Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias (top) and Dr Julien Mercille
A new progressive political party is the biggest challenge to Spain’s political ruling class in decades and could inspire Irish people to sweep its own establishment aside.
Which is why you won’t hear about it in the Irish media.
Dr Julien Mercille writes:
Podemos has inspired progressive forces across Europe and beyond. It was launched in January 2014 and since then its popular support has surged and currently stands at over 20% of the electorate.
Podemos opposes austerity and its popularity has skyrocketed in a context of high unemployment and acute social, economic and political problems related to the economic crisis.
Spain’s unemployment rate has stood at 24% for the last four years, or 5.5 million people, over half of whom are considered long-term unemployed. For young people, the unemployment rate is at over 50%. About 2 million people live in households where nobody has a job.
Another important issue rallying citizens against the pro-austerity parties has been the very large number of evictions of families from their homes. For example, in 2013, there was an average of 184 evictions per day, or 67,000 for the year.
Only a few months after its formation, Podemos won 1.2 million votes and five seats in the European Parliament in May 2014.
A few days ago, coalitions to which Podemos is affiliated did well in regional elections and took over Barcelona and posted a strong performance in Madrid. The two cities are now set to be ruled by two women who are resolutely opposed to austerity. The conservative People’s Party suffered its worst results in elections in over two decades.
General elections are expected to be held by the end of this year and could concretise a shift toward the left in power, as happened in Greece with Syriza.
For progressives, two lessons may be drawn from Podemos.
First, a political party that seeks to govern by representing people must, well, be grounded in popular movements. In the run up to Spain’s 2011 election, so-called indignados, people who were simply sick of the corruption and austerity, came out in the hundreds of thousands in the streets and protested against the traditional political elites.
Podemos emerged from that and gave electoral direction to this outburst of popular protest. Hundreds of citizens’ groups have been formed to support Podemos and debate ideas. Votes have been taken via the internet to include ordinary people in decisions as much as possible.
Second, communicate clearly. Podemos eschews talk of “left and right” and prefers to focus on actual issues that concern people from health care to unemployment and corruption.
For example, instead of using words and phrases like “the proletariat is being exploited by bourgeois capitalists”, they say “kick the establishment out”. Leftists need to understand that traditional Marxist words don’t resonate with ordinary people, and that ordinary people are right in this respect, because such jargon is almost always quite irrelevant to address real problems anyway.
Notwithstanding how far Podemos goes electorally, just like Syriza, it has already provided an important example that it is possible for progressives to organise, challenge power, and take power.
This is why the Irish and European establishments dislike it and would rather not talk about it, hoping people won’t get ideas that could lead to grassroot empowerment. They know that if similar movements emerge and grow in Ireland and Europe, they could sweep the old crust of leaders who implement austerity, keep people jobless, and do nothing to improve the health care system, among other things.
Looking at the Irish media coverage of Podemos is very revealing. Simply put, it has systematically ignored Podemos. I looked at all Irish newspapers contained in the news database Nexis since January 2014, when Podemos was formed.
Apart from the main papers, there’s virtually no coverage in the smaller local publications. So I examined only the main papers: Irish Times, Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, Sunday Business Post, and Irish Examiner (I didn’t consider the Sunday Times because it is difficult to differentiate its Irish and British editions in the database).
The results are striking: over one and a half year, only 20 articles talked about Podemos for more than a couple of sentences. Worse, only 7 articles had the word “Podemos” in their title. (A total of 102 articles mentioned Podemos, but the overwhelming majority of those mentioned it only in passing, while discussing another subject, such as Syriza in Greece).
To put this in perspective, those five newspapers have published about 65,000 articles on economics and politics since Podemos came into existence. Thus, the 20 pieces amount to 0.03% of media coverage on economics and politics. Does anyone still want to argue we have a balanced press?
Most articles are rather descriptive and thus there isn’t much enthusiasm about Podemos. But strong opposition to the party can also be found. For example, Dan O’Brien is a journalist with the Irish Independent who has a strong record of writing articles that defend the interests of the rich and powerful. He writes that we should be worried about Podemos because—wait for it—“importing Latin American populism and thuggery would fail economically, and, more importantly, undermine freedom and democracy in Spain”.
So here we go: one of the most important progressive movements in recent years, which offers hope to a whole country to do away with austerity, and indeed in Europe and beyond, is pictured as a threat to democracy and freedom.
Such blatant misrepresentation reveals that the powerful are worried, above all, by one thing: people power. Elites know very well that if people played a larger role in policy making, they would not allow decisions that favour the rich as much as is the case currently.
A Podemos-inspired wave of popular mobilization could seriously challenge existing power structures in Ireland, including our conservative media landscape.
@JulienMercille is lecturer at UCD and the author of The Political Economy and Media Coverage of the European Economic Crisis: The Case of Ireland (2015, Routledge). His new book, Europe’s Treasure Ireland (Palgrave), will be out in July 2015.