Syriza and Podemos: Indicative of a European Shift to the Far Left?

By Greta Gietz

Several months ago, we published an article on the rise of right-wing parties across Europe. While right-wing parties continue to gain influence, notably Marine Le Pen’s nationalist, anti-immigration National Front in France, two extreme left-wing movements have been making headlines early this year: Syriza and Podemos. In Greece’s high-profile general elections the anti-austerity party Syriza won a landmark victory. The consequences of the new government are still to be seen, but Syriza has announced that it will not comply with the bailout agreement or support a “Grexit” (Greece’s exit from the Eurozone) and for restructuring debt within the Eurozone. Meanwhile, Spain, in anticipation of its upcoming fall elections, is closely watching Syriza’s rise. The far-left anti-austerity party Podemos (“We Can”) has gained vast support in Spain and is on track to becoming Spain’s very own Syriza.

While Greece and Spain, two of the most economically hard-hit countries in the E.U., show a shift to the far left of the political spectrum, it is unclear whether Syriza and Podemos’ popularity are signaling a European-wide development. What does their rise mean for the future of the Eurozone and, with that, for the European Union? How will Syriza and Podemos influence other economically struggling countries, especially in Southern Europe, and change the political climate?

An anti-austerity rally that drew 100,000 people to a central square in Madrid in late January, only days after the Greek election result, brought Podemos international attention. Podemos wants to change Spain’s two-party political system and blames the current government for Spain’s economic hardship. The party platform – European Election Manifesto – calls for “the nationalization of key economic sectors, a state-guaranteed living wage, a 35-hour workweek, mandatory retirement age of 60, a law preventing profitable companies from firing their employees, and a citizen’s audit of public debt.” Both Syriza and Podemos have been described as “shadow euroskeptics” because they publicly want their countries to remain in the Eurozone, but simultaneously want to redeem their national pride and full control of their national economic policies. If they cannot achieve this, it seems plausible that they would rather exit. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Iglesias, Mr. Monedero and other Podemos leaders have said Spain shouldn’t fear the consequences of a euro exit if the country’s Eurozone partners reject their anti-austerity proposals.”

Greta1Podemos

Podemos has primarily focused on riding Syriza’s wave of success. Pablo Iglesias, the party leader, positions Podemos as a sort of sister party to Syriza and continuously addresses their joint effort of democracy winning over austerity. During the final stages of the Greek election, Iglesias tweeted at Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras, current Greek Prime Minister-elect: “2015 will be the year of change in Spain and Europe. We will start in Greece. Let’s go Alexis, let’s go!” During his speech at the Madrid rally, Iglesias animated the crowd: “The Greek people have won in Greece…We need dreamers who dare to defend the poor to fight the rich.” Iglesias shows political cunning with this persistent evocation of Syriza and Greece: associating his young party with the well-established and successful Syriza can only help authenticate Podemos.

While comparisons between the two parties are natural, the economic and political situations in Spain and Greece are very different. For one, while both countries have been severely hit by the Euro crisis that began in 2010, Greece, with a 25% decrease in GDP, experienced a much greater economic toll than Spain’s 7% decrease. Furthermore, Greece received €240bn in bailouts, while Spain only used €41bn EU funds. Just as Spain’s economy has weathered the recession better than Greece, Spain’s established parties are down but not completely defeated, as Greece’s were. Foreign Affairs, however, does not completely write Podemos off and credits it for having “upended Spanish politics like nothing else since the 1970s,” adding that “the party is set to make the upcoming elections the most unpredictable in decades.”

Podemos is facing several obstacles in its hypothetical rise to power. Like many of Europe’s right-wing radical parties which focus heavily on a nationalist and anti-immigration ideology, Podemos acts more like a movement than a serious political party. Thus far, Podemos has failed to develop stances on non-economic issues. Its potentially low electability is due to the party’s experience deficit and inability to gain support of groups outside of the young, low-wage earners, and intellectuals, such as the large middle class. In aiming to garner widespread support for the upcoming general elections, Podemos is putting efforts into de-radicalizing and “become a catch-all party,” according to Diego Muro, a Spanish political scientist. This, however, could come across as hypocritical as the post-ideological, anti-establishment party becomes more and more like any other party.

Most recently, Podemos made the headlines around a budding financial scandal surrounding the party’s co-founder Juan Carlos Monedero. He is being accused of having accumulated €725,000 across three different bank accounts during his time working as a consultant for Hugo Chavez’ Venezuelan government. Besides questionable tax procedures, this hidden wealth does not fit Monedero’s image as the anti-capitalist. A Spanish historian, Santos Juliá, showed her anger at this revelation: “[Podemos] had the opportunity to prove to the nation that they were cut from a different cloth, but now we see that money is just as important to them as the old politicians.”

Despite the lack of comparison between Podemos and Syriza, it is indubitable that Podemos’ success in Spain’s fall elections will be heavily dependent on Syriza’s success over the next few months. The whole continent will be watching Syriza closely. Will it be able to achieve debt redistribution in the Eurozone? Will the EU and economic powerhouses, like Germany, accept Syriza’s demands and be willing to negotiate with the new Greek government? Can Syriza uphold the anti-austerity promises it made to the Greek electorate?

Two Syriza Candidates at a rally
Two Syriza Candidates at a rally

This Monday, further talks between the Greek government and Eurozone finance ministers broke down when Greece rejected a six-month extension of its bailout package. This early collapse points toward a lacking interest in cooperation from the new leftist Greek leadership. If no agreement is reached, the Euro will further devalue against the Dollar and Greece will face another severe cash crisis. According to the Reuters, “EU officials fretted about how seriously the novice Greek leaders were taking their finances and how far concerns about semantics and saving political face might trump pressing economic needs.” It appears as though Syriza is sticking to its radical election platform, which could become a threat to the future of the Euro and for its popularity back in Greece. Currently 81% of Greeks want to stay part of the Euro, and the government has to find a balance between saving its political face and responding to economic needs. The course and outcomes of the proceeding bailout talks will undoubtedly indicate the lifetime and popularity of anti-austerity, left-wing movements in Greece, Spain, and Europe.

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