Spain, and Europe in general, is experiencing the same flavor of movements.
Since the re-institution of Spanish democracy — which is still a baby, with only forty years of recent democratic participation under its belt — Spain has had a two-party system, like the United States. Local and national elections have been dominated by the Partido Popular (Popular Party, abbreviated PP) and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, or PSOE). They represent the right and left, respectively.
Don’t be mistaken: The two are not synonymous with Republicans and Democrats. Both parties support the welfare system, a facet of Spanish life since Dictator Francisco Franco. The PSOE founded itself on marxist values, although it dropped them thirty years ago and has since drifted toward neoliberalism, or freer markets. (That said, compared to Mr. Franco’s nationalization of utilities, transportation, communications, and more, anything appears neoliberal in comparison.) The PP, on the other hand, promotes economic freedom in a more serious way. The PSOE defends gay marriage and abortion, while the PP defends Catholic, “family” values.
The two parties also espouse vastly different models for the Spanish state — and the differences are not interpretational like American states’ rights but, rather, distinct constitutional models. The PP would rather maintain the current monarchy and “autonomous communities,” a system that explicitly favors centralized power, while the PSOE would prefer an asymmetric federal system that returns taxing, among other privileges, to the autonomies.
This particular ideological difference represents the mosaic Spanish identity. Not only does the constitution preferentially favor “historical nationalities,” Basque Country, Catalonia, and Galicia, which joined the Spanish state by distinct paths from the autonomies and, therefore, receive extended legal and self-governing privileges. But nationalism in those regions currently strains their relationship with the central government even further. In fact, the Basque and Catalonian nationalist movements, whose political parties won a majority in recent municipal elections, seek to separate their regions from Spain entirely.
This is where the politics becomes messy.
The PP and PSOE have decisively sided against dissolving the Spanish state. Both refuse to grant referendums of self-determination to the autonomies. Bipartisanship is heartwarming, no? Well, incidentally, that act of bipartisanship broke Spanish bipartisanism itself, because in the 2015 national elections, neither party received a majority of the vote, thanks to two insurgent parties.
One of the insurgents represents a coalition of regionalist, nationalist parties whose uniting agenda item is referendums: Podemos. It emerged from the Movimiento 15-M, the Spanish equivalent of Occupy Wall Street, which protested the well-known corruption of the two dominant parties. In 2011, the movement occupied Madrid’s central plaza, Puerta del Sol, for days and chanted “PSOE, PP, la misma m***** es” (“PSOE, PP, it’s the same s***”).
(Yes, I failed to mention the corruption. In 2014, the two parties nearly signed an anti-corruption pact. It fell apart days later amidst more scandals in the PP.)
Just five years earlier, in 2006, the other insurgent party, Ciudadanos (Citizens), grew out of the same grievances, launching to national prominence when one of its campaign ads featured leader Albert Rivera naked, a nod to his innocence.
Podemos, however, represents more than nationalism and anti-corruption. It’s anti-establishment. It’s extreme left. And it’s unmistakably populist. In its platform for the 2015 national elections, Podemos promised an increased minimum wage, universal basic income, 35-hour workweeks, expanded taxes and social security contributions for the wealthy, a restructuring (or rejecting) of the national debt, public investment in green energy, lower student-to-teacher ratios, and nearly four hundred more promises. Seriously, four hundred. (Well, to be fair, 394 in total.)
And it paid off.
Podemos received over five million votes, or 20,7%. (Voter turnout was three-fourths, compared to the American half in 2012.) Consequently, in the current Parliament, Podemos holds 69 of 350 seats, giving them the third highest representation after the PP (123) and PSOE (90), in front of Ciudadanos (40) and a slew of other regionalist and nationalist parties. It drew considerable support from young voters and the “historical nationalities” that would benefit from self-determination.
The people spoke. And now Podemos is in the prime position.
See, the Spanish government itself presents a hurdle: The Parliament elects the prime minister; in order to elect a prime minister and, therefore, have a functioning government, one party or a coalition of parties must hold a majority in the Parliament. At the moment, no party does. And nobody is willing to go into cahoots with Podemos, either. The PP and PSOE have already rejected its uniting goal, and no other party has the seats to form a majority coalition.
What does this mean? Well, first, since the elections in December, Spain has effectively been without government. The national government remains at a standstill until a majority vote in the Parliament chooses a prime minister. Although the previous prime minister, Mariano Rajoy of the PP, remains provisionally in charge, no bills nor policy revisions nor other parliamentary actions can be considered until the outstanding matter is resolved. Podemos can affect no change. And it’s not poised to receive the support to do so.
Second, a provision in the Spanish constitution addresses exactly this situation: After so many failed attempts at a coalition government, the Spanish populace must re-vote. That’s right, new national elections, this time in June. But here’s where Podemos especially loses out: As with most populist surges, its popularity is fleeting, and according to polls as early as February, it’s slated to lose seats. Yes, we can?
What the future holds for Podemos and the Spanish government is, for everyone, a veritable mystery. But the display of populism hits remarkably close to home. In the topsy-turvy American political scene, we, too, have experienced the perfect storms of populism — Barack Obama in 2008, “Yes, we can” — as well as the fizzling attempts — Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump (we’ll see about that last one).
Maybe the lesson is one in establishment politics, in constantly re-aligning politicians with voters. Maybe it’s one in bipartisan politics, in needing to reform the two-party system. Or maybe it’s one in the fickle wants of voters. Who knows? But when the people say something so powerful, to ignore it would be awful unwise.