At the end of February, 155,000 people watched Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy's annual State of the Nation debate. A hair more than half that number, 77,000 Spaniards, watched the response by Pedro Sanchez, the head of the socialist PSOE -- up to now Spain's leading political opposition party.
In stark contrast, however, an interview the day before on a private television station with Pablo Inglesias Turrión -- the thirty-six-year-old former Communist Youth and founder of Podemos, a party that didn't exist a year ago -- reached an audience of more than four million.
Only a few months ago no one believed that new radical leftist forces could challenge the traditional political parties in Europe and be successful. But now the unthinkable may be happening. It has, in fact, already happened in Greece, where the left-wing Syriza party won a semi-convincing victory in January. This suggests, ominously, that such victories are possible in larger and more critical countries for the European Union -- such as Spain.
Politics in Europe is in the midst of a potentially transformative moment. We are seeing the emergence in full force of new populist and anti-establishment forces in many quarters coinciding with the collapse of the traditional political establishment. There is a growing lack of trust and confidence in the traditional political players, and that vacuum is being filled by radicals promising simple solutions that attract millions of voters. The fact that those proposals have failed miserably in places like Venezuela or Cuba is not undermining the electoral chances of parties like SYRIZA or Podemos. It is not hard to understand why.
What Has Happened?
A number of factors help explain the success these Bolshevik groups are having in Southern Europe’s societies. To begin with, as has happened before in Europe’s past, an economic crisis ushered in boom times for radical parties.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse and subsequent recession, Southern Europeans -- namely Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal -- have largely tackled required reforms in a slow and often reluctant way with uneven results. These countries continue to prop up large and inefficient public sectors, suffer from a profound lack of productivity and competitiveness, and face high structural unemployment figures. In the case of Spain, these have reached 26 percent – with youth unemployment topping 50 percent.
At the same time, the crisis has revealed a philosophical fracture in the EU over how to deal with these problems, a fracture that coincides with a roughly north-south geographical divide. In the South, euro-skepticism is rooted in the rejection of austerity policies viewed as imposed from abroad, particularly by Germany. And it is in the South where these new parties have found their great foothold.
Their attraction lies in their ability to radically oversimplify the causes of the crisis – blaming the free market, economic globalization, and the monetary union itself – and to single out obvious culprits: multinational corporations, businessmen, bankers, traditional politicians, and other entrenched beneficiaries of the system.
As these messages resonate with the disaffected young and unemployed, Europe overall has seen a discrediting of traditional political parties. On the one hand, European conservative parties have embraced social democratic policies in recent decades; in fact, no major conservative party in Europe today questions the foundations of the welfare state: higher taxes, unstoppable growth in government spending, and ever-expanding public services. Indeed, in most European countries, with Spain at the forefront, conservative parties have, after winning elections, actually consolidated the social democratic politics of public spending, in many ways moving away from their own electoral base.
Meanwhile, social democrats have been moving their own narrative as well towards cultural postmodernism, with an emphasis on social issues such as feminism, abortion rights, euthanasia, multiculturalism, and environmentalism. These are fundamental issues for European progressivism, but deeply estranged from the practical needs and expectations of their traditional voters on where politicians should be focused.
As a result, when the financial crisis arrived, none of the traditional political parties were able to offer politically attractive alternatives. The consequence has been the intense demobilization of a large part of their voting bloc: some of the traditional parties, like the UMP in France, Forza Italia, or the liberals in Germany are receiving 40 percent of their usual vote. It will happen as well in Spain with the ruling Partido Popular (PP), the Socialists, and even the well-established Communist Party.
The Institutional Crisis
In addition to the malaise in large sections of society due to the lack of political response to the crisis, there remains as well a high level of corruption in Spain, Italy, and Greece. The unfortunate end result has been a widespread erosion of faith in leadership and with it the re-emergence of questions about the broad legitimacy of European institutions, both political and economic – questions very much part of the radical lexicon.
The crisis of the system is also formal. The era of globalization is profoundly changing Western policy rules. The parliamentary system, based on a nineteenth-century model, is enduring serious challenges to its legitimacy in the era of Twitter and YouTube. It is, in fact, through social media and other decentralized and unfiltered platforms that the neo-Leninism of the twenty-first century seems to be finding its main organizational strength. The use of social networks, mass television, and the streaming of street demonstrations has become an easy weapon to attack the parliamentary system. For these radical groups, parliaments themselves are far from being something to cherish and protect, but instead just one more tool to use to take power, an instrument like any other.
Most alarming, however, is the fact that millions of Europeans support these groups. This is an expression of the recent evolution of European cultural and ideological beliefs. European welfare societies are generally characterized by three aspects. First, intellectual relativism, the belief that all ideas are equally legitimate. This current dominates Western societies and has left their political regimes unprotected before critical and revolutionary demagoguery.
Second, for decades, European societies have incubated a politically correct moral relativism, which prevents its citizens from discerning the morality or immorality of an ideology or of a political project. This explains why the discourse against personal liberties or personal dignity by Syriza and Podemos cannot find enough opposition despite its stated anti-liberal underpinning.
Rafael Bardaji served as National Security Advisor to former Spanish PM José María Aznar. He is currently the Executive Director of the Friends of Israel Initiative and the Foreign Policy Director of the FAES Foundation.