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In Europe, not all populist parties are the same

Spain’s Podemos shows that populism can offer real political solutions

December 2, 2014 10:00AM ET

Josep Ramoneda, one of Spain’s most respected political commentators, ended a Nov. 18 article in El País by pointing out how the country’s two major parties, the governing right-wing People’s Party (PP) and the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), are more concerned with discrediting the upstart left-wing party Podemos than with fixing urgent socioeconomic problems.

These problems range from a mismanagement of the economic crisis — unemployment is at almost 25 percent, and over half Spain’s young people are without work — to corruption cases that involve many members of the PP and PSOE, which Podemos refers to collectively as the “caste.” In the May 2014 European elections, Podemos (“we can” in Spanish) won 1.2 million votes and five seats, and it has become a leading force in the country, according to the latest polls. This unprecedented support is part of a popular expression of anger at establishment parties, which Podemos has been able to channel by calling for a universal basic income, to which all citizens would be entitled, and restructuring of the Spanish public and private debt burdens.

But is Podemos just the latest version of the Euroskeptic populist parties that are now thriving across the continent? Considering how well most of them did in the last European elections, it should not be surprising that traditional European parties are alarmed. Today parties of the radical left and right amount to one-third of the 751 members of the European Parliament. The National Front, the U.K. Independence Party and Syriza won in France, Great Britain and Greece, respectively, in May’s elections, and in Italy, Germany and Slovenia, the Five Star Movement, Alternative for Germany, and United Left managed to gain substantial ground.

But populism comes in many different shades, and the progressive Podemos is nothing like its right-wing peers.

Podemos emerged, like Syriza and United Left, from a mass protest movement and has benefited from charismatic leadership that’s younger and more vibrant than those of the establishment parties. Pablo Iglesias, a 36-year-old academic turn politician was elected Podemos’ secretary-general Nov. 15. He aims not only to win next year’s elections but also to give power back to the people through radical, redistributive social policies. 

The real political problem in Europe today isn’t populism in itself but the absence of a left-wing populism that offers concrete, positive solutions for social issues.

Among the first measures his government would take would be to ensure that people are no longer evicted from their homes — evictions have reached 500 a day in Spain — and to strip banks of repossessed properties that are lying empty for speculative purposes. The rhetoric has many business interests alarmed, and Iglesias has not hidden his admiration for Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution. Like the late Hugo Chávez, Iglesias has railed against U.S. hegemony, vowing to leave NATO and revoke the agreement that allows the United States to keep military bases in Morón (Seville) and Rota (Cádiz).

Attempting to attract people who do not necessarily already have a political identity — people excluded from political life by mainstream political parties — Podemos doesn’t use all the left’s traditional terminology. Disappointment with the center-right and center-left parties throughout the continent is the starting point of these populist movements, Podemos included, but they offer strikingly different alternatives.

Center-right and -left politicians tend to dismiss these new formations as populist, focusing only on the right’s anti-immigrant or anti-EU slogans to condemn even internationalist parties such as Podemos and Syriza. But populism, as the political scientist Takis Pappas explains, “has become a big basket to throw into things we don’t like. Groups such as Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary are not populist. They are anti-democratic.” Nonetheless, most European politicians would agree with Italian former Prime Minister Enrico Letta, who declared that the “fight against populism is a mission today — in Italy and in the other countries.”

Letta has forgotten not only that there are different types of populism but also that it “is a necessary dimension of democratic politics,” as political philosopher Chantal Mouffe said. In democracy it is necessary to take into account the demands of the people and to create a collective will. Right-wing populist parties seek to restrict a national people to a certain category, from which immigrants and others are excluded; left-wing populist parties include immigrants and native workers in their definition of “the people.” Left-wing populist argue forcefully that the working class must organize against not immigrant workers but the large corporations that hold so much power over their lives.

The real political problem in Europe today isn’t populism in itself but the absence of a left-wing populism that offers concrete, positive solutions for social issues. The rise of Podemos in Spain is a sign that this might be changing for good. 

Santiago Zabala is the ICREA research professor of philosophy at  the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. He is the author of “The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy,” “The Remains of Being,” “Hermeneutic Communism” (with G. Vattimo) and the forthcoming “Only Art Can Save Us.” He also writes for The Guardian, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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