he wave of populism that has washed over Europe in the wake of the financial crisis is seen as menacing by many. But not everything bracketed as populist is the same. The National Front (FN) in France is not in the same category as Podemos (“We Can”), the Spanish left-wing insurgent party. Behind the FN lies hate speech and xenophobia.
The net effect of Podemos, as Spain heads into municipal and regional elections, has been regenerative. First, even though it’s a more top-down organisation than its founders concede, their insistence on primaries to elect candidates is forcing mainstream parties to examine the electoral list system, changing the selection method to populate Spain’s institutions, previously a private preserve of the old co-opting elites. Accountability is back, against the casual amorality into which Spanish politics had sunk. Second, the rise of Podemos has opened Spain’s political arena enough to allow for the rise of a liberal alternative to the right-wing Partido Popular: Ciudadanos (Citizens), which styles itself as ‘sensible’ change. Ciudadanos now demands as the price of any alliance –which polls suggest the PP would need to keep seven regional governments– internal party reform, primaries and open electoral lists. And third, the Podemos effect can be seen in Spain’s most intractable problem –Catalan and Basque secessionism– which mainstream parties have managed with alarming ineptitude.
In the Basque Country, Podemos is placed above the separatists and close to the governing mainstream nationalists. In Catalonia it has helped take some of the air out of the secessionist balloon. If a Podemos-led coalition governs Barcelona it would be a blow to the separatists, ahead of Catalan elections in the autumn billed as a plebiscite on independence. The insurgent groups will make Spain more difficult to govern, but the greater focus on governance, pacts and coalitions is healthy. Spain should be proud. It has absorbed the largest number of immigrants proportional to its population in the EU. Yet, even in the midst of a crippling crisis and sky-high unemployment, there has been no xenophobic backlash. Other countries should be so lucky with their populists.