Occupations to ministries: where is Podemos going?

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After bursting onto the Spanish political scene in 2014, the once radical left-wing party has become a loyal supporter of the moderate left government. Santi Amador explains what went wrong.

The Spanish state is the only country in Western Europe whose government includes a party to the left of mainstream social democracy. After the exciting rise and then disappointment of Syriza between 2014-2015, many progressive people are hopeful about the possibilities. But to understand what this government can really offer ordinary people, we have to look at what has happened to Podemos.
The Spanish state has been on a political, economic and social roller coaster for the last few decades. The early 2000s saw a vibrant anti-globalisation movement and then massive mobilisations against the Iraq war in 2003. That fed into the electoral victory in 2004 of the Labour type PSOE, led by José Zapatero, who withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq. But that was followed by a massive fall in the level of struggle. It seemed there was no alternative to social-liberalism. The global crash of 2008 hit the Spanish state very hard, with mass unemployment, especially among youth, and a housing crisis. The PSOE government responded with attacks on working people and the poor. Then 15 May 2011 transformed everything. Inspired by the Arab Revolutions, and spurred on by the social crisis, thousands of people camped and occupied the squares of towns and cities across the Spanish state. The 15M movement — better known in Britain as the indignados — was contradictory. It rejected the left-right division and political parties in general.
However, it did put into question the 1978 regime — the general ‘consensus’ established at the end of the Francoite dictatorship, dominated by the two main parties — and raised many progressive demands. Above all, 15M was the first experience of collective self-organisation for thousands of people who had never before been politically active. The Tory-type PP of Mariano Rajoy won the November 2011 elections, and went on to impose even harsher measures than the PSOE, including ‘labour reform’ and the withdrawal public healthcare from undocumented migrants. The struggles continued, with two general strikes in 2012. On 22 March 2014, the Marches for Dignity, called by dozens of grassroots assemblies, political organisations, left wing trade unions and social movements, gathered perhaps 2 million people in Madrid.
That was the high point of this wave of mobilisations. Podemos is the child of 15M, but like all children it’s not the same as its parents. It was initiated by a group of political science lecturers at Madrid’s Complutense University together with a radical left group. The former — Pablo Iglesias, Juan Carlos Monedero and Iñigo Errejón — had been advising left wing Latin American governments for years. From this experience they drew a populist political practice; appealing to ‘the people’ as against ‘the elites’, or ‘the caste’. It saw the working class as just one part of ‘the people’, not as its key subject, and called for the defence of ‘the nation’, effectively breaking with standard left positions. Even so, Iglesias and Monedero had been advisers to Izquierda Unida (IU), the Communist-led electoral coalition.
The other source of Podemos leaders was Izquierda Anticapitalista (IA), a Trotskyist inspired group that had a few hundred members across the Spanish state. It had operated inside IU for several years, leaving in 2008. From 2009 onwards it stood in several elections, with modest results, but it grew in new areas. Criticising IU for being unable to connect with ordinary people, and rightly seeing the 15M movement as a sign of a broad radicalisation, IA decided to propose a new political formation. As a figurehead, it chose Iglesias, already famous for his TV appearances attacking the neoliberal policies of ‘the caste’ — the PSOE and the PP. Podemos appeared publicly in January 2014, following meetings between these two groups.
Expectations were enormous. Hundreds of ‘circles’ — neighbourhood assemblies open to anyone — mushroomed across the country, involving tens of thousands of people. As Podemos had no bureaucratic structures, these circles operated from below and were open to popular initiatives, including those of social movement activists and revolutionaries. The Podemos list of candidates for the European parliament was decided in online primaries, permitting the inclusion of revolutionaries independent of the leadership. This was the first and last time that internal elections were really open, rather than being dominated by a list sponsored by Iglesias. The electoral results on 25 May 2014 reflected the new organisation’s explosive growth. With over a million votes and five Euro MPs, Podemos became the fourth party. But the Complutense University sector had always aimed for a centralised organisation. Decisions such as putting Iglesias’s photo on ballot papers and adopting online voting without collective debate, strongly influenced by leaders appearing on TV, were not accidental.
This lack of real democracy and the abandonment of key policies — a minimum basic income, nationalisations, retirement at 60, a 35-hour week — were confirmed at the first state-wide Citizens’ Assembly in late 2014. Here the tensions between the Complutense leaders and IA erupted over the approval of a Podemos rulebook that prohibited members of other political organisations from holding party positions. IA then formally converted itself from a party into the Anticapitalistas association, so as to be able to continue occupying leadership posts within Podemos. Despite these internal issues, Podemos continued to win support. Proof of this was the March for Change called by the party in January 2015 that took hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets of Madrid. Podemos then decided to focus on the general elections of December 2015, and not to participate officially in the local elections of March 2015.
Even so, coalitions involving Podemos, IU and others won the mayorships of Madrid, Barcelona and other important cities, while winning hundreds of councillors across the country. At the December 2015 elections, Podemos got its best results so far. Counting its coalitions with other left-wing forces in Catalonia, Valencia and Galicia, it became the third force, with 69 MPs. Between them, Podemos and IU won half-a-million votes more than the PSOE. The right wing PP lost its overall majority, leading to a hung parliament. The PSOE rejected a grand coalition with the right, but tried to do a deal with Podemos and Ciudadanos, a rightward moving “liberal” party. But Podemos did not want to lose its anti-establishment credibility by backing a PSOE/ Ciudadanos government.
New elections were unavoidable. These took place in June 2016. Months of media attacks on Podemos took their toll, as did internal problems. These included: the demobilisation of the circles; a membership that was mainly online, active at most in putting up electoral posters; social movement activists being sucked into the bureaucracy. Despite Podemos and IU standing joint candidates in the elections, they obtained around a million votes less than they had received separately six months earlier. Again, a deal with the PSOE was impossible and the PP remained in office. Reformism Since 2015 Podemos has continued its internal bureaucratisation and increasing involvement in state institutions. All this followed from the logic of building a party machine from above and the abandonment of its most radical policies.
These in turn reflected the logic of reformism. One event illustrates this. In July 2015, Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, overturned a massive referendum vote against austerity and applied the harshest cuts programme ever. Podemos backed him, with Iglesias standing alongside Tsipras at an election rally a few months later. The second state-wide assembly of Podemos in February 2017 brought a new split within the founding leadership. Iglesias and his closest associates Rafa Mayoral and Irene Montero argued for a classic Eurocommunist party, with an all-powerful general secretary and accepting institutional responsibilities. Iñigo Errejón, in contrast, opposed the deepening alliance with the IU, and favoured the populist model championed by Juan Perón in Argentina in the 1970s. Their intense power struggle masked a basic agreement on the urgent need to enter state institutions.
Anticapitalistas, together with independent activists, presented a third position at the Assembly, calling for internal unity and a return to the founding principles of Podemos. They got around 10 percent of the votes, as against 60 percent for Iglesias and 35 percent for Errejón. Participation in the vote had fallen compared with earlier decisions, however. Podemos continued its institutional activity. Unidos Podemos twice proposed a motion of no confidence in the minority PP government, finally winning PSOE’s agreement to assume government in June 2018. The political instability continued, however, with Unidos Podemos making insistent calls to enter a coalition government with PSOE, while prime minister Sánchez still preferred Ciudadanos. Iglesias showed increasing signs of moderation, for example, distancing himself from Catalonia’s right to self determination. New elections in April 2019 produced another hung parliament.
The coalition of Podemos, IU and other forces, now called Unidas Podemos lost more votes and seats. Most worryingly, the far-right VOX — with many fascists in its ranks — won more than 2.5 million votes and 24 seats, the best result for the far-right since the end of the Franco regime. Once again, there was no agreement, so this Groundhog Day continued, with yet another election in November 2019. The results were overall quite similar, but VOX grew again, to over 3.5 million votes and 52 seats. Ciudadanos collapsed from 47 to only 10 MPs, while support for Unidas Podemos also fell. However, within days, Unidas Podemos and PSOE agreed to form a coalition government, with Iglesias as one of the four vice-presidents, and with three Unidas Podemos ministers.
The right immediately branded the coalition as social-communist, but in fact the new government is very mainstream, of which Podemos is a loyal member, even calling on the PP to collaborate in the name of national unity and the constitution. Unfortunately there is no organised radical left in a position to connect with a significant sector of ordinary working people. Part of the left and social movements is now buried in the institutions, while another part has fallen into sectarianism, equating Unidas Podemos with the PSOE (which in turn they often equate with the PP). Even worse, they make no attempt to find points of agreement with the supporters of left parties.
Radical left wingers must now participate in struggles that demand real change and real improvements, while welcoming any positive steps the coalition does take. It is essential to maintain the fight against the right, and especially the united struggle against the far-right VOX and its fascist hangers on. Troubled times are coming. We will need all our enthusiasm, our militancy and our political intelligence.
For more analysis from the Spanish state, go to marx21.net