(Kavita Krishnan from Liberation in conversation with Pablo Bustinduy, MP from Podemos, Spain, at Kuala Lumpur)
Q: Can you tell us about Podemos’ remarkable emergence and what the situation is like in Spain today?
A: Since 2014 when Podemos was born and had that very rapid growth, the situation has changed a lot in both Spain and Europe. At the time there were several progressive movements trying to articulate a democratic popular response to the fiscal crisis that followed the financial crash in Europe. It was a progressive wave, so to speak - you had Greece, Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Portugal, and Podemos was a shining expression of that moment.
Today the situation is much darker. The extremist right-wing is growing everywhere, with xenophobia towards immigrants taking centrestage. Living conditions of common people are getting worse and worse.
We managed to win the local elections in most important cities in the country - Madrid, Barcelona and so forth. In May 2019 there is voting again, four years after we were first elected, and we are hoping to get reelected. Local governments have a lot of power in Spain. There will also be voting for the regional and European elections.
The situation right now is worse than it was a couple of years ago when we had a real chance at getting elected to national government. But I want to think that our role is even more necessary now. In the face of the rise of the xenophobic, authoritarian, pre-fascist forces growing everywhere, we have the responsibility of articulating a progressive, feminist front not only at the Spanish but at the European level.
The polarisation in Europe is getting so bad that things which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago - erosion of fundamental human rights, dismantling of the welfare state, worsening living conditions - are a reality. We are facing a civilisational battle.
We maintain a fairly strong position - about 16-17% of the vote in every poll with a strong local presence, and we hope to regain some of that ground that has been lost and emerge as a Government option in the next general elections.
Q: You were elected as an MP, what’s been your experience as a Left MP?
A: I serve on the Foreign Affairs and European Affairs Committees. We entered as a completely new party with a lot of new young members. I was 32 when I elected, which for Spanish politics was very young, though I was not the youngest! We had 71 elected members out of 350 - so were a close third political force, and became a key actor in the formation of the current Spanish Government with a major role in Parliament.
However the reaction of the political elite who were used to run the place as their fiefdom was very hostile. We had a lot to learn, to make the leap from social movements and university campuses to Parliament with such an immense responsibility. But I think we did it quite well - but we realised that institutional politics always, always, always has a capacity to drag you out of your social milieu - and you have to make a constant effort to get back to the place you come from, and not to lose touch with your constituents and your grip on reality. That is not always easy, because parliamentary politics can assimilate you into its own rhythms, times, procedures.
Q: Could you elaborate?
A: I think it is a classic problem for Left wing politics - what relation do you establish with the social and political movement of which you are an expression, and how do you adapt to an institutional environment that is conceived intentionally to take politics away from society. So democratic, progressive organisations have the challenge of figuring out how can we bring politics back to society, to challenge the divorce between society and the economy. Concrete example: even the architecture of Parliament, those glass or stone structures, they look like airports, and they are intentionally conceived so as to create a boundary between the outside and the inside. So when you get in as an intruder, almost, into these palaces, you face a difficulty because at the same time you have to be efficient in all the professional work, introduce good legislation, and at the same time you also want to change the system! Finding the balance is not easy, for a new political force like ours.
Q: What kind of agenda has Podemos introduced and championed in Parliament?
A: The most important issues have been to democratise the economy, improve the conditions of life, raising the minimum salary, strong legislative measures to protect and expand our healthcare, pension and education systems, important measures to protect women who face multiple forms of violence, important bills also on the ecological model of production, and shifting our foreign policy away from a very Atlantist position. We are showing what an alternative legislative agenda can be for a country that is one of the richest on earth and yet is showing dramatic increases in inequality of income and also of rights. So facing this reactionary turn that European politics is witnessing, we are offering a different vision that seeks to empower people.
Q: What successes and failures has Podemos had?
A: The highest success has been taking down the right-wing government. For 8 years we had a conservative, neo-liberal government that put in place measures that created immense suffering for the majority of peoples in Spain. Through a long and painful process we managed to build a very broad coalition with different parties in order to oust that government. And now we have in Spain a Social Democratic Government: that is not ideal but the main victory was to put a halt to those policies. It has been a painstaking process of several months to negotiate a budget with the Social Democratic Government that includes important measures Podemos championed such as a 30% raise in the minimum wage, and the recovery of some of the rights that had been lost in the decade of austerity.
The main disappointment? This Budget that we negotiated hasn’t been put to a vote yet. The broad coalition that put this Government in place is very shaky, we are now working to secure the votes to pass the Budget. If we succeed, it will mean immediate material concrete advances and gains in the conditions of life for millions of people in the country, as the country heads for a new general elections.
Q: Could you explain if the right-wing government you mentioned is separate from the hard-right forces whose rise you also described?
A: That’s a very interesting question. Since the Civil War in the 1930s and till the transition to democracy which was in 1978, Spain had 40 years of a fascist dictatorship. After the transition to democracy, we had only one right-wing party, within which you had very different political families. So you always had, within that party, this pro-fascist tendency which was an inheritor of fascist dictatorship. But still this party managed to find an identity as a conservative party so you had more radical elements but they would stay within this party. Now we have a new political force in Spain - called Vox - which is openly declaring itself an extreme right-wing formation. It used to have no political representation but in the recent municipal elections in the South of Spain, they got a very good result - 11% of the vote, and polls project a similar share for them at the national level. So the fascist forces which since 1978 had not had much visibility have now emerged as a significant force, claiming to represent the anger of those who have suffered from years of austerity. That is not true - their economic policy is neoliberal, they support the same elites as did the conservative party. But they present themselves as against migrants, feminists, leftists with a very strong nationalistic identity. So Spain is becoming more European right now! We used to be an exception in Europe - almost the only country without a very strong far-right party - that is now changing. But if they didn’t emerge earlier it was because we took the political space of opposition to the Establishment - and they are now trying to dispute that ground with us and lay claim to it. So it’s going to be a big battle.
Q: Are you concerned that in Spain, as in Venezuela, the Left may face difficulties in delivering on its promises?
A: The situation is different in Europe. In Greece we had a Left Government and we all saw how that ended. The EU reaction - it worked to make the point that no Left policies are possible. Latin America had a long decade of very successful leftwing governments - a decade that is now over. In country after country in Latin America, rightwing forces are aggressively seeking to take back what they see as theirs. The exercise of power is always an exercise that is hard to maintain through time - another classic problem for the time, how to manage institutional activity of running government with democratic dynamics to renew our movements. In Latin America the Left is undergoing a period of theoretical and practical renewal, and they must learn from mistakes to present a new political project. In Europe the situation is very different. After 1989, we have had 30 years of neoliberalism when the social democracy that had defended workers rights went completely over to the right, and the Left was left in a very marginal role at the edges of society. Now the Left is again beginning to articulate an alternate politics strongly: Podemos has been an expression of that. We didn’t get to govern on a national stage yet - we are governing at a local level. So the problem of balancing governance with continuous democratic renewal - that is a problem we would very much like to have! We feel that accessing Government now is crucial to stopping the forces of reaction that are gaining ground through Europe.
Q: Any significant new movements?
A: Two main social movements have been at the forefront of the struggle for democracy in Spain. One was the pensioners’ movement. Old people in Spain are not known for mobilising a lot, but they took to the streets against the cuts, and they managed to put the Government on the back foot. The other movement is the feminist movement. It’s one of the - if not THE - source of hope at a time when the right-wing is growing with its divisive, authoritarian, violent discourses. The feminist movement in Spain has made immense gains - and it is not simply a reactive movement, they have an alternate project for not only our society but our economy, our political system. It’s very creative and strong movement that is a source of hope not only for the country but for the whole continent and the whole world.
Q: Anything else to add?
A: Coming from the South of the North, from the periphery of the European economic system, our problems are very similar to other regions of the world, and we need to have political alliances. The elites have their international economic and political alliances - and do not hesitate to leverage those alliances against each of us when we are in a position of power. It’s about time that progressive forces also build alliances to resist this criminal system.