20 Jul 2015

Is Europe’s anti-austerity movement falling apart?

The latest polls show collapse in popular support for Spain’s leftist Podemos party, as its Greek ally Syriza is forced to implement a harsh austerity package.

Podemos – Spanish for “we can” – was only formed in 2014, but went on to achieve a string of stunning successes that rocked Spain’s political elite.

The party was created to give voice to the so-called indignados or “outraged ones” – anti-austerity protesters who organised mass demonstrations in Spanish cities in 2011.

Just months after it was created, Podemos received 1.2 million votes in Spain’s EU parliament elections. In municipal elections, left-wing candidates backed by Podemos won control of major cities including Barcelona.

By early 2015 opinion polls showed the new party was the second most popular in Spain, with support reaching 28 per cent.

At the time, many commentators saw evidence of a Europe-wide anti-austerity movement gathering pace, with Syriza having swept to power in Greece and aligned parties like Ireland’s Sinn Féin also riding high in the opinion polls.

All of those parties now seem to have suffered a reversal of fortune.

Podemos cast off?

The surveys suggest that support for Podemos may be evaporating fast, five months out from the country’s next general election.

A GAD3 poll published on Sunday gave Podemos only 15 per cent of the vote, compared to 29.1 per cent for the ruling centre-right People’s Party (PP) and 25.1 for the socialist PSOE.

A second poll by Simple Logica reported a similar result.

Narciso Michavila, the head of GAD3, linked the change in opinion to recent events in Greece.

The ruling leftwing Syriza party has been forced to sign off an austerity package as the price of a third EU bailout for the country’s ailing economy, despite holding a referendum in which a majority of Greeks rejected austerity.

Spain was given emergency funds in 2012 to stave off a banking collapse, stopped short of a sovereign bailout. It exited the lending scheme in 2014, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has been praised by Germany for slashing the country’s budget deficit.

Mr Michavila, whose company is linked to Mr Rajoy’s party, said: “The PP above all lost votes in 2012 … with all the tax increases and labour reforms.

“Now, however, at least the more moderate PP voter is starting to compare (Spain) with Greece and say, well, not having had a bailout was very tough but having had one would have been even worse.”

Unlike Greece, the Spanish economy has also seen a recent upturn, with the IMF expecting growth of 3.1 per cent this year.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (l) with Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias (Getty)

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (l) with Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias (Getty)

Syriza conflict

Greece’s coalition government swore in a new cabinet over the weekend after Syriza Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras replaced five dissidents from his cabinet.

The move came after Mr Tsipras suffered a party rebellion over the austerity bill he pushed through parliament in order to secure more bailout funds from international creditors.

Despite having to legislate a bailout deal viewed by some as harsher than the offer he encouraged voters to reject in the 5 July 5 referendum, polls suggest Syriza still has the support of 38 per cent of the public.

But many members of Mr Tsipras’s government are pushing for new elections as early as September or October.

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, who was once keen to appear alongside Mr Tsipras at numerous Syriza rallies, recently qualified his support for the Greek party, saying: “We have a great friendship with Syriza, but luckily, Spain is not Greece.

“We’re an economy with much more weight in the eurozone, we’re a country with a stronger administration and with a better economic situation.

“The circumstance are different and I think it makes no sense to draw parallels.”

His words were widely interpreted as a sign of concern that Podemos could drive away middle-class support if it was seen to identify too closely with the Greek crisis.

Sinn Fein loses ground

In April, before the Greek referendum, Syriza politician Euclid Tsakalotos – now Greece’s finance minister – addressed Sinn Fein’s annual conference in Derry.

He told delegates: “Syriza, Sinn Fein, Podemos and others are part of a great realignment in European politics that has become apparent over the last couple of years.”

The Irish republican party’s anti-austerity stance has seen it win support from other sections of the Irish left since the financial crisis.

But as with Podemos, there are more recent signs that Sinn Fein may be losing support.

The party, which acted as the political arm of the Provisional IRA during the Northern Ireland conflict, suffered a setback in the United Kingdom general elections in May when it lost a Westminster seat.

Support for Sinn Fein among Irish voters ahead of the 2016 Irish general elections has declined from 26 per cent to 17 per cent in the latest opinion poll.

Dr Luke March, a senior lecturer at Edinburgh University, said anti-austerity campaigners applauding Syriza’s election victory may have had unrealistic hopes of what the party could achieve, since crushed by the inability to defy Greece’s creditors.

There is still no real example of an anti-austerity government in practice in Europe. Luke March

“The expectation was too much. People thought there was going to be a knock-on effect from one country to the next. It’s never like that.

“(For those people) the situation in Greece is a catastrophic defeat right now, and there is still no real example of an anti-austerity government in practice in Europe.

“Podemos was already losing steam. It has more competition than Syriza as well. The establishment in Spain has held up a little bit better.

“Podemos itself comes from popular movements, and the movements have quite high expectations of what change can bring. You get a big push forward.

“But it’s similar to Ukip in England. You have a group of leaders with no real party behind them, and support can disappear as quickly as it grows.”

There is a sense of people getting scared about what is happening in Greece happening in Spain as well. Camino Mortera

Camino Mortera from the Centre for European Reform told us: “There is a sense of people getting scared about what is happening in Greece happening in Spain as well. People see the banks closing and they think that Podemos will do the same in Spain.”

Voters are also judging Podemos by its record as a party of government in some local councils, and have sometimes found that its politicians “are less organised than the more structured parties”, she added.

“This is where they can lose momentum, and I think Spaniards are also fairly scared of change, for historical reasons.

“I think the government is managing to make the case for economic recovery. I’m not sure whether this recovery will be true and long-term, but we can see that it is slowly happening, and it’s affecting how people feel about politicians and their own lives.

“We haven’t had as many corruption cases in the last few months as well, which was something that had been on the front of the newspapers for a long time.”