First Greece, Now Spain: Is Europe in for a Political Earthquake?

First Greece, Now Spain: Is Europe in for a Political Earthquake?


It took a mere six days for the election victory of the anti-austerity Syriza party in Greece to start ricocheting around Europe like a stray bullet in a concrete bunker. And already the fight between northern Europe’s austerians and their populist opponents to the south takes on a political dimension that could transform Europe.   

This is an economic confrontation only in part. Debt terms, budget ceilings, privatizations, and the like now emerge as theaters in a larger war. At bottom Europeans are in a fight over (1) the fate of their democracies and (2) the kind of democracy they want—popular or elite, Jeffersonian or Hamiltonian.

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If the emerging pattern is any guide, it’s a return to politics charged with class-conscious parties who think it’s time to confront political and economic elites rather than “triangulate,” as Bill Clinton famously put it and as every one of Europe’s social-democratic parties have tried to do.

The huge mass of Spaniards that gathered in central Madrid Saturday may look like a turning point in the months to come. Those interviewed may as well have spoken Greek when they explained to correspondents why they were there. 

Spain’s weekend demonstration was the strongest manifestation yet for Podemos, the out-of-nowhere left party that is Syriza’s Spanish equivalent. Podemos (“We Can”) put its crowd count at 300,000; the police’s number was a third of that, but either way this was a very big demo.

The two parties share a common theme, and this is the key to their significance. Both dwell consistently on the question of dignity and humiliation, as in the remark of Angeles Buj, a 61-year-old who spoke to The Times in Puerta del Sol, a politically symbolic square in central Madrid. “It’s time to give some dignity back to the Spanish people,” Buj said. 

Dignity is a political value. It does not much derive from horse-trading for a better deal with creditor banks, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund. It comes of wresting power from sequestered domestic elites and distant E.U. technocrats and returning it to the governed, where it belongs in any variety of democracy.

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The project is defensible when so defined. To whatever extent it may appear impossible in the current European environment is precisely the extent it needs to get done if democratic processes are to revive as the Continent addresses its seven-year crisis. 

The truth underlying this too-long-running crisis is this: Entrenched political cliques, often (if not usually) corrupt, and bureaucracies in Brussels and Frankfurt have drastically overplayed their hand in imposing counter-crisis strategies that effectively supersede political rights long beyond question in the industrialized nations. Nobody wins, not even creditors, unless this is corrected.

There is a big irony in this political turn, and it is important to understand it. Europe’s conservatives have their challenges, certainly, but they are essentially unaltered. Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister and head of the right-wing Popular Party, must still keep voters sold on the E.U.’s rigorous fiscal disciplines and structural reform programs.  

Those newly and truly in the hot seat now are Europe’s Socialists and social democrats. All of them have committed to one variant or another of Tony Blair’s “New Labour” modernization: Do business with business, class warfare is yesterday’s idea.

Related: Greece Seeks to Reassure Europe as Tensions Rise

The pols to watch in the months to come are Pedro Sánchez, who leads Spain’s Socialists, François Hollande, France’s president and a mainstream Socialist, and Matteo Renzi, Italy’s premier, who, for many Italians’ money, professes left and too often governs right. 

Here’s the irony: The left’s political update, which all of these guys buy into, suddenly looks old. In a hilariously sardonic column in Thursday’s Independent, Mark Steel said, “The problem the modernisers have is the more modern they become, the more outdated they look. As growing numbers of people become cross with the behaviour of bankers and businessmen, the old-fashioned outdated ideas seem like the modern ones. It must be very confusing for any New Labour supporters following the election in Greece. They must think, ‘The mistake the Greeks have made is they’ve elected a party that’s unelectable.’” 

To drive the point home, consider the Podemos platform, determined last November in a bottom-up process as a social movement transformed into a party.  Restructuring external debt is the last of five main planks. The others start with “defense of public education” and run to “defense of public health.” All are questions on which Spanish socialists have compromised to continue trading power with conservative coalitions, as they have since Franco’s death in 1975 returned Spain to democracy.

Podemos, you may recall, burst into the room with an utterly unexpected show of strength in elections to the European parliament last spring; it won 1.25 million votes and took five of Spain’s seats. The momentum since has been astonishing. 

True enough, Podemos and its leader, Pablo Iglesias, may prove too inexperienced to govern at this point, as The Economist recently argued, but don’t take this as the end of the story.

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The same was said not long ago about Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s leader, and whatever one may think of his politics he is no dope, has enviable political nous, and has put some accomplished thinkers in key cabinet positions. They have yet to enter negotiations with the rest of Europe, and Chancellor Merkel in Germany continues to talk a tough game. But the outcome of talks, which must take place this month, is not a sure winner for the E.U. and the I.M.F.

From Syriza to Podemos to who knows where next—the spirit of this Mediterranean movement for a political shift leftward in Europe is spreading at ground level, and this is another form of power. Iglesias cued the pattern when he flew to Athens to join Tsipras as the Syriza leader wound up his election campaign last month. 

As in Athens, so in Madrid and then so in Rome or elsewhere? No one can claim certainty on this point, but as two Madrid correspondents just reported in The Nation, “If the current poll numbers hold, Spain’s next prime minister will be Pablo Iglesias, a pony-tailed 36-year-old political scientist who cut his teeth in the Communist Youth and the anti-globalization movement.” 

The bio (if not the hair style) is not so different from Tsipras’s. Neither is the perspective. Left and right are no longer “useful as political terms,” Iglesias says. “The fundamental divide now is between oligarchy and democracy.” 

Think of it this way: More Greeks than not have already agreed, and six figures’ worth of Spaniards just did, too. This is to be watched.

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