Can Spain's Podemos party reignite Europe's leftist movement?

Podemos may be the best chance for the stumbling anti-austerity far left to get their message heard once again at Europe's highest levels.

Andrea Comas/Reuters
Vendors set up a stand at a Podemos party rally in Madrid last month.

In the mining valleys of Asturias in northern Spain, where heavy industry and unionization have kept families loyal to the mainstream left for generations, a growing disillusion with austerity, joblessness, and mainstream parties generally has turned this into fertile territory for Podemos, Spain’s far left, the anti-austerity party.

“We want something new,” says Diego Romero, a 22-year-old who studied mechanics and can’t find a first job. His neighbor in the municipality of Langreo, Encarnacion Salazar, an unemployed mother of two, says she voted for Podemos in May's regional elections, and plans to do so in December's national election, in the hopes that Spain will prosper once again.

While Europe's far left has come down from the high it enjoyed earlier this year, primarily on the back of Greece's now-humbled Syriza party, analysts say it is still a political force to be reckoned with. And if its anti-austerity message is to enjoy a resurgence in Europe this year, it is most likely to be in Spain, where Podemos’s fate at the polls will be the next big indicator of whether a leftist revolution for Europe can be refueled.

When Podemos came onto the scene a year and a half ago, emerging from the “indignados” marches in the height of economic crisis, they set Spanish politics ablaze, posing the first major challenge to Spain’s two-party system that has been in place since its transition to democracy in the late 1970s.

Now they face the growth of Ciudadanos, an upstart party that emerged nationally, appealing to the same weary Spaniards who see it as a safer alternative to Podemos, and even more important a brighter Spanish economy, which expanded in the second quarter at the fastest pace in 8 years, newly released figures show. The government predicts GDP growth of 3.3 percent this year, a major rebound for an economy so recently in recession. A new poll showed Podemos's support drop to 15 percent, while the ruling center right, the Partido Popular (PP), and the Socialists (PSOE) were both well ahead in a near tie at the top.

But the threat they pose to mainstream politics has not abated – and one need look no farther than Asturias to understand why.

The local culture and identity here is imbued with heroic defiance – from resisting the Moorish invasion to defying the forces of former dictator Francisco Franco – but the region has come upon tough times with the decline of industry. In regional elections in May, Podemos garnered 20 percent of the votes. The results put them third after the mainstream right and left, but it represented one of their most significant electoral gains in the country.

Vincenzo Scarpetta, a policy analyst on southern Europe at Open Europe, says Podemos is not finished. “The economic recovery is gaining traction. But it is also true that Spain has very high unemployment and many of the reasons Podemos surged and experienced such spectacular growth are still there,” he says.

That is true across Europe, he adds, but for now Spain is the best prospect the left has in Europe of keeping its anti-austerity message at the fore.

In Portugal, while a new party LIVRE has emerged that bears resemblance to Podemos, it is only polling at 3 percent for now. And in Ireland, the other bailout country heading to polls, while growth for the left is near guaranteed, the mainstream is expected to win easily.

“What will happen in Spain will be very important for Europe and Greece, and we hope that the balance of forces in Europe will start changing,” says Marina Prentoulis, a spokesperson for Syriza in the United Kingdom and a lecturer at the University of East Anglia.

Raul Alvarez, a political writer for Asturias24, an online news portal, says Podemos has changed the debate here already, putting topics such as forced evictions onto the agenda. And the discussion here could resonate nationally because, while tiny demographically, Asturias is symbolically crucial for the left in Spain, he says.

Those Spaniards most spooked by the outcome in Greece and the risk of turning back economic progress are the undecided voters, who are key to the race, says Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, a Madrid-based analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations who authored a book on Podemos that came out in April.

But Syriza's failure also emboldened Spaniards who are angered by the way the European Union, led by Germany, tightened the screws on Greece and who can easily see themselves in a similar position. “Whatever happens in Greece could happen here next,” says Romero, the unemployed mechanic in Langreo.

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