Spaniards have been waiting for a shake-up of their political system for many years. Now, like London buses, three such challenges arrive at once.

The New Challenge

The spectacular performance of Spain’s youngest party Podemos (We Can) at the May European elections initially eclipsed Catalonia’s independence referendum (scheduled for November of this year) as the country’s main political talking-point. King Juan Carlos’ abdication, announced on 2 June, has now added a third dimension to this exceptional and exciting moment in Spanish politics.

Few commentators doubt the connections between the timing of the Monarch’s decision to pass on the Crown to his son Felipe, and the electoral collapse of Spain’s dominant two-party system at the European elections. For the first time in the country’s post-Francoist history, the combined share of the vote for the Popular and Socialist parties has fallen below 50 percent, thus potentially disrupting the thirty-year bipartisan alternation of power between the centre-right and the centre-left.

The political institutions that crystallised around the 1978 Constitution are in crisis – including the two mainstream parties. In a poll conducted on behalf of the Madrid daily El País last week, 62 per cent of respondents agreed with the idea of holding a referendum on whether Spain should remain a Monarchy, yet this week only 10 per cent of the country’s Chamber of Deputies are expected to vote in favour of such a democratic consultation. Around 70 per cent of the current electorate were born after 1978, and many feel the political and socio-economic consensus forged during Spain’s transition has been delegitimised by systematic corruption, poor representation, deepening social inequality and undemocratic austerity measures.

The six month-old Podemos appears to have been the main electoral beneficiary of this widespread discontent, garnering over 1.2 million votes (8 per cent) across the country and coming in fourth place at the European elections, closely behind, and in some important regions like Madrid and Asturias, ahead of the communist-led Izquierda Unida (United Left). The leadership of the new party is largely made up of activists from diverse social and political movements firmly on the left of the ideological spectrum, many of whom were protagonists of the 15-M ‘indignados’ protests and subsequent anti-austerity mobilisations. Yet through extensive use of social media, a clever exploitation of its leader’s Pablo Iglesias TV presence and most importantly, a simple, unabashedly populist political programme, organisation and communication, Podemos has captured a much broader support base (including disgruntled Socialist Party voters and former abstentionists) than its far-left origins would predict.

 Rebooting the Spanish Left?

The rise of the Left, not just Podemos but also Izquierda Unida and other smaller environmentalist groups, has raised the prospect of a convergence around a broad left platform at the next general election. Together with Juan Carlos’ abdication, this new configuration has given fresh impetus to the idea of opening a constituent process across the country aimed at radically refashioning Spain’s political and socio-economic structures. This rebooting of what may be loosely termed Spain’s republican alternative comes with all sorts of tensions and possibilities.

For all the tricolour flags at recent demonstrations, harking back to the short-lived Second Republic of 1931-39, the project for a Third Republic is a forward-looking enterprise. It goes far beyond the issue of whether the Head of State should be hereditary or elected, and instead invokes a sort of civic republicanism where politics is about participation from below, upholding virtue in the public realm and fighting corruption through the constant regeneration of the body politic. The targets of this republicanism are as much the members of the Royal Family who stand accused of abusing their public office for private gain, as are the regional caciques (or potentates) and local councillors who have lined their pockets by diverting public funds or taking backhanders in exchange for facilitating lucrative property deals. The voluntarism implied in the party name Podemos, resonates with the message that ordinary people  (‘la gente’) are ready take over the conduct of politics from a professional caste of politicians (‘la casta’).

This celebration of people power belies the idea that Podemos is an anti-political movement. Through its use of crowd-funding, open primaries and participative assemblies, the party encourages the political activism of all citizens, drawing on both a wider tradition of Iberian libertarianism, Latin American participatory democracy and a more recently imported Occupy-style horizontality. It is however, harder to shake-off the populist label as Podemos promotes the battle between professional politicians (including trade union leaders) and an undifferentiated ‘ordinary people’ as the chief political cleavage in Spain. This presents a real tension for any leftist movement as the politics of citizenship begins to trump that of class; a programme of institutional change start to overshadow plans for radical socio-economic transformation; and the post-capitalist horizon that the leadership of Podemos and many of its supporters seem to look toward is replaced with a more familiar aspiration for radical reform.

Tied to these ideological contradictions is the perennial problem of any political party that is also a social movement: how to reconcile the energy of an open, democratic process with the need to establish institutional continuity and a stable political identity. Here Podemos is already encountering the perils of a tyranny of structurelessness, which its sister organisation on the Spanish left, Izquierda Unida, has been battling with since its founding some thirty years ago as a political movement led by the Communist Party but containing a membership of other and no parties within its ranks. To the civic republican ideal of participation has to be added the more Leninist emphasis on party discipline and ‘unity in action’ – a difficult conjugation which few new parties master from the beginning, if at all, and which it is unclear Podemos will be able to reconcile.

Finally, like all parties in Spain, Podemos faces the challenge of the national question. Programmatically, their response chimes with that of Izquierda Unida: Spain’s nationalities have the right self-determination, though the preferred constitutional model is a Spanish Federal Republic with substantive devolution of powers. The problem for Podemos – and indeed the rest of Spain’s Left – is that the federalist solution has been superseded by other, secessionist expressions of leftist republicanism in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. Tellingly, Podemos obtained comparatively low results in these regions whilst storming into third place in the capital Madrid.

The translation of socio-political protest into electoral success is a very welcome development for any democracy. The coming months will tell whether Spain is merely witnessing a republican moment, or a second transition to real democracy.

Alex Colás teaches international relations in the Politics Department at Birkbeck College. In June 2011 he participated in a roundtable on ‘The Rise of the Indignant’ hosted by the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities-see http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2011/06/the-rise-of-the-indignant-spain-greece-europe/