The Rise of the New Social Democracy

Mr Oscar Berglund, Politics (PhD)

Mr Oscar Berglund, Politics (PhD)

The local elections in Spain on Sunday have attracted international attention with the Guardian saying that‘Spain’s indignados could rule Barcelona and Madrid after local election success’ and the New York Times that ¬†‘Spain’s local election results reshape political landscape’. What these reports capture is that Spain has gone from a two-party to a multi-party system in the four years since the last general elections and that this fast political change started with the occupation of public squares by the Indignados, known as 15M, on 15 May 2011. In this blog post I seek to go beyond the headlines and explain some of the political transformations that are at play in the Eurozone’s fourth largest economy.

The Social Movements

The 15M has had two lasting legacies for Spanish political life. The first is the change in the terms of political discourse. In the words of one of my research participants: ‘Before 15M, if you would be in a bar and say out loud that this country is not a democracy, people would look at you strangely as if you were of the extreme left. Now that’s a mainstream opinion’. It is the normalisation of this anti-establishment discourse that has made possible the rise of Podemos, on the left, and Ciudadanos, in the centre-right, that¬†share an anti-corruption discourse and capitalise on the decreasing legitimacy of the ruling right-wing Partido Popular (PP) and centre-left Partido Socialista (PSOE). The other legacy of 15M has been that rather than disappearing, this activism has continued in a myriad of social movements, each protesting against different aspects of austerity politics.

Amongst these, the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH, Platform for Those Affected by Mortgages) is particularly important in Spain’s political transformations. Through using various forms of civil disobedience, the PAH capitalises and builds on the perceived illegitimacy of Spanish law and political economy. They highlight that Spain leads the European league tables both when it comes to the amount of evictions (around 500,000 since 2008) and the amount of homes that stand empty (3.5 million). They also protest against Spanish mortgage legislation, which sees homeowners who default on their mortgages lose their homes, but carry on with the debt left by negative equity, without the possibility of declaring personal bankruptcy. By physically stopping evictions, occupying bank branches and creating their own social housing program by organised squatting in property belonging to banks, the PAH have succeeded in separating the legal from the legitimate in the eyes of many Spaniards. Furthermore, the high legitimacy of the movement and the fact that it engages in a tangible struggle for a basic human need, which affects a significant amount of people, has allowed it to appeal to a broader public. Unlike most other social movements, the PAH is mainly made up of people with little or no previous experience of activism. They have been able to show that becoming an activist pays by obtaining many individual victories for their members, including debt eradications and access to social housing, though they have so far been blocked by the PP parliamentary majority in achieving legal changes.

Electoral Success

Ada Colau, the founder and previous spokesperson of the PAH, was on Sunday elected as the first ever female mayor of Barcelona. The new political formations on the left that did well overall on Sunday appear to have reached power in both Madrid and Barcelona, with the support of other parties. In the press, these formations are often misleadingly presumed to be synonymous with Podemos. In fact they contain both older parties on the left and Ganemos (Guanyem in Catalan), a gathering of grassroots activists from different social movements who largely share the ideals of participatory democracy that were central to 15M. This contrasts to the top-down model of Podemos, created, and to an extent controlled, by a small number of political scientists with little experience of activism. The feeling towards Podemos amongst the grassroots activists in the PAH is one of annoyance combined with tacit support. The annoyance comes from the feeling that Podemos is capitalising on the work of social movements without due recognition. As an example, the name itself, Podemos (We Can), alludes to the PAH’s main slogan Si Se Puede! (It Can Be Done!), but the PAH were not consulted when it came to drafting the party’s housing policy, an area in which they are experts. The temporary political formations that did well on Sunday therefore represent shared political agendas but different ways of doing politics.

These new political formations on the left are first and foremost against austerity politics and bank bailouts at the expense of the citizenry. They are for the redistribution of resources to secure basic human needs like housing, healthcare and education. As such they are largely social democratic and share much with Syriza in Greece and even the Scottish National Party in an openly anti-neoliberal discourse. This new wave of social democracy succeeds mainly at the expense of the old social democratic parties, such as PASOK in Greece, Labour in Scotland and PSOE in Spain. In Barcelona, the Socialist Party that governed the city from democratisation in 1978 to 2011, obtained 4 of 41 seats on Sunday, compared to the 11 of Colau’s winning formation. In Madrid, PSOE with 9 seats are likely to support the new Ahora Madrid with 20 seats in order to secure the necessary majority to oust the PP from power. Spain is then the latest in a number of pockets of Europe where the social democratic parties of old are being sidelined by newer formations with stronger social democratic redistributive agendas. If this success of the new leftist formations turns to even greater success at the coming general elections, due to be held before the end of the year, it is bound to have consequences for European governance. Instead of having a government in Madrid that is one of Syriza’s harshest critics, the Greek ruling party may find themselves an ally in Spain. With four parties competing nationally (PP, PSOE, Ciudadanos and Podemos) the outcome is nonetheless highly uncertain.

Whilst the transformations outlined here may or may not lead to radical change, they rely on a sufficiently solid basis as to not be transient or insignificant. So watch this space.