Spain anti-austerity activists look with hope to Greece's Syriza

Elodie Cuzin

Madrid (AFP) - An election win for Greece's leftist Syriza party on Sunday could mark a turning point in Europe where other populist parties, starting with Podemos in Spain, are hoping to launch their own anti-austerity revolts.

Syriza and Podemos are united in blaming Europe's ills on budget austerity measures imposed by the so-called "troika" -- the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- and by their tough stand against corruption.

"The end of impunity for the corrupt and a recovery of our sovereignty are our priorities," one of the founders of Podemos, Carolina Bescansa, told a news conference on Monday.

Greece's snap election this weekend is being followed especially closely in Spain, which sees the contest as a preview of looming campaigns for local elections in May and a general election expected in November.

Both Syriza and Podemos top their respective opinion polls.

Jorge Lago, a member of Podemos's "Citizens' Council", says Syriza's potential victory is inspiring a mix of "hope and caution".

"Hope because alternatives to austerity policies have a chance of coming to power in Europe..., but also anxiety over the possible response from bodies that have not been democratically elected like the European Central Bank, the IMF -- the 'troika' -- which have already clearly opted for the politics of fear."

Spain, like Greece, has imposed a harsh austerity programme to try to rescue the government's desperate financial plight.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative government put in place a painful programme of spending cuts and tax rises in order to save 150 billion euros ($173 billion) between 2012 and 2014.

The cuts came against a background of growing poverty, with nearly one in four workers, 23.7 percent, unemployed in Spain, second only in the EU to Greece, where joblessness reaches 25.8 percent.

Both nations are timidly emerging from recession, with Spain predicting 1.4 percent growth in 2014 and Greece forecasting growth of 0.6 percent. The conservative governments in both nations have warned that left-wing protest parties could derail the recovery.

"We are starting to merge from the crisis, we need stability, not instability," Rajoy said during a visit to Athens last week to back his Greek counterpart Antonis Samaras.

The secretary general of Podemos, pony-tailed university professor Pablo Iglesias, has also waded into the Greek election campaign by backing Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras.

"2015 will be the year of change in Spain and in Europe. We will start in Greece. Let's go Alexis, let's go!" he wrote in a Twitter message after the Greek snap election was called last month.

Iglesias will join Tsipras at Syriza's final campaign rally in Athens on Thursday.

- 'Same diagnosis' -

Founded in 2000, Syriza brings together former Marxists, Social Democrats, Trotskyists and anti-establishment groups.

Podemos was born in January 2014 out of the protest movement against the austerity cuts put in place in Spain. It rejects being labelled as a left-wing party even though its policies are distinctly leftist.

But Lago said both parties "share very clearly the same diagnosis: that austerity must end now."

Podemos wants an audit of Spain's debt, which was the equivalent of 96.8 percent of that country's Gross Domestic Product at the end of September, saying that debt restructuring could follow.

Syriza also maintains that Greece’s public debt -- a whopping 175 percent of national output -- is holding back efforts to recover from a six-year recession and should be restructured and partly erased.

It is a vision of a Europe "without austerity, a Europe where the left will play an active role", said Syriza leader and candidate Anna Filini.

Both parties are the product of "the same phenomena", said political science professor Luis Orriols of Madrid's Carlos III University.

It is a response to an "economic crisis within the context of a single currency" which "in debtor nations, like Spain or Greece, have limited their capacity to propose alternative policies".

"There is a perception within society that these political parties can be a solution, not just to the economic crisis, but also to the democratic crisis," he said.

A victory by Syriza in Sunday's general election would be "very important for Podemos and all other anti-establishment parties" in Europe, said Jose Ignacio Torreblanca, a senior analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

It would send the message that there is a "real possibility" that they will govern, "that it is not a utopian project," he added.