemos — mobilize the millions of discontented Europeans not to destroy the European Union, but to make it work. To counter the politics of austerity with one of economic growth, to use European funds to save those who need help to survive instead of only the bankers, to enlarge opportunities instead of restricting them by tight regulation from Brussels and without any democratic representation to control the people making the rules.
Those are, I'm pretty sure, the same things that most of the Front National (France) and UKIP (UK) voters want. But in those countries, the xenophobic parties have been the only ones aggressively pushing those issues. Podemos (Spain) and Syriza (Greece), and Renzi's redirection of the PD (Italy), show that it doesn't have to be that way. These movements are the answer to the European Commission's repeated
insistence, "No you can't!" Can't increase the deficit, can't spend to
increase employment, can't force bankers to lend, etc., etc. And
repeated obediently by Spain's Popular Party government: we'd like to do
more for our people (they say), we'd like to honor our campaign
pledges, but "we can't" — the deficit, the Troika, the markets won't let
And Juan Carlos' abdication? The big established parties, the PP and the Socialists, are falling all over themselves to praise his 39-year reign and proclaim their loyalty to the Crown Prince. As though the monarchy were the only thing holding our democratic system together. Well, maybe they have a point; they certainly aren't capable of doing it.
(For some background on the 15M (the big mobilization of 2011), see my article Civil protest in Spain, and another on the anti-eviction movement, Spain's many currents of protest. To see all my past articles on Spain, click on "Spain" keyword below.)