26 May 2015

Europe’s anti-austerity movements: from Podemos to the SNP

The surge in support for the radical left Podemos party in Spain’s regional elections is the latest manifestation of a spectre haunting Europe: the rise of the anti-austerity movement.

Pablo Iglesias (Getty)


Although the conservative People’s party won most votes overall in Spain’s elections at the weekend, it lost its majorities in powerful regional governments and city halls across the country, including Barcelona, where anti-eviction activist Ada Colau was elected mayor.

The Spanish economy is now growing after years in the doldrums, but half of young people are unemployed and Podemos is a reflection of popular discontent with austerity and a government that has failed to convince people the good times are returning.

Podemos is more than a party. It is a mass movement that grew out of the indignados protests of 2011. The question now is whether it can repeat its success in parliamentary elections.

Will leader Pablo Iglesias (pictured above) follow in the footsteps of Greece’s Alexis Tsipras (pictured below), whose Syriza party was also synonymous with protest until it won a general election and formed a government? Like Syriza, Podemos is also committed to ending EU and IMF-inspired austerity.


As the drama was unfolding in Spain, Poland was electing Andrzej Duda, of the right-wing Law and Justice party, to the presidency.

Although a very different political animal from Pablo Iglesias, he also benefited from young people’s animosity towards Poland’s political elites, combined with a reaction against austerity.


Greece is the poster country for the anti-austerity movement. It is mired in debt and dependent on loans from the EU and IMF, with which the ruling Syriza party is currently negotiating.

When Syriza was elected in January, it was a political earthquake for Greece and Europe – the continent’s first anti-austerity government.

Alexis Tsipras (Reuters)

Anti-austerity protests began in 2010, sparked by plans to cut public spending and raise taxes, in exchange for EU and IMF financial support.They were organised by the Indignant Citizens’ Movement, which was behind the 300,000-strong, month-long protests outside the Greek parliament in 2011. With Syriza’s victory four years later, protest was subsumed into government.


In 2011, the then president Nicolas Sarkozy agreed the so-called “fiscal compact” with Germany’s Angela Merkel, which was designed to stop eurozone countries from borrowing too much, with automatic sanctions for those that build up big budget deficits.

His reward? He was beaten in 2012 by the Socialist Francois Hollande, who campaiged for the pact to be amended. Now it is the far right Front National, which has traditionally benefited from protest votes, that is hoping to gain from this anti-austerity mood.

Leader Marine Le Pen welcomed Syriza’s victory in January and the “monstrous democratic slap” the Greek people had given the EU. In 2014, her party was victorious in France’s European elections, but in March’s local elections it failed to repeat this feat. Has it gone as far as it can, or is another shock awaiting France and Europe?


Marine Le Pen was not the only European politician to welcome Alexis Tsipras’ victory. The left-wing Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said he was bringing a “message of hope, not just fear”.

Like Tsipras, he has expressed his concerns about EU-directed austerity and has said economic growth is the only way to exit the debt crisis.

The anti-austerity Five Star Movement (FSM), started by the activist and comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009, came close to power in Italy’s 2013 election.

FSM’s strong showing was a sign that its grassroots approach – a taste for citizen “meet-ups” and social media, rather than traditional politics – could yield results, although the movement’s lustre has faded since then.

Nicola Sturgeon and SNP MPs (Reuters)


The SNP considers itself to be Scotland’s anti-austerity party, a ticket it campaigned on during last year’s independence referendum.

Independence was defeated, but the SNP has gone from strength to strength, attracting new members and building up a strong grassroots organisation that culminated in it winning 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats at the general election.


The Conservative-Liberal Democrat government elected in 2010 made lowering the deficit a priority, with public spending cuts taking priority.

One of its most dramatic measures was a trebling of student tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000 a year, which led to street protests, including an attack on Conservative headquarters in central London. UK Uncut was born, with an anti-austerity agenda and a demand that those with the broadest shoulders carry the heaviest burden.

At the May general election, the Conservatives said austerity would continue, with £12bn of welfare cuts. Not only did David Cameron find himself back in Downing Street, he also won an overall majority and no longer has to rely on the Lib Dems.

The People’s Assembly, which is supported by unions and 100 local groups across the country, will gather outside Downing Street on Wednesday, on the evening of the Queen’s Speech, to protest about these cuts.


Ireland witnessed the collapse of its housing market after years of rising, and unsustainable, prices.

It agreed a bailout from the EU and IMF in exchange for an austerity programme, provoking anger among the population, which in an historic election in 2011 voted out Fianna Fail. Fine Gael and Labour formed a coalition government, with Sinn Fein performing strongly on an anti-austerity platform.

Members of smaller parties, including the Socialists and the People Before Profit Alliance, came together in the Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes. Protests have continued, escalating in 2014 as the government attempted to levy additional water taxes.