Spain Podemos and the Rise of the New European Bolsheviks

por Rafael L. Bardají, 19 de junio de 2015

(Published in the Octavian Report, Spring 2015)

At the end of February, 155,000 people watched Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy's annual State of the Nation debate. A hair more than half that number, 77,000 Spaniards, watched the response by Pedro Sanchez, the head of the socialist PSOE -- up to now Spain's leading political opposition party.

In stark contrast, however, an interview the day before on a private television station with Pablo Iglesias Turrión -- the thirty-six-year-old former Communist Youth and founder of Podemos, a party that didn't exist a year ago -- reached an audience of more than four million.

Only a few months ago no one believed that new radical leftist forces could challenge the traditional political parties in Europe and be successful.

A few months ago, no one believed that the radical left could successfully challenge traditional political parties in Europe.

But now the unthinkable may be happening. It has, in fact, already happened already in Greece, where the left-wing SYRIZA won a semi-convincing victory in January. This suggests, ominously, that such victories are possible in larger and more critical countries for the European Union such as Spain.

Politics in Europe is in the midst of a potentially transformative moment. We are seeing the emergence in full force of new populist and anti-establishment forces in many quarters coinciding with the collapse of the traditional political establishment. There is a growing lack of trust and confidence in the traditional political players and that vacuum is being filled by radicals promising simple solutions that attract millions of voters. The fact that those proposals have failed miserably in places like Venezuela or Cuba is not undermining the electoral chances of parties like SYRIZA or Podemos. It is not hard to understand why.


A number of factors help explain the success these Bolshevik groups are having in Southern Europe's societies To begin with, as has happened before in Europe's past, the an economic crisis ushered in boom times for radical parties.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse and subsequent recession, Southern European -- namely Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal -- have largely tackled required reforms in a slow and often reluctant way with uneven results. These countries continue to prop up large and inefficient public sectors, suffer from a profound lack of productivity and competitiveness, and face high structural unemployment figures. In the case of Spain, these have reached 26% – with youth unemployment topping 50%.

The attraction of radical leftist parties lies in their ability to radically oversimplify the causes of Europe's economic crisis.

At the same time, the crisis has revealed a philosophical fracture in the EU over the how to deal with these problems, a fracture that coincides with a roughly north-south geographical divide. In the south, euroskepticism is rooted in the rejection of austerity policies viewed as imposed from abroad, particularly by Germany. And it is in the South where these new parties have found their great foothold. Their attraction lies in their ability to radically oversimplify the causes of the crisis – blaming the free market, economic globalization and the monetary union itself – and to single out obvious culprits: multinational corporations, businessmen, bankers, traditional politicians and other entrenched beneficiaries of the system.

As these messages resonate with the disaffected young and unemployed, Europe overall has seen a discrediting of traditional political parties. On the one hand, European conservative parties have embraced social democratic policies in recent decades; in fact, no major conservative party in Europe today questions the foundations of the welfare state: higher taxes, unstoppable growth in government spending, and ever-expanding public services. Indeed, in most European countries, with Spain at the forefront, conservative parties have, after winning elections, actually consolidated the social democratic politics of public spending, in many ways moving away from their own electoral base.

Meanwhile, social democrats have been moving their own narrative as well towards cultural postmodernism, with an emphasis on social issues such as feminism, abortion rights, euthanasia, multiculturalism, and environmentalism. These are fundamental issues for European progressivism, but deeply estranged from the practical needs and expectations of its traditional voters on where politicians should be focused.

As a result, when the financial crisis arrived, none of the traditional political parties were able to offer politically attractive alternatives. The consequence has been the intense demobilization of a large part of their voting bloc: some of the traditional parties, like the UMP in France, Forza Italia, or the liberals in Germany are receiving forty percent of their usual vote. It will happen as well in Spain with the PP, the Socialists, and even the well established Communist Party.

The Institutional Crisis

In addition to the malaise in large sections of society due to the lack of political response to the crisis, there remains as well a high level of corruption in Spain, Italy, and Greece. The unfortunate end result has been a widespread erosion of faith in leadership and with it the re-emergence of questions about the broad legitimacy of European institutions, both political and economic – questions very much part of the radical lexicon.

The crisis of the system it is also formal. The era of globalization is profoundly changing Western policy rules. The parliamentary system, based on a nineteenth-century model, is enduring serious challenges to its legitimacy in the era of Twitter and YouTube. It is, in fact, through social media and other decentralized and unfiltered platforms that the neo-Leninism of the twenty-first century seems to be finding its main organizational strength. The use of social networks, mass television, and streaming of street demonstrations has become an easy weapon to attack the parliamentary system. For these radical groups, parliaments themselves are far from being something to cherish and protect, but instead just one more tool to use to take power, an instrument like any other.

"A flaccid society"

Most alarming, however, is the fact that millions of Europeans support these groups. This is an expression of the recent evolution of European cultural and ideological beliefs. European welfare societies are generally characterized by three aspects. First, intellectual relativism, the belief that all ideas are equally legitimate. This current dominates Western societies and has left their political regimes unprotected before critical and revolutionary demagoguery.

Second, for decades, European societies have incubated a politically correct moral relativism, which prevents its citizens from discerning the morality or immorality of an ideology or of a political project. This explains why the discourse against personal liberties or personal dignity by SYRIZA and Podemos cannot find enough opposition despite its stated anti-liberal underpinning [confirm].

Third, but above all, the welfare culture and state paternalism have created several generations of what might best be described as Europeans Light. The traditional values that have underpinned European civilization – effort, sacrifice, thrift, and prudence – and secured its economic strength are in crisis today while the welfare state continues to rob citizens of ever more responsibility for themselves.


SYRIZA holds power in Greece for the moment via a somewhat fragile coalition government. What happens there will have a significant effect in places like Spain, where local, regional and general elections will all take place this year.

If the SYRIZA government cannot produce any positive results and ends up generating more chaos for the country, the appeal of Podemos should decrease among rational Spaniards. And if, in order to avoid a total collapse of the country, SYRIZA betrays its own ideology and electoral platform (as the conditions imposed by Greece's creditors could force it to do), it may also have a negative impact on Podemos: the Spanish party's supporters might lose some faith in the radical project as a whole if its flagship political success turns out to be a failure. But if, in order to avoid a breakup of the euro, the European Union decides to muddle through with SYRIZA, and to present its government in a relatively positive light, as seems to be the trajectory, then Podemos will gain in credibility and might see that reflected on election day.

Consider the current state of structural affairs in Spanish politics. Current polls show the collapse of the two Spanish establishment parties, Rajoy's conservative People's Party and Sanchez's socialist PSOE. Podemos stands to benefit the most from this collapse of sentiment. Increasing parliamentary fragmentation can be found across the democracies of Southern Europe. In Italy, this traditional situation has worsened; in Greece, it is a growing phenomenon. And in Spain, all indications are that the next parliament will be the most fragmented in recent history.

Once in power, radical leftist parties will launch agendas to dismantle the system from within.

Radical parties in Europe have in the past attained power through free elections at moments when all political legitimacy seems up for question. So it is naïve to not take the stated agendas of today's radicals at face value. According to the statements of their leadership and its programs, it is clear that, once in power, they will launch agendas to dismantle the system from within, using institutions against institutions. Podemos is paradigmatic here. Unlike classical Leninism, which postulates the seizure of power by a rapid and forceful blow, the emerging radicalism understands the need to progressively dismantle the democratic State, adapting to national and international circumstances and adjusting to the needs of the moment.

This dismantling will, perversely, usher in new systems far more quickly calcified than those it aims to replace. Hugo Chávez's victory in 1999 in Venezuela is instructive. At the time, observers declared that Venezuela was not Cuba and that the assumption of the responsibility of power would change and force Chavez and his Bolivarians to integrate into Venezuela's liberal economic and political system. Time has shown how dangerous and erroneous that analysis was. Similarly, most observers believe today that Southern Europe is not Venezuela, and that SYRIZA or Podemos will eventually integrate into the Spanish, Greek, and European systems, either voluntarily to stay in power or perforce as the realities of governing in the euro system intrude. And many people will vote for them as a protest against the current dominant parties, mistakenly believing that their radical agendas will be impossible to carry out.

These are dangerous errors. SYRIZA and Podemos have not denied at any time that they intend to destroy, once in power, the free market and the parliamentary system. It is folly to think that a sudden change in perspective will lead them to moderate their positions and integrate into these political and economic structures. Their project is in fact to kill them. The key to their success will be not only their strategy of institutional occupation, but the fact that nobody, nationally or internationally, seems to take the project seriously enough – and will not, I would argue, until it is too late to stop it.

The most likely scenario is not an outright victory for Podemos in the fall, but a win by narrow margins, allowing them to make miserable and brief the life of a minority government of the conservatives and then to force the socialists and other groups to form a kind of left-wing front and take over the government. But even an overwhelming victory for Podemos cannot be ruled out if current momentum continues. It is, the latest polls show, the number two party from a standing start, overtaking the PSOE. If the PP is unable to recover its traditional conservative electorate soon, Podemos might even challenge it in a tight race. The situation is serious.

As the political landscape in Europe transforms, expect to see more anti-Americanism, less NATO solidarity, and new outreach to rogue regimes.

With all the problems that plague today's Spain, from the movement for the independence of Catalonia to corruption, it's hard to see a path to sustained economic recovery. And the bigger problem is, of course, that Spain is not Greece, and its falling into the hands of radical forces will bring drastic new problems to the euro, generating a crisis of confidence, aggravating an already dire situation in France, and promoting the continuing growth of new extremist parties at the other end of the political spectrum, parties founded on nationalism, xenophobia, or anti-southern European sentiment. (These are already emerging in Germany, France and the United Kingdom).

And as the political landscape in Europe transforms, so will its foreign policy. Expect to see more anti-Americanism, less NATO solidarity, and new outreach to regimes like Venezuela and Iran. As agreement has now been lost on Israel, Jews in Europe may (now as ever) be the first to feel what this change may entail in practical terms -- an always-frightening harbinger of future turmoil.

As was the case in the mid-1930's during the civil war, the future of Europe will be fought over and determined in Spain, this time not in the mountain passes of Asturias or the streets of Madrid, but at the ballot box. It is a matter of months.

Rafael Bardaji, a fellow at the Middle East Forum, is executive director of Friends of Israel Initiative. He served from 1996 to 2004 as National Security Advisor for Spanish Prime Minister Jose' Mari'a Aznar. He is an advisor to the Special Operation Forces HQ at NATO and since 2004 has worked as director of Foreign Policy at the Foundation for Analysis and Social Studies.