The leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias
The left wing  Podemos has smashed the cosy two party club that has existed in Spain for over three decades. Can the New Zealand left learn anything from the electoral success of Podemos?

TWO YEARS AGO PODEMOS DID NOT EXIST, now it is the third biggest political party in Spain. In the weekend's general election it attracted some 20 percent of the vote and secured 69 seats. The critics and commentators who decided that the left wing Podemos was not electorally viable have suddenly gone quiet.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that there has been a political earthquake in Spain. Podemos has effectively smashed the cosy two party club that has existed in Spain since 1975 and the end of the Franco dictatorship.

While the ruling right wing Popular Party won the most votes, it lost nearly four million votes and a massive 63 seats. It has lost its parliamentary majority and its chances of cobbling together a coalition looks impossible.

The other member of the Two Party Club, the Socialist Party, also felt a voter backlash and lost 1.5 million votes and 19 seats. While it remains the second largest party in Spain, Podemos is now snapping at its heels. It has also suffered a heavy body blow.

if it hopes to form a coalition, it will have to accommodate the left wing and anti-austerity policies of Podemos. Given the Socialist Party's support for the neoliberal orthodoxy, that also looks difficult.

It has been a remarkable rise by a political party that has emerged out of a widespread disenchantment with 'politics as usual'. Podemos, which has consistently denounced the policies and activities of the old parties and institutions, was immediately popular with a Spanish electorate that was seeking a political voice that articulated its concerns and supported its struggles. Leader Pablo Iglesias has always been insistent that political movements are not enough and that a party must be built and established to secure political power.

While  Pablo Iglesias recognises that social democracy is largely a spent political force, he has also been critical of what can be loosely described as the old European left - and the left in general. He believes that the left has become too insular, largely talking to itself and failing to connect with wider society. In the view of Iglesias, Podemos has had to “expand narratives and practices to include the part of the population that is still missing” from Spanish political life.

One of his supporters has put it this way: “We understood that the codes of the left, the symbols, weren’t enough to construct an alternative political instrument to change this country. The left was very limited in this sense, and that’s exactly where our adversary wants us. Our adversary was very content to say, ‘You’re the left,’ and to tell people ‘Don’t engage, they’re just like always.’ But we were saying there were shared pains, shared indignations across all of society, that includes many more people than just the traditional left.”

Teresa Rodriguez, a Podemos member of the European Parliament, explains it so:

Teresa Rodriguez: Moving from political resistance to political change.
"So what we have to do in Podemos is move a step forward, and go on the offensive, move from resistance to political change, we have to get rid of those in political institutions who are causing us to be on the streets resisting all the time...We have been able to convince many people who didn’t have a clear ideological identity, around proposals for breaking with the existing order, and that’s what worries the old order, and we will continue to work on that discourse."

That's something worth reflecting on by the New Zealand left although its doubtful that such reflections will take place, at least in the short term. As ever, the Labour Party remains the obstacle in the way of developing a new politics in this country.

Despite the Labour Party's continued commitment to the neoliberal orthodoxy, much of what constitutes the New Zealand left remains, despite the bluster and protestations, mired in its support for Labour. However it critical it might be of Labour between elections, it meekly falls in behind the party at election time. In 2017 it will again call for a vote for Labour as 'preferable' to National, just as it did in 2014.

Despite the fact that there is massive disillusionment with 'politics as usual' to the extent that nearly a million people don't bother to vote anymore, the left has little to offer but more of the same. It has largely failed to learn anything from Labour's collapse in 2014 and is even prepared to accommodate leader Andrew Little moving the party further to the right. While they might try to defend Labour in the union offices and in the blogosphere, it is the kind of political disconnect that Pablo Iglesias has talked about and which Podemos has strategised against. Its attack on the political establishment implicitly rejects 'politics as usual.' It's no coincidence that the Spanish people call Podemos La Nueva Política, or “New Politics.”

Throughout the world, more and more people are losing faith in the traditional parties whose claims that they represent the interests of ordinary people sound increasingly shrill and hollow. There are turning to new political forces and to new faces - like Podemos in Spain, Left Bloc in Portugal, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the United States.

Until the New Zealand left begins to bridge the political disconnect with the very people it claims to represent and starts to think of a new politics beyond the politically bankrupt Labour Party, then the chances of our own Podemos emerging will remain remote. If the 'new face' of New Zealand politics is a right wing former union official called Andrew Little then the New Zealand left will remain stuck deep in the mire of 'politics as usual'.


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