April 4, 2019 / 5:40 PM / 18 days ago

Spain's Podemos: from far-left star to Socialists' sidekick?

MADRID (Reuters) - Spain’s Podemos was the rising star of Europe’s far left four years ago, but infighting and a failure to evolve has left it a shadow of the newcomer party it was then as it gears up for the country’s most open election in living memory.

FILE PHOTO: Podemos (We Can) party leader Pablo Iglesias delivers a speech during a motion of no confidence debate at Parliament in Madrid, Spain, May 31, 2018. REUTERS/Susana Vera/File Photo

At best, it might emerge from the April 28 ballot as a junior partner in a Socialist-led government, but that outcome would require support from other parties likely to be hard to win over.

Its decline underlines the challenge, in Spain and elsewhere across Europe, of forming viable governments once new parties emerge to break the political status quo.

Podemos was instrumental in setting that pattern as a European trend in a national election in 2015.

Founded a year earlier out of the anti-austerity movement against Europe’s debt crisis, it won 20 percent in that vote, finishing a close third behind the conservatives (PP) and the Socialists (PSOE) and dismantling the monopoly on power those two parties had held since Spain’s return to democracy in the late 1970s.

Now Podemos is down to around 12 percent, its appeal dented by scandals and divisions over how hard-line the party, which supported a minority Socialist government over the past ten months and sits on some local councils, should be.

“We have caused shame due to our internal fights, our top officials and our visibility,” leader Pablo Iglesias told a rally in March. “We have acted like any other political party.”

With polls showing no single party anywhere close to securing an absolute majority on April 28, Podemos remains one of five parties, also including far-right Vox, with a chance of being part of a governing coalition.

But its hopes of partnering the Socialists would likely rest on outgoing Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez also persuading sceptical Basque and Catalan nationalists to join that alliance.

In 2015, Podemos (meaning ‘We Can’) surged on a groundswell of anti-austerity support as protesters occupied the Puerta del Sol square in Madrid for weeks during the debt crisis, inspiring similar movements elsewhere in Europe and the United States.

It came within 350,000 votes of the Socialists, unprecedented for a non-mainstream party. But that election was inconclusive and, by the time a fresh ballot was held six months later, Podemos had lost one million votes as the initial excitement waned.

Since then the party has also fragmented.

In January, Podemos’ co-founder Inigo Errejon left to launch another movement, a defection political analysts linked to his failure to maintain the party’s wider appeal as a counterweight to Iglesias’ more far-left stance.

NO LONGER “BREAKING THE SYSTEM”?

Sanchez has said nothing about possible post-election coalitions.

But while his Socialists lead in opinion polls, his options for securing a second term appear largely dependent on how Podemos fares, especially after the centre-right Ciudadanos ruled out an alliance.

The right’s options also appear limited, and a repeat election is a distinct possibility.

The dilemma of managing a fragmented or deadlocked political system is one that Spain shares with several neighbours. Politics have ruptured from Italy to France and Greece as the after-effects of the 2009-14 debt crisis and austerity linger.

In Greece, things turned out differently for the anti-austerity left.

Its standard-bearer, Syriza, has governed since 2015, supplanting the establishment Pasok socialists by accepting the strings attached to bailouts and changing from radical to reformer.

Podemos instead chose a harder line. “(In Greece’s case) we drank from that particular chalice, we were disappointed and returned to pragmatism,” said Theodore Couloumbis, a political analyst in Athens.

But, without being in government, Podemos has also been forced to compromise through its representatives on local councils and as a PSOE ally.

“The party has become normal when it got into power,” said Jose Fernandez-Albertos, a political scientist at the Spanish National Research Council. “Voters see that it will no longer break the system.”

If it manages to get into government, Podemos is likely to see its influence limited by its drop in votes, but could still have an impact, as it has done by pushing the Socialists on issues such as increasing the minimum wage.

“Its usefulness is to maintain the Socialists on the left,” Fernandez-Albertos said.

In neighbouring Portugal, the Left Bloc also gained from its anti-austerity stance during the debt crisis but lost support since it became an ally of the ruling Socialists in 2015.

That minority government, also supported by the Communists, has achieved stability, potentially giving Sanchez and Iglesias a model to emulate.

But the Socialists and Podemos barely poll 40 percent together, leaving them far short of a majority and needing to quickly attract more votes from elsewhere.

Rafael Mayoral, a member of the Podemos executive, said the party still enjoyed broad appeal, telling Reuters: “We are a popular force that defends working people, from top to bottom.”

But that hasn’t stopped it from splintering. In a regional election in Madrid next month, it will run on three different platforms.

Additional reporting by Axel Bugge, Michele Kambas, Renee Maltezou and Richard Lough; Writing by Axel Bugge and Ingrid Melander; editing by John Stonestreet

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