Can we? Spain’s Podemos party struggles with coronavirus response

By Ben Tannenbaum

Even if a hundred thousand Spaniards could congregate in Puerta del Sol today, they certainly wouldn’t rally for the Podemos party. Founded in 2014, Podemos rapidly gained support by tapping into populist anger after the last financial crisis. Large demonstrations propelled previously unknown professor Pablo Iglesias into a prominent political player, as Podemos won seats in both the Spanish Cortes and the European Parliament. Despite poor showings in two 2019 general elections, Podemos forced its way into a leftist governing coalition with the Socialist Party, and Iglesias became Deputy Prime Minister. Podemos entered the coalition with two goals- reach an accord with the Catalan separatist movement, and increase government spending to expand the social safety net. Then covid came. As Spain copes with one of Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreaks, the crisis has upended Podemos’ agenda. The coronavirus pandemic has weakened Podemos by derailing its main policy goals and by damaging Pablo Iglesias’ political standing.   

The crisis has thwarted Podemos’ efforts to broker an accommodation with Catalan separatists. Prior to the pandemic, Podemos attempted to play a lead role in easing separatist tensions. Iglesias brokered the entry of Catalan parties into the coalition, and led an introductory round of talks with pro-independence leaders. However, the pandemic has exacerbated tensions between Catalonia and the national government. Catalonia’s government struck an independent course at the outset of the crisis, initially refusing aid from the Spanish army. Spain’s military only created relief stations in Catalonia when local authorities granted permission, illustrating Madrid’s inability to impose rules on the region. Meanwhile, Catalan officials have criticized Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’ every move. Barcelona’s mayor condemned national shutdowns that kept children indoors, while the regional governor rebuked Sanchez’ re-opening proposals as “reckless.” In short, the coronavirus has exacerbated tensions between Catalonia and the national government, denying Podemos the chance to play peacemaker in this dispute.

The covid outbreak has also frustrated Podemos’ populist economic agenda. Prior to the crisis, Iglesias had pushed to increase taxes on banks and wealthy citizens. Podemos had also started to repeal aspects of a controversial labor law that, after the last recession, made it easier for companies to lay off workers. However, the current economic collapse has forced Spain to dramatically adjust its fiscal policies. The government issued a $200 billion stimulus package to support shuttered business and furloughed workers. On the surface, this increased government spending sounds right up Podemos’ alley. However, the package will distract from Podemos’ pre-crisis agenda. Spain already had high levels of government debt. Although the European Union will help finance Spain’s emergency package, Brussels is much less likely to loan money for Podemos’ redistributive goals after the pandemic. Meanwhile, as unemployment skyrockets above 20%, any labor legislation will have to focus on the immediate crisis, once again putting Podemos’ long-term reforms on hold. In addition, both small businesses and the government have grown more dependent on loans, making Podemos’ hard-line against banks less palatable. Although Iglesias has used the pandemic to push for even more dramatic policies, like a Universal Basic Income, the coalition’s thin majority in the Cortes seems unlikely to pass such legislation during the depths of a recession. Overall, the pandemic has distracted both political capital and financial resources away from Podemos’ economic initiatives. 

On a personal political level, Pablo Iglesias has not demonstrated exceptional leadership during the crisis. This failure is not entirely his fault. Iglesias’ wife contracted Covid-19 (she recovered, fortunately), requiring the deputy-Prime Minister to quarantine at home. Of course even his fiercest opponents cannot blame him for staying home and tending to the health of his family. Nevertheless, this personal situation denied Iglesias the opportunity to play a public leadership role during the emergency. On the few occasions when he has had the chance to give public comments, Iglesias committed some own-goals. While a majority of Spanish children have had to remain completely indoors for weeks, Iglesias bragged that his children can still get fresh air in the garden of his suburban mansion. While harmless, such verbal miscues tarnish Iglesias’ image as a populist champion of the downtrodden. A lack of polling data makes the extent of this damage unclear. Nevertheless, Iglesias has missed the opportunity to gain political prestige during his country’s hour of need.

Podemos will have challenges recovering after the crisis abates. The party currently gets the worst of all worlds- it will lose its outsider appeal by remaining in the coalition, but still cannot make progress towards the policies its supporters demand. Meanwhile, as Podemos flounders and becomes part of the political establishment, the nationalist right-wing Vox party has claimed the populist mantle. Vox- which represents the exact opposite of Podemos’ policies- surged in the last election. Vox, not Podemos, seems likely to benefit from the economic discontent. Spain’s last financial crisis built Podemos. Perhaps this crisis will break it.

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Ben Tannenbaum

Ben Tannenbaum is a foreign policy analyst, having previously published with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, and the Israel Policy Exchange. The opinions expressed here represent his own.

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