Spain's politicians distance themselves from euro crisis: 'This isn't Greece'

Leftwing Podemos praises Greek Syriza party but talks up differences between the two eurozone countries to calm voters’ fears of economic contagion

For the past year, they have positioned themselves as allied agents of a change sweeping across southern Europe.

On the face of it, Spain’s leftwing anti-austerity Podemos party should have been crowing at the landslide victory of the no vote in Sunday’s Greek referendum. But while Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias was quick to praise Syriza and Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras, his overriding message was a simple one – Spain is not Greece.

With a general election due in Spain by the end of the year, Iglesias, whose party made substantial gains in local elections earlier this year, was careful to mark the differences between the two countries, worried, analysts said, that any worsening of the situation in Greece could drive crucial middle-class voters away from his party.

“We have a great friendship with Syriza, but luckily, Spain is not Greece,” Iglesias told radio Cadena Ser. “We’re an economy with much more weight in the eurozone, we’re a country with a stronger administration and with a better economic situation. The circumstance are different and I think it makes no sense to draw parallels.”

Instead, Iglesias framed the referendum as a step forward for democracy in that the Greek people had finally been handed the power to decide on austerity measures. “It’s good news for Europeans and Greek citizens,” said Iglesias. “The people of Greece have said they want change, they support a government who says that things can be done in a different way.”

The referendum was a clear success for Tsipras, said political scientist Fernando Vallespín from Madrid’s Autonomous University. “The automatic assumption is that what is good for Tsipras is good for Podemos,” he said, but he feels it is too early to say whether that is the case, pointing to the efforts made by Iglesias to distance Spain from Greece. “I think Podemos is worried that the situation in Greece won’t get better.”

Reinforcing the differences between the countries dampens the idea of contagion, he said, and maintains the party’s appeal to moderate voters. The latest polls show Podemos is in a virtual tie with the governing People’s party and opposition Socialists.

Podemos must walk a fine line when it comes to Greece, said José Ignacio Torreblanca, the author of Asaltar Los Cielos, or Storm the Heavens, which explores the rise of Podemos. “On one hand it’s good news for them, because the message of the people having voted against austerity strengthens their message. The frame for them is fantastic because its the people against the troika, David against Goliath and the weak against the powerful,” he said.

The challenge, however, is then to distance themselves from any bad news emerging from Greece. “This is where the space opens for the People’s party and others to point to issues such as the queues for cash machine withdrawals. All of the parties have been trying to use Greece to their advantage.”

On Monday, the governing People’s party pointed to the referendum to justify their decision to impose austerity measures during the height of the economic crisis. “Fortunately Spain has a prime minister who said no to the bailout and instead undertook reforms,” PP vice-president Fernando Martínez-Maillo told broadcaster Radio Nacional de España. The alternative, he said, would look like Greece does today. “Thanks to those reforms … we’re in a situation of economic growth and job creation.”

While Greece was forced to accept a series of bailouts amounting to €240bn, Spain drew on €41bn-worth of EU funds to rescue its banking sector and exited from the programme last year. The Spanish economy has seen seven quarters of economic growth, but inequality is rampant and the country’s unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, at 23.8%, the highest in the EU after Greece.

Spain’s finance minister, Luis de Guindos, said that although the no vote made the situation more complex, Spain was “absolutely not contemplating a Greek exit from the euro”.

Greece’s creditors had not handled the crisis perfectly, he said, but the onus was now on Greece to enact reforms. “I think there were mistakes on the part of the troika, but it is inevitable that Greece implements reforms because there have been nations that have done them and they are emerging from the crisis.”

The Spanish government is open to negotiations for a third rescue package, he said. “Given the circumstances, from the point of view of the markets, it is absolutely necessary.”

His remarks were a backing down from the hardline position taken by Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, who last week said that it would be good for Greece if Tsipras lost the referendum. “If he wins the referendum, Greece has no other alternative other than to leave the euro,” Rajoy told Cope radio station on Tuesday.

How the Greek situation will play out in Spain hinges on what happens in the coming days, said Torreblanca. “If Tsipras manages to sit down with creditors and obtain an additional packages of concessions, then its great for Podemos,” he said. “It’s a bit early to say because right now we don’t know what the final act of all this will be – whether its a drama, tragedy or something else.”


Ashifa Kassam in Madrid

The GuardianTramp

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