Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Spain are expected to be the most contested in the country’s democratic history. A monumental shift in politics is anticipated, with emergent grassroots forces seeking victory against establishment parties. Polls and pundits are struggling to predict the outcome of an electoral campaign that is upsetting the traditional political balance between the conservative PP and the social-democrat PSOE. The origin of this discomfort lies in the massive 2011 Spanish citizen movement of social dissent called the Indignados (the Indignant). The movement emerged as a response to the austerity measures implemented by both the socialist and then the conservatives in government following the 2008 global financial crisis.
Citizen dissent has evolved now into an active political discourse involving policies by a new party founded in 2014, Podemos (‘we can’). This political formation is threatening radical systemic change. Plain language, actual facts and challenging ideas blessed by academic rigor are now disrupting what otherwise would have been another tedious campaign delivered by the PP and the PSOE. A precedent of what Bernie Sanders may potentially achieve in the 2016 US Presidential campaign, if he manages to fully articulate the dissent expressed by Occupy Wall Street.
A notable predecessor of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the 2011 ‘Indignados’ in Spain changed the way citizens understand politics and their relationship with power, establishing the pillars of their current electoral campaign. A campaign that represents new terrain for the establishment politicians and media, but not for those who better understand the Indignados; that formless, unpredictable, smart, creative, challenging, beautiful beast that came out of nowhere to devour 20th century politicians.
Spontaneously boosted by the Internet, the movement commandeered the streets and squares of Madrid and other major cities, claiming against the reigning political regime in an unprecedented multi-ideological, party-less, leader-less movement joined by hundreds of thousands of protesters marching for weeks . They complained against a Spanish and European political system that, estranged in its austerity, didn’t represent the interests of the average citizen.
Indignados held banners with messages nobody had seen before, beautifully mixing humor with smart and far-reaching messages: ‘we are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers’, ‘not enough bread for so many chorizos’ (both a Spanish sausage, and a word used to call someone a cheap thief), ‘error 404, democracy not found’, ‘they do not represent us’ and, my favorite I must confess, ‘nobody expects the Spanish Revolution’.
They challenged the obsolete political narrative in politicians’ speeches and mass media articles, which were focused on describing the crisis as an unavoidable act of God that required the sacrifice of the citizens, but not the banks or the markets. They did it in a way that gathered people from different generations and socio-political backgrounds with an elemental common ground; they were respecting the intelligence of the audience, attracting blue collars, white collars, students, housewives, the retired, everybody .
This was exactly the opposite of what mainstream media and politicians had been doing during the devastating global financial crisis, which hit Spain with sadistic fury. One more banner, ‘While politicians pee on us, the media say it’s raining’, perfectly sums up the feeling of many average citizens. They felt deceived by a hegemonic system obsolete enough to ignore the existence of multiple new information sources in social media to double-check the mainstream political narrative of economic surrender and austerity. And double-check they did.
The Indignados were instantly criticized by establishment politicians, who accused them of demagogy and lack of understanding of ‘real’ politics. The regime showed a paternalistic, almost offensive attitude towards a historic phenomenon they could not understand, as claimed by former US White House advisor Professor Vicenç Navarro . Even worse, they branded them as anti-system, as a liability to democracy for not adapting to the existing political institutions and parties, and challenged them to create a political party that could compete for democratic power .
For some time the movement seemed to disappear, but it didn’t. It went back to its origins, the streets, where informal assemblies started to collect new ideas to build up a new political discourse. As the digital anthropologist Dr John Postill explains, the process retreated to mutate and come back as a surprisingly powerful political animal . Unexpectedly, a new party called Podemos, based on the principles of the movement and driven by genuine grassroots activism, obtained over one million votes and five seats in the European Parliament elections on May 2014.
Government and opposition forces reacted with surprise at first. It was followed by frustrated fury. The senior conservative leadership accused Podemos of ties with Basque terrorists and the Venezuelan undemocratic regime . An unprecedented attack campaign by virtually all mass media targeted the party, its leadership and policies for months to come, as denounced by historic leftist leader Julio Anguita, now retired . The perceived threat to the establishment came from Podemos’ narrative, which challenged the parameters that had bounded the Spanish political debate for more than 30 years. It comfortably limited the issues to the fight against terrorism and secessionism, and a blurry positioning in the antagonistic battle of right vs. left. A narrative that disempowered the citizens by implying the need to trust politicians with the politics of running the nation, issues that were deemed too complicated to discuss in public.
But now everything had changed. Podemos articulated a new political vocabulary that empowered the citizenship whilst confounding the discourse of the power holders. The financial crisis was not a crisis anymore, but a massive ‘scum’. It was not about the political right or left, but about ‘up vs. down’, the dispossessed against the privileged, the citizens against the ‘caste’, truth and facts vs. empty and false wordiness. Despite having been branded as radicals by almost the entire political spectrum, Podemos policies are a return to traditional social-democracy. They demand the end of austerity and the implementation of Roosevelt’s New Deal-inspired Keynesian policies focused on the wellbeing of an extinguishing Spanish middle class, and a growing working class. Even the Financial Times, flagship of economic neoliberalism, recognizes Podemos’ approach as the best to manage post-GFC economic risks .
The founder and leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, an academic activist who vows to represent the spirit of the Indignados, started his crusade to dethrone politicians and establishment journalists in TV debates with unprecedented audience numbers. Despite being grilled by mass media since the electoral success in 2014, Iglesias is ranging at an average of 55 predicted members of parliament in the polls, compared to 117 for the PP, 84 for the PSOE and 63 for Ciudadanos, indicating he might become either an essential government partner, or a fearless opposition leader .
In the meantime, Podemos and another emergent, center-right party called Ciudadanos, batter the political opponents of the old establishment parties in campaign debates. This proved so terrifying for the conservative PP that precipitated an unprecedented move in Spanish democracy. The sitting President Mariano Rajoy didn’t show up to the most anticipated debate in Spanish political history, which included his own party, PSOE, Podemos and Ciudadanos.
In this absence, Rajoy left the only representative of old-style politics alone in the dark, the unfortunate PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez. His out-of-place speeches, desperate accusations of communism against Podemos and the simple strategy of keeping a big smile on his face no matter how bad he is being defeated, showed the decadence of a falling political regime.
On December 20, we may witness one of the most important changes in Spanish political history that may well have ramifications for Europe. Irrespective of whether the Indignados gain government, they have already won; a new era in Spanish politics has been born.