The European Debt Crisis induced by the failure of several European Member states ability to refinance their governments’ debt led to the large-scale socio-economic and political transformations in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus. Gradual increase of unemployment rate, especially among the youth, GDP contraction, cuts in public services and other economic plight led to the power change in a range of the Eurozone countries, out of which this article will focus on the political shift in Spain, Greece and Portugal.
Social unrest and economic downturn prepared a solid ground for the radical politicians, who railed against the austerity policies imposed on their countries due to the bailout programs, which in some cases amounted to several billion Euros. Radical movements became increasingly popular in Greece and Spain, which was clearly expressed in the emergence of two left-wing parties: Syriza and Podemos, out of which the former has successfully undergone the electoral campaign and came in power as a result of the snap election held on January 25, 2015 while the latter has a relatively modest, but promising record. In addition to analyzing the origins of Syriza and Podemos, the article will seek to study the socio-economic and political circumstances, which considerably contributed to the emergence of the radical left-wing parties in Greece and Spain, while not leaving the similar track in other crisis inflicted EU state – Portugal.
Is Radical Left Soaring Ahead? Origins and Populist Rhetoric
European politics has recently seen a revival of the radical left, which according to some opinions 1 can be attributed to the trouble imposed to the states as a result of 2008 financial crisis. Even though the crisis itself had almost identical implications in a range of countries in terms of cuts in government spending, tax increase, unemployment etc., one of the areas, where significant divergence could be spotted is political party dominance. Since this article deals with three European countries, it is interesting to study what were the major reasons, which led to the popularity of radical left-wing parties in Greece and Spain, while it did not leave similar trace in Portugal.
First, let us engage with a brief description of Syriza and Podemos providing a socio-economic and political background, which is crucial to understand the overall success of these parties. Syriza saw an unprecedented victory in a very short period of time, when it managed to climb from 4.6% to 26.89% of electoral support2. Followed by the economic crisis in 2008, the Greek government acknowledged its incapacity of paying off the debts, which is sometimes referred to as the “Greek Depression”. First bailout program, aiming to assist the Greek authorities to refinance its debts was launched in 2010, which was followed by two other bailout programs by a so-called Troika – the European Commission (EU), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Third bailout program, which was approved on August 14, 2015, caused a harsh debate among the EU members, which was soon transformed into the discussion about Grexit that would have resulted in giving up euro and reintroducing drachma. Alexis Tripras, an active and somewhat controversial leader of the radical left-wing party SYRIZA hold a referendum in July promising the Greek citizens to put an end to the bail-out program and strict austerity measures3. Nevertheless, after several rounds of negotiations, the agreement was made between the European Commission and the Hellenic Republic, which openly stated that: ”Greece has requested support from its European partners, to restore sustainable growth, create jobs, reduce inequalities, and address the risks to its own financial stability and to that of the euro area.” (Memorandum of Understanding 2015)4.
Podemos has a relatively small and modest political record, but while analyzing closely its ideology, causes and motives of emergence on the political arena and a role of the charismatic leader in gaining popular support, it will become clear how close SYRIZA and Podemos stand to each other. Podemos (We can) was formed in 2014 and achieved an unprecedented success in the European Parliament election held in the same year. While discussing the possible reasons which contributed to the party’s popularity, we should not forget the socio-economic and political situation created after the economic crisis of 2008 and the problems imposed to the Spaniards in a sequence of years.
Already since the onset of 2008 a considerable dissatisfaction was discerned among the Spanish citizens, primarily induced by the: ”Biblical plague in form of economic crisis: increase in unemployment, cuts in public services, poverty growth and other blights associated with this phenomena”5. Contained to the fact that the Spanish society was rather confused by the ongoing political processes, which somehow undermined the public support for two major parties – People’s Party (PP) and Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) – complemented by an absence of the real political power incapable of bringing positive change, political choice became constrained.
While some newly emerged parties offered new insight in certain directions, it was only after the appearance of Podemos that Spaniards acquired more confidence in a new, change-oriented political party, run by a bunch of university professors, who enjoyed a huge popularity among the youth. An attempt to concisely describe a political stance of Podemos naturally leads to the recognition of the salient populist elements in their ideology, primarily originating from the works of Argentinean political theorist Ernesto Laclau, who had a profound influence on the leaders of both SYRIZA and Podemos. Interestingly enough, there can be observed similarities in the populist rhetoric stipulated by both parties, clearly articulated in the semantic construction.
Podemos used a word “la casta” for referring to the two major parties in government. In this respect it would be useful to quote Bodeque et. al. (ibid.), who clearly show where does Podemos place people in their rhetoric and how it resembles the respective case of SYRIZA: ”To defeat the parties of la casta in Spain, the people need to take a lead”; “Podemos is the instrument of the underdog to beat the regime”. For the sake of illustration, we can refer to the Greek example, which distinguishes itself with the abundance of the populist terminology. Recalling 2012 election, Stavrakakis and Katsambekis6 recall Alexis Tsipras’s speech: ”Now the people are voting; now the people are seizing power.” In the same sense of “la casta”, SYRIZA uses term “political establishment” for underling a contrast between the people and the ruling class: ”Sunday is not just a simple confrontation between SYRIZA and political establishment of Memorandum (…). It is about the encounter of people with their lives” (ibid.).
Why Portugal Stands Out as an Exception?
Financial crisis of 2008 and its accompanying economic plight, which shall be considered to be major triggering factors to the popularity of the radical left wing parties in the Southern Europe, did not, however, render similar results in Portugal. Not only Portugal shared the same fate as Spain and Greece in terms of cuts in public services and high unemployment rate, but in 2011 it became the third country after Greece and Ireland to receive a bailout program from the Troika. Providing the fact that Pereira and Wemans (2012)7 ascribe the reasons of Portugal’s severe financial suffering to two key factors: ”the democratic institutions and the fiscal policy of the Portuguese government shaped within the context of the European Union’s budgetary framework”, it becomes even more interesting and intriguing what hindered the niche parties to gain popularity and challenge the existing mainstream parties in Portugal.
As it becomes apparent, this can be attributed to several factors formulated as independent variables, including a nature of civil society and alternative political parties, which will be closely examined and operationalized bit later. Meanwhile, let us propose several other factors, which do not directly contribute to the absence of RLPs in Portugal, but enable us to perceive the reality from a different perspective.
Manuel Serrano believes that the features of the Portuguese political culture can be seen as determinants of the voting choice, which according to the electoral data remains relatively stable within the years. Serrano refers to the Communist Party, which stands out with its stability, claiming that: ”this party tends to draw approximately 10% of the votes and leaves little space for emerging movements.” On the other hand, we can refer to Andrew Tasker8, who assumes that absence of the RLPs in Portuguese politics might be blamed on the Left Bloc, which represents a coalition of three radical left parties: the Popular Democratic Union, the Socialist Revolutionary Party and XXI politics. This bloc was formed in 1999 as a viable platform for challenging the conventional centrist and neo-liberal views and enjoyed with electoral success for several years.
Nonetheless, Tasker argues that if the Left Bloc with its policies and political power had not been created so early, it would have had a chance to remain as a robust political alternative, capable of replacing the mainstream parties in Portugal. As an evidence of the Left Bloc’s fading popularity, almost doomed to failure, we can look at their recent electoral record – in the European Election of May 2014 they managed to get only 1 seat and consequently one MEP.
Financial crisis with its accompanying factors, including the high rates of unemployment, tax increase and sever cuts in public services led to the increasing popularity of the radical left-wing parties in Greece and Spain, while not rendering the same result in Portugal. As it was shown in the article, these three countries share several similarities and taking into account the extent of the economic crisis of 2008, it was assumed and predicted that ultimate outcomes in terms of political shift in all these countries would have been identical.
However, what we witnessed is a very high level of popularity of the RLPs in Greece, namely of the ruling party SYRIZA, medium level popularity of Podemos, which exceeded all the expectations and gained 20.7% of the vote shares in the recently held General Election in Spain. Political situation remains almost same in Portugal, which was proved by the parliamentary election in 2014, where political balance between the ruling and major opposition party was observed to be unchanged. I argued that this phenomenon was due to two major reasons, namely existence of the alternative political powers in the country, which would be able to challenge the mainstream parties and nature of civil societies. It became apparent that while in Greece and Portugal alternative political parties were formed in a swift response to the economic crisis, this was not a case in Portugal and the Left Bloc, created in 1999 remained major radical party in the country.
Concerning the civil society, its strength and scope of actions, we clearly say that soon after the first bailout program in Greece, the representatives of almost every sector rallied against the government after issuing the policies related to tax increase. Small social movements were later merged in CSOs like the Indignant People, which was soon replicated in Spain. While Spanish CSO – Indignados stands out with a high level of political activism, there is hardly any civil society movement in Portugal, which would challenge mainstream parties in the country. As suggested in the article, roots of relative passivism of the Portuguese CSOs can be found in their historical dependence on the church and in its modern, limited scope of activities restricted to providing the social good and services to the public.
1Dolezalova, Jitka. “Economic Crisis and Growth in Vote Share for Extreme Left and Extreme Right parties.” 15, no. 3 (2015).
2Yannis Stavrakakis and Giorgos Katsambekis. “Left-wing populism in the European periphery: the Case of SYRIZA.” Journal of Political Ideologies, 2014, p. 2.
3The Economist, Greece and euro: A third bail-out gets the green light, 15/08/2015 http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2015/08/greece-and-euro
5Jose Pavia, Anselm Bodoque and Joaquin Martin. “Podemos, a hurricane in the Spanish crisis of trust. Analysis and characterization.” 2015, p. 4.
6Yannis Stavrakakis and Giorgos Katsambekis. “Left-wing populism in the European periphery: the Case of SYRIZA.” Journal of Political Ideologies, 2014, p. 11.
7Paulo Pereira and Laura Wemans. “Portugal and the Global Financial Crisis- short-sight politics, deteriorating public finances and the bailout imperative.” 2012, p.3.
Economist, The. Portugal’s Government: Austerity without anger. June 4, 2015.
Kassam, Ashifa. Spain’s indignados could rule Barcelona and Madrid after local election success. Barcelona, May 25, 2015.
Luke March and Cas Mudde. “What’s Left of the Radical Left? The European Radical Left after 1989: Decline and Mutation.” Comparative European Politics2005 (Palgrave Macmillan).
Malkoutzis, Nick. The Greek Crisis and the Politics of Uncertainty. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2011.
Mudde, Cas. Portugal Faces a political crisis, but it’s the same one facing governments everywhere. Washington, October 28, 2015.
National Report- Portugal. Study on Volunteering in the European Union, 2005.
Sotiropoulos, Dimitri. Civil Society in Greece in the Wake of the Economic Crisis. Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2013.
Tasker, Andrew. Where is Portugal’s Radical Left? February 11, 2015.
Tsiridis, Georgios. “Souther Europe in Comparative Perspective: Democratic Transitions in Portugal, Greece and Spain.” MA Thesis, Utrecht.
UNDP. A User’s Guide to Civil Society Assessments. Oslo: UNDP Oslo Governance center, 2010.