Are Voodoo Politics bewitching Spanish voters?

The big story these days in Spain is the unexpected – and meteoric – rise in the polls of the leftist Podemos Party

Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

The big story these days in Spain is the meteoric rise in the polls of the Podemos Party. What does it mean? Why are Spanish voters leaning towards this newly founded party? Here are some answers, and some questions.

Ronald Reagan’s fiscal policies during the 1980s deserve to be labelled Voodoo Economics. Reaganite economists pursued a miraculous line of thought: that tax cuts increase tax revenues, meaning that you could have a large amount of low-tax revenues. This miracle would occur thanks to the increased economic activities resulting from tax cuts.  Who was to oppose something so wonderful? Unfortunately (some would say, inevitably) Reagan’s policies led to the highest fiscal deficits the United States has ever known.

One could be tempted to assign Podemos the label of Voodoo Politics.

In light of the Metroscopia survey results published in Daily El País newspaper on 2 November, one could be tempted to assign Podemos the label of Voodoo Politics. The left-wing fledgling political party – translating in English to “We Can” – has enjoyed a meteoric rise since its foundation in January 2014. Under its leader Pablo Iglesias, a politics professor who seceded from the Communist Party, Podemos received an astonishing 8% of the vote in the European Parliament elections, though just three months old. Riding a wave of anti-establishment sentiment, Podemos articulates an anti-austerity, anti-German, and anti-politician agenda. Yet in terms of the economy, the recent Metroscopia survey results give the impression that Podemos’ promises do not matter much to the potential Podemos voters.

Nor do they seem to matter, at least thus far, to the Podemos leaders: as Pablo Iglesias himself recently acknowledged in an interview on national television, their programme for the European elections was hastily put together and did not take into account the cost and feasibility of what was promised. Although Podemos has announced that they have put their programme in the hands of like-minded economists for review, their extraordinary success in the polls took place before these proposals were realized, so one must conclude that this is not a relevant factor in determining the survey results.

Podemos received an astonishing 8% of the vote in the European Parliament elections, though just three months old.

Therefore, although many believe Podemos’ economic proposals – such as a universal minimum income, the reduction of working hours, a reduction of the retirement age, and an increase of pensions – represent a kind of leftist voodoo economics, the rationale for their triumph in the opinion poll lies elsewhere. Indeed, one must bear in mind that if it were crucial to make left-leaning economic proposals as a means of addressing inequalities and injustices arising from the crisis, the beneficiary should be the United Left.

The roots of Podemos’ rise must instead be sought in what political scientist Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca describes as “democratic impotence”. Sánchez-Cuenca argues on page 26 of his very pessimistic work on the consequences of the crisis on democracy that modern democracies are moving towards “a liberal and technocratic regime with residual forms of democracy”. We are witnessing the evolution of a kind of democracy in which fiscal and monetary constraints that arise from the loss of sovereignty to international markets or other supranational bodies (such as the EU) lead to citizens being unable to change policy and only able to change politicians. Instead of a “political and ideological choice between alternatives”, the citizens are limited to “controlling the honesty and ability of public managers”. Ergo, even if the vote does not serve to reduce economic inequalities, it does serve to punish corrupt politicians and restore political equality. A comfort?

The roots of Podemos’ rise must instead be sought in what political scientist Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca describes as “democratic impotence”.

This is where Podemos fits in, in the belief among a significant portion of the public that, as pointed out by the Podemos leaders, the differences between left and right are not as important at the moment as the task of cleaning up politics. (I refer to this without entering the debate about the relevance of the left-right dimension, as it is too extensive, and important, to explore here).

From that perspective, a vote for Podemos is a voodoo vote. Until now, the citizens voted and nothing happened, their vote had no consequence whatsoever: it served to neither change policies, nor change serving politicians as no one resigned or those that did were replaced by someone similar. But now, by simply stating their intention to vote for Podemos, many citizens are finding themselves empowered for the first time. Now, with the same vote, they vote against political parties, against bipartisanship, against injustices, against corruption, against Angela Merkel, against the markets. It is a vote (or voting intention) that has truly maximising effects compared with any of the available alternatives.

By simply stating their intention to vote for Podemos, many citizens are finding themselves empowered for the first time.

Fed up that politicians will not listen, sick of the sight of corruption and institutional degradation, and tired of the lack of, a large group of people (almost a third of the electorate) have discovered in Podemos the best strategy for controlling their politicians: to announce their intention to vote for a party that clearly threatens to blow up the two-party system.

Now it’s the two major parties’ turn to act. They have two strategies to choose between: one, believe that the voting intentions will translate into votes on election day and therefore react to this existential threat with deep reforms; two, believe that the citizens are bluffing and that deep down they share the same fear of Podemos, and so some cosmetic reforms should be enough to appease their wrath.

The first option assumes that political parties will blow themselves up; the second transfers the nuclear button to the citizenry while the parties wait to see what happens. What will they do? Paradoxically, I think it is more likely they pursue the second option: the first is certain death, the second probable death. The essence of voodoo is who has the power over whom and how they want to practice it. Who has it here and what do they want to do with it? 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Author

Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will never send you any content that is not ECFR related. We will store your e-mail address and your personal data in accordance with our privacy policy.