Challenges for Podemos

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With a series of vital elections coming up this year, the Spanish state's two-party sytem is collapsing. Andy Durgan examines the development and limitations of the radical new party, Podemos.

The coming months could prove decisive for the political future of the Spanish state. On 24 May there will be local and regional elections, on 27 September Catalonia goes to the polls in what is posed as a plebiscite over national independence, and in November there will probably be elections for the central government.

This comes after several years of mass mobilisation and rampant corruption which have spelt the end of the two-party system that has dominated Spanish politics for over 30 years. Opinion polls now predict that after regularly receiving around 80 percent of the vote, the two main parties, the conservative People’s Party (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE, Spain’s Labour Party), will now only get half that.

They are challenged by two new parties: Podemos (We Can), following its unexpected success in the European elections when it had five MEPs elected, and, most recently, Ciudadanos (Citizens), daubed the “Podemos of the right”. While Ciudadanos represents a desperate attempt by the political establishment to save the existing political set-up, Podemos’s declared aim is to carry through a radical democratic transformation of the state and end austerity.

In an attempt to offset the impact of Podemos before they were properly organised, and set a precedent for the rest of the year, the PSOE called an early election on 22 March in Andalucia where it has governed since 1982. Yet while maintaining their 47 representatives, the Socialists had their worst ever result in a region where they have always received massive support.

Podemos managed to double its vote and took 15 seats. Its final election rally attracted 16,500 people, while all the other main parties brought together barely 10,000 between them. Podemos’s support comes from first-time voters, those who had previously abstained and, in particular, the PSOE and the Communist Party-led United Left (IU). Only in Catalonia and the Basque Country have the radical left CUP and Bildu respectively maintained their support; in part due to Podemos’s ambiguity about national self-determination.

While, in Andalucia, Podemos’s result was relatively modest, it is expected to get a high vote in a number of key regions and cities, including Madrid and Valencia. The belief that Podemos can actually win electorally, a belief skilfully fostered by the party leadership, has had a devastating impact on IU. Not only its voters, but many of its activists and cadres have switched to the new party. In Andalucia, IU lost seven of its 12 seats after participating alongside the PSOE in a government committed to cuts in public spending.

The Tory PP also fared badly in Andalucia, dropping from 50 to 33 seats; losing half a million votes, largely to Ciudadanos, which won nine MPs. Until recently Ciudadanos was only based in Catalonia where it has picked up the anti-nationalist vote, mainly at the expense of the Socialists. Its denunciations of corruption, its ambiguous politics and its largely unknown candidates mean that Ciudadanos is not only picking up votes from the PP but also from Podemos.

Podemos is often compared with the Greek left party Syriza because it opposes austerity, is organisationally innovative and could enter government. But while Syriza is based on existing political organisations, Podemos is a totally new formation. It has set out to fill the space epitomised in the popular slogan of the Indignados movement (15-M), “No one represents us”.

15-M occupied hundreds of public squares in 2011 in opposition to austerity and a political system perceived as hopelessly corrupt. But mobilisation alone has not halted mass unemployment, poverty and the destruction of public services, so many people have turned to Podemos as a solution. The party leadership, in turn, see intervention in local and national government as the central, if not the only, strategy to overturn the discredited political system in place since the end of the Franco dictatorship in the late 1970s.

Podemos’s leaders, mostly young university lecturers, initially took their inspiration from the left wing “populist” governments in Latin America. Following “post-Marxists” such as Ernesto Laclau, who argue that class struggle has been replaced with a struggle for radical democracy, they claim that the central political division is no longer between left and right but between the “people” and the “caste”, the corrupt political and business elites.

Within this schema the leader plays a central role in articulating the need for radical change. With this in mind, Podemos’s general secretary, Pablo Iglesias, set out to win support through participation in TV chat shows. Armed with a wide range of facts and figures, Iglesias’s articulate and simple political messages have struck a chord with millions of Spaniards suffering the ravages of the crisis and alienated from the political establishment.

At present opinion polls show the PSOE, PP, Ciudadanos and Podemos receiving a similar vote. However, recent polls are extremely volatile. Podemos is still poised to make a massive impact in the coming months. If its support has dropped this is due to losing potential voters to Ciudadanos, the fierce campaign against it in the media and internal conflicts.

Exclusive dependence inside Podemos on internet voting to elect local and national leaderships, and electoral candidates has marginalised many activists. Iglesias’s popularity is such that any list of candidates he supports usually wins a large majority of votes. Lists have been drawn up from Madrid bypassing the local circles (branches) which are often to the left of the leadership. Consequently, the lack of pluralism inside the party, combined with an obsession with elections, has led to the decline of many circles, a loss of activists and a drop in participation in on-line voting.

For Iglesias and his close collaborators the left needs to stop being a “religion” which is only familiar with defeat. The aim is to win. So with the party’s spectacular growth, with now over 300,000 supporters subscribed on line, and prospects of electoral success, it has begun to defend more moderate policies. Gone are the promises of nationalisation of key sectors of the economy, retirement at 60, a universal wage for all citizens or the cancellation of the debt.

According to Iglesias and his closest collaborators, the disintegration of the two-party system “opens up a window of opportunity” for a top-down renovation of democracy in the Spanish state. Podemos thus aims “to occupy the centre of the chessboard” so it now defends what is presented as a perfectly “common sense” programme of reform and social justice which which the majority of the population can identify. Podemos’s new economic programme is inspired by Scandinavian social democracy rather than the Bolivarian movements in Venezuela, Bolivia or Ecuador.

Measures, such as more efficient taxation, a renegotiation of the debt with the European financial institutions and the ending of patronage and political privilege, are aimed to end the worst excesses of austerity. Such reforms are presented as “patriotic”. Iglesias regularly refers to the need for such patriotism; declaring, for instance, that his “motherland is not a flag nor a building but the people of my country”.

Accusations by the radical left that Podemos is a repeat of the PSOE under Felipe Gonzalez when it swept to power in 1982 promising widespread reform are openly accepted by Iglesias. Identification with the betrayed hopes of the transition period is a calculated attempt to win PSOE voters over. Podemos’s insistence that its aim is to govern and not just be an opposition party suggests it will soon be faced with having to take hard decisions about whether it enters into agreement with other parties once the elections are over.

Events in Greece show how quickly even Syriza’s most moderate reforming intentions have been blocked. Podemos, like Syriza, is clearly opposed to breaking with the euro, let alone the EU. Consequently, the underlying problem of how its reforms will be financed is starkly posed. By moderating its message and centring on the same ground as Ciudadanos, Podemos is clearly in danger of losing support. Only by insisting on its opposition to austerity and making the rich pay for the crisis will it differentiate itself.

Although historical precedent does not give us much optimistism, the peculiar ideological make-up of Podemos means that what will happen if and when the party is “in power” is by no means a foregone conclusion. Appeals to the “patriotism” of big business (Iglesias has stated that “we need the rich but we have to ask them to collaborate more”) can either be seen as hopelessly naïve or as a stratagem to broaden Podemos’s base. Implicit is that when the rich do not behave “patriotically” and, for example, pay their taxes, voters will support more radical measures.

It would nevertheless be a serious mistake just to dismiss Podemos as a re-hash of social democracy that will inevitably end up selling out. The party’s origin in the Indignados movement has meant that that many of its activists and supporters share the radical democratic and anti-austerity politics of the occupied squares of 2011. Most of them expect Podemos to deliver meaningful change.

Inside Podemos there has emerged a diffuse opposition advocating more radical politics and for greater control of the party through the circles. Although a small minority, the anti-capitalist left still has influence, both in the circles and in some local and regional leaderships.

This opposition has often centred around the Fourth International’s Anticapitalistas, whose members played an important part in founding Podemos. Unfortunately, Anticapitalistas’s role is now being questioned by many activists after they expelled half their membership in Andalucia for refusing to back a deal between Iglesias and MEP Teresa Rodriguez in the elections for Podemos’s local leadership.

Rodriguez, an Anticapitalistas member, had, like the rest of her organisation, previously criticised Iglesias’s top-down approach. Despite such setbacks, anti-capitalists and other activists need to keep fighting inside Podemos. Both rank and file members and elected representatives must organise for mobilisation to back up any attempt at reform and to push the party to the left.

Andy Durgan is a member of En lluita in Barcelona