Changing Spain: Podemos & Politics

In many respects, Spain's political landscape is in the grip of historic, explosive change. Spain's newest political party, Podemos (“We can” in Spanish), was founded in January 2014 with pretensions of breaking the two-party hegemony in Spanish politics. They yielded stunning results in the 2014 European Parliamentary Elections, shocking the mainstream People’s Party (PP) and Socialist Worker’s Party, by winning nearly 1.2 million (8%) votes, and gaining five seats after only 4 months of existence. It was quite a performance considering the usual lack of engagement attributed to European elections, and is thought to be the resulting aftermath of the 2011 "Indignados" movement, and the mass influx of Spain’s population due to over-friendly immigration and deportation policies.

Podemos, considered by some to be a left-wing populist party is self-described as a “citizens' initiative” (which registered as a party for electoral purposes) that seeks to address the problems of inequality, unemployment and economic distress that followed in the wake of the European debt crisis. Since the global crash in 2008, Spain has suffered from levels of unemployment similar to those of the Great Depression in the United States. Next to Greece, the country has the highest unemployment rate in the developed world, with more than half of the youth and 24 percent of the overall population out of work. The country has also faced a severe housing crisis; millions of people have been evicted from their homes because they cannot afford to pay their mortgages and misguided austerity policies have increased the suffering.

The widespread economic crisis has been further exacerbated by Spain's fast growing immigrant population. In the last decade, Spain's foreign-born population has more than quadrupled, rising from just under 1.5 million to 6.5 million. According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), during this time period, the immigrant share of the population grew from just under 4% to almost 14%, including more than half a million individuals who were naturalized. MPI credits this growth to a few key political and structural factors.

Following the end of the Franco dictatorship, Spain adopted a distinct political culture, one that embraces the democratic values of equality for all. Groups in favor of immigration are large and vocal, and there is a widespread belief that immigrants are entitled to the same rights as other members of society.  This view -now under heavy scrutiny from the right- has been a key driving factor of the relaxed immigration and deportation policies in Spain. As raging war and poverty in Africa and Asia reaches new heights, tens of thousands of migrants have fled to Spain’s coast, in hopes of receiving political asylum which as by law, any person who steps foot into the Spanish territory is entitled to an asylum hearing (which often takes years).

Spain's massive and recent immigrant influx, compounded by an economic downturn in the job industry, has taken a particularly high toll on foreigners. In a list compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), more than 25% of foreigners in Spain are out of work — almost double the rate of jobless natives.

As if rampant joblessness, a lack of affordable homes, and plummeting living standards weren't crippling enough, immigrants in Spain have been at the center of debate with Catalan nationalists and the People’s Party trying to restrict amnesty, and access to free healthcare and education.

Pablo Iglesias, leader of the Podemos party, disagrees with the anti-immigrant sentiment, acknowledging that before the crisis, immigrants were big contributors to Spain’s economic success.  Podemos has shown a strong commitment to immigrant integration, which has been a central component of the Spanish government’s immigration policy since the 1990’s. The party’s all-inclusive policies and undertaking to “build a political majority that reflects’ the social majority of Spain” has earned them the support of immigrant and minority voters. Podemos, founded on the politics of hope, aims to be a tool for the under-served and underrepresented.

This is Part 2 on a series of articles addressing migration and its impact on European politics from the perspective of Donald Jones, President of D.A. Jones & Associates.

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