Iglesias speaks at a rally celebrating Podemos' 2014 election victory.

Iglesias speaks at a rally celebrating Podemos’ 2014 election victory

Nigel Farage forecast “an earthquake in British politics” ahead of the 2014 European Union elections, but who could predict that across the Channel, the Spanish Podemos (We Can) party would cause similar tremors? Within three months of its founding, Podemos burst onto the political center stage in the 2014 European elections with 8 percent of the vote, and rose in less than a year to an astounding first place in voting intention with 27 percent. Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party also made headlines after its victory in the European elections, and the latest YouGov poll credited UKIP with a noteworthy 14 percent in voting intention.

The tales of these two disparate parties, libertarian conservative UKIP and anti-capitalist Podemos, tell a wider story about European politics: initially fueled by strong public disillusionment with the establishment, both parties have sought legitimacy as they enter the political center stage, and this has inevitably affected their ideological core.

From ‘Indignant’ to empowered

Podemos’ sudden rise was particularly unexpected because it came from an apolitical sphere: a turbulent mix of social activism, academia, and the media savvy of its charismatic leader, Pablo Iglesias.

The surge of the 2011 “Indignados” 15M movement (similar to “Occupy Wall Street”) channeled public disillusionment away from local activism towards a broader movement for change in national politics. After a demonstration turned into a violent siege outside the Spanish Parliament in 2013, Pablo Iglesias, then a young politics professor involved in the 15M, was invited to Spain’s leading rightwing political show, El Gato al Agua. Knowledgeable and casually dressed with a ponytail and a piercing, he stood out among the other commentators. Instead of raising his voice, he would politely ask not to be interrupted. When rightwing pundit Federico Jiménez Losantos accused him of interrupting, he apologized and let Losantos continue—a rare courtesy on shows of this kind.

Iglesias proved wildly popular with the audience and went on to become a ubiquitous presence in television debates. Like Farage’s frequent photo-ops in British pubs—pint-in-hand as he listens to local voters—Iglesias’ youthful, unprofessional appearance softened the public’s perception of his radical views. By the time Podemos announced its founding in January 2014, the party already had strong brand recognition and media coverage through Iglesias. It could therefore bypass expensive traditional marketing channels and advertise itself through Youtube videos and public meetings.

A wave of democratic regeneration

Since the recession began in 2008, the cliché dominating European politics has been that of a disaffected public being wooed by extremist parties on both the right and left railing against a nebulous political elite. In the United Kingdom, this reopened controversy around membership of the European Union, once considered a settled debate. With Podemos, it brought a wave of democratic regeneration through their citizen assemblies. Open to the general public, citizen assemblies combine elements of town hall meetings and small party conferences in which anyone can pitch and vote on policy proposals.

At the first meeting of the year on January 8th, in a room rented from a language academy, Raúl Regalado, head of Podemos’ welcome committee for the Salamanca district, handed newcomers like myself a sheet titled “Ten things you can do to keep the peace.” It began, “spend a few minutes every day reflecting on the kind of relationship you want with yourself and others”—not what you would expect from your average party meeting. As the assembly progressed, a clear overlap developed between local and national politics. A spokeswoman for the Platform for Sufferers of Hepatitis C described the sleep-in organized at a major Madrid hospital following the government’s refusal to fund an expensive new treatment. “We want you to see this fight as a much greater one,” she told the attendees, “We are drawing the line.”

UKIP members prepare for the 2009 Euro elections

UKIP members prepare for the 2009 Euro elections

“Part hope, part fear, part disillusionment, part engagement”

“Drawing the line” is also how many UKIP sympathizers see the party’s hardline stance on immigration. It is one that has proven increasingly influential, with even Labour Party leader Ed Miliband conceding, “It isn’t prejudiced to worry about immigration, it is understandable”. UKIP, in turn, has faced up to increased media scrutiny and tried to disassociate itself from some members’ extremist views. It refuses membership to former members of the British National Party (a far-right party which until 2009 restricted membership to white Britons), and of the English Defense League (an anti-Islamic street protest movement).

Thus, little remains of the center-left UKIP founded by London School of Economics professor Alan Sked in 1993. Farage’s greatest achievement was to understand that UKIP’s voting core lay not in social liberals, but in an unlikely mix of libertarians who resented E.U. regulations and social conservatives who view immigration as a threat to “British values.”

Farage phrased it aptly when he claimed UKIP’s success was down to “part hope, part fear, part disillusionment, part engagement.” UKIP and Podemos feed not only off hope, but off a narrative of division and political discord. Scenes of police brutality in Madrid or riots in London suburbs were key to engendering the sentiments that propelled these two parties into the mainstream. In Spain, the riots increased distrust for the establishment; in the United Kingdom, they fostered hostility towards immigrants. This raises the question of whether fringe parties can survive when the economic crisis is over and politics has gone “back to normal.”

The tradeoffs of power

The HPR posed this question to Douglas Carswell, the first ever Member of Parliament for UKIP who defected from the Conservative party in August 2014. A staunch libertarian, Carswell has a bold view of UKIP’s potential, “If UKIP can displace the Labour Party so that British politics becomes a choice between a broadly Tory patrician party and a patriotic liberal party then I think UKIP has a great future.” In the meantime however, Carswell seems more concerned with creating better democracy. He supports open primaries and giving constituents the power to recall their MP and complains that “politics is a cartel.” He protests against “remote, out-of-touch-elites” and confidently declares the current left/right division of the political spectrum “redundant.”

Podemos sympathizers would agree. In the short term, both Podemos and UKIP divide their focus between the flaws of the current democratic system and local issues to which their electorate can relate. Their ideologies are compromised by the need for pragmatism; although Podemos’ main proposal, canceling Spain’s debt, remains a troubling prospect, the party’s views on private property have moderated. In September 2013, Iglesias was echoing Hugo Chávez by claiming that “the democratic thing to do is to expropriate”, yet “expropriate” does not appear in a pre-manifesto released by the party’s economists.

Both parties realize that to win big at the polls, they must pitch their controversial ideologies to the general public; here, the free-market UKIP may have trouble retaining working-class support, and Podemos will have struggle to defend its leadership’s far-left, anti-capitalist credentials. Faced with the choice of remaining well-defined fringe parties or broadening their voting base in a bid for power, both parties would choose the latter.

Although voters must be wary of politicians masking their ideology under the cloak of long-needed democratic reform, the overall lesson is a positive one. Parties wishing to govern must appeal to largely moderate masses and overcome scrutiny from academia and the press. The ideological tradeoffs this entails may well mean that UKIP and Podemos will lose their brand identity and wither away as the economy flourishes. For Spain and the United Kingdom, however, the journeys of these two parties towards the center prove national politics more stable than is generally thought.

Image sources: Euro Realist Newspaper/Flickr, Creative Commons

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