Gordon Campbell on Podemos, and Spain’s election stalemate

The events of 2015 taught us a lot about the potential ( and the limits) of left wing populism. Syriza in Greece had started the year as the harbinger of change – offering a genuine alternative to the politics of austerity and to a European Union that had been created and managed solely in Germany’s self-interest. Unfortunately, Syriza has now ended up as the battered local agent of those same oppressive forces.

Inevitably, the demise of Syriza cast a long shadow over the mid-December elections in Spain, and it checked the advance of its former Spanish ally, Podemos. The outcome could have been far worse. A Spanish electorate that had gone through terrible austerity measures – and an unemployment rate that peaked at 27% – could be forgiven for thinking that even the country’s current tepid economic recovery was better than the risk of change. New Zealand voters will probably be fed a similar election message of caution by the Key government in 2017.

A year ago, Spain had looked willing and able to embrace the risks associated with change. Amazingly, the polls between January -March 2015 had shown that Podemos – only nine months after it was founded – was the most popular political party in Spain. Under its charismatic leader Pablo Iglesias, Podemos introduced new forms of political organisation based on neighbourhood, regional and class identity.

By hard grassroots effort, it convincingly rejected the fragmented, individualising forces that had shaped political life for the past few decades – instead, it organized its supporters on the basis of their common, communal experience via collective decision-making aimed at rolling back (a) the austerity-driven cutbacks in public services and (b) the home evictions of those unable to meet their mortgage payments. All of which is far easier said than done, but Podemos managed it.

Despite a few setbacks along the way – including the resignation of one of its leaders over a tax dodge – Podemos still seemed on track midyear to replace the old, institutionalised Socialist Workers Party of the left. However, the Syriza precedent (and the rise of a mirror populist party on the right) then proceeded to eat into its support. In the December 2015 elections, Podemos ended up in third place. It had chosen to fight the election on a revised, less radical policy programme that included a commitment to holding an independence referendum in Catalonia – a cause that had steadily lost support nationwide during 2015. Yes, the centre is being hollowed out of politics in Spain, as it has been elsewhere in Europe. Yet for now, it seems that while Europe’s new parties of the left can paralyse the existing political system, they cannot quite get enough votes to change its economic policy settings in any significant way. That apparent stasis is the current, tangible legacy of Syriza.

On January 13, King Felipe, the new Spanish monarch, will begin trying to break the stalemate created by the December election results. A majority in the Spanish Parliament requires 176 seats. In December, the ruling conservative Popular (PP) won 123 seats with 28.72% of the vote, and the Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) won 90 seats with 22.01%. Breathing down its neck and only 340, 000 votes behind, Podemos won 69 seats with 20.66% while the new right wing pro-business party Ciudadanos won 40 seats with just under 14% of the vote. A handful of regional parties on the right and the left make up the balance, but the PP ended up short of an acceptable governing majority, even with Ciudadanos on board.

On 13 January, King Felipe will propose a candidate as Prime Minister – and presumably, this will be the PP leader and current Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy. If this candidate fails to win an absolute majority in the first round, a second round of voting will take place 48 hours later, in which victory will require only a majority of the cast votes. If this vote also fails, new elections must be called within two months.

All the parties involved have a lot to gain – or lose – from fresh elections. As we saw recently in Turkey, a quick return to the polls can work to the advantage of the ruling party, especially if it can package itself as the fount of stability and the best guardian of fragile, hard-won gains. Mindful of that prospect, the Socialists Workers Party have entertained hopes of forging a ‘grand coalition’ alongside the PP and Ciudadanos, so long as a face-saving replacement for Rajoy could be found as Prime Minister. The Socialists had been hoping to use the handy excuse of heading off Calatonian separatism as a rationale for doing such a deal.

If so, that rationale has now evaporated. Within regional elections in Catalonia in September, two separatist parties won the balance of power ; but in early January, the smaller, hard left Catalan party signalled that it won’t work with the current leader of the pro-business larger party, thereby sending Catalonia back to the polls again in March and – for now at least – removing any immediate threat of substantive steps being taken towards independence for the Catalan region. With that pressure off, a ‘grand coalition’ between the PP and Socialist Workers Party now looks less likely. Therefore, Spanish voters now seem destined to face another national election later this year.

Already, Podemos has begun planning for that likelihood. In its short life, Podemos has made significant gains in local body politics – in major cities such as Barcelona it now controls local government, and it ran a close second in Madrid in 2015’s municipal elections – but the gains it won on the national stage in December are obviously fragile. Already, Podemos is seeking new ways to get on the front foot with the Spanish voting public.

….newly elected MPs from Spain’s Podemos party have put their money where their mouth is, rejecting a full parliamentarian’s salary and many of the allowances and perks. While pledging to slow the rate of public spending cuts, Podemos announced that its own MPs will take only about £1,400 a month, less than the £2,400 to which they are entitled. The MPs, the first to represent the party after it won 69 seats in last month’s general election, will also forgo a £2,200 annual taxi allowance and any retirement benefits.

Spanish MPs are already among the lowest paid in the European Union, with a backbencher earning less than £30,000 a year – considerably less than the £74,000 salaries paid to British MPs.

So…Podemos MPs are rejecting any more perks or salary increases, even though their base salary is about $NZ67,000 – or far less than half of the $156,136 that New Zealand backbench MPs receive, now that our MPs have just pocketed a backdated ( to July) 4% salary increase. In case you were wondering, Mariano Rajoy is paid 78,000 euros annually- or $NZ127,111 – to govern a Spain that has a population of 46.77 million people. By comparison, NZ Prime Minister John Key is now being paid $NZ448, 569 to do his job for 4.4 million people.

To put that another way : Key is being paid 3.5 times as much as Rajoy to govern a country ( New Zealand) that has ten times fewer people than Spain. Now, no one is saying that Spain should be regarded as the gold standard for political remuneration, but it does show just how seriously out of whack the salaries of our MPs have become. And if Podemos can treat $NZ67,000 as an absolute ceiling when it comes to salaries and perks, then it should be pretty easy for our lot to turn down anything over $NZ150,000. Or is that just the dreaded ‘left populism’ at work? Whatever you choose to call it, it sounds pretty damn attractive. Inspiring, even.

Ultimately, Spain will be fighting this next election in a post-austerity context, even though the feeble recovery is still offering little to most of the population. The challenge for Podemos will be to define what change to the basic economic settings – of Spain and the Eurozone – it thinks it can realistically deliver.

Footnote : Since today is Elvis Presley’s 81st birthday, here’s a brief clip from his second appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show, on October 28th 1956. Contrary to legend, the Sullivan show didn’t always focus the cameras only on the waist up. (That censorship rule only came into force on Presley’s third Sullivan show appearance, in early 1957. But chances are, it was the brief gyrations in this clip that scandalised Sullivan, and galvanized the network censors.

In New Zealand, things weren’t much better. Radio’s Lever Hit Parade would only expose this country’s teens to the demons of rock’n’roll if the programme could be safely entrusted to a benign uncle figure, Selwyn Toogood. Uncle Selwyn could always be relied on to tone things down to an acceptable level, and to keep the kids safe.

Deafheaven, Again

Talking of change…Deafheaven are not everyone’s cup of tea. Yet 2015 saw them defy expectations that 2013’s Sunbather was really only a fluke ; in essence, it was a swirlingly romantic black metal album for people who normally hate black metal. Well, a few months ago Deafheaven’s leading duo – George Clarke and Kerry McCoy – released the New Bermuda album, and it is just as good as Sunbather, even if the formula is now more familiar. (ie, romantic beauty rising afresh from the debris of crushed hopes.) Here’s New Bermuda’s opening cut “Brought To The Water” and since George Clarke’s lyrics aren’t easy to decipher, here’s the bulk of them :

Where has my passion gone ?
Has it been carried off by some
Lonely driver in a line of fluorescent light?
Has it been blurred together
In ribboned patterns of light ?
Along the stretch of some un-named plain
We begin again…
I saw in your face that
We’re the same when we begin again.
A multiverse of fuchsia
And violet surrenders to blackness now..
My world closes itself to sex and laughter (repeat)

Hey, this could be a theme song for the next Podemos election campaign… If only because – as always with this band – any darkness in Clarke’s lyrics gets lit up by McCoy’s lovely, singing guitar lines.

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