Podemos and Spain's new political landscape.

Author:Sanjaume, Marc
Position:EUROPE
 
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Just as happened in Greece on January 25, the election in Spain later this year will transform the political landscape. At the core of this transformation is the emergence of the new political party Podemos. Founded only in January 2014, it emerged immediately as a political force to be reckoned with: in its performance in the May 2014 European elections, its leaders' presence in the media and its ability to mobilize its supporters.

In this analysis I address both the external factors that have provided a clear window of opportunity for the emergence of Podemos (the context) and the choices made by a group of activists with the organizational skills and public exposure to take advantage of that window (the content). But we need to bear in mind that such an analysis cannot be definitive, especially when, as now in Spain, political actors confront multiple crises--economic, institutional and territorial.

The Spanish crisis as a window of opportunity

In his classic work Power in Movement, Sidney Tarrow defines "structures of political opportunity" as "consistent--but not necessarily formal or permanent--dimensions of the political environment that provide incentives for people to undertake collective action by affecting their expectations for success or failure." The Spanish economic crisis has had a profound impact on several such dimensions of the political environment.

Though it coincided with the worldwide financial crisis, the impact on the Spanish economy was especially intense because of the collapse of the housing bubble. A combination of the Spanish psyche and government policies had resulted in an exploding housing market, which underlay a rapidly growing Spanish economy. From 1997 to 2007 the country experienced average economic growth of 3.5 per cent. Despite the triumphalist statements of successive conservative (PP) and socialist (PSOE) governments (former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar popularized the expression "Espana va bien!"), household debt grew from 55 per cent to 130 per cent of disposable income, while publicly subsidized affordable housing dwindled to less than 2 per cent of the total stock. (1)

In Spain, as in some other countries, the financial sector got into housing in a big way, offering mortgages covering the full value of the property and using deceptive advertising to lure low-income people in no position to pay these mortgages off. Overall, government spending kept up with GDP growth which was based mostly on the housing sector. In 2006-07 unemployment hit a historic low of 8 per cent, but a dual labour market was emerging: insiders on one side (permanently employed workers enjoying full state protection) and outsiders on the other (temporary workers with little protection, often called "mileuristas," meaning those earning less than 1,000 [euro] per month). (2)

The Spanish economy entered a period of contraction from 2008 until 2011, and again in 2012 in the form of a sovereign debt crisis. In response, the PP and PSOE enacted a constitutional reform, opposed by all other parties as well as popular protests, entrenching a budget deficit limit in the constitution. (3) This led the PP government that took office in December 2011 to sign an agreement the next year with the EU troika, the three institutions (European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) jointly mandated to deal with indebted EU members Ireland, Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain.

The agreement provided for a "Precautionary Conditioned Credit Line" to stave off possible bankruptcy. Several financial institutions were nationalized (mostly regional savings banks) and severe cuts in services were implemented. These cuts particularly affected regional governments, the main public service providers, fuelling Catalan secessionism and regional discontent. From its historic low, unemployment soared to a historic high, reaching 25 per cent in 2012-13 (more than 50 per cent...

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