Podemos has marked political life in Spain for the last two years. It’s a political innovation that may constitute a watershed moment, delineating the “before” and “after” of the nation’s political left. That’s also the reason why, for Spanish and European elite, Podemos is an experiment that must fail as soon as possible.
Its rise was fast. Podemos won 8 percent of the vote in the 2014 European Parliament elections, 14 percent in regional elections in 2015, 20 percent in the national elections that year and 21 percent (with Izquierda Unida) in 2016. It also stormed the governments of the main Spanish cities.
Rather than positioning itself on the left-right axis, Podemos stood in the fault line between the bottom and the top of society, and for that it’s been defined (and sometimes defines itself) as populist. Its rhetoric is focused on the contrast between “pure people” and corrupt elites — dichotomies such as the common people and the privileged, producers and parasites, the majority and the elites, virtue and corruption, democracy and oligarchy.
At the basis of its constitution and its growth are five specific elements. The first is its founding nucleus, a compact group of five (mostly young) researchers from the Complutense University of Madrid, who are now the party’s leaders.
The political enterprise was conceived by a group of Marxist and former Marxist intellectuals, militants or former militants of the radical left, and social movements seizing the window of opportunity presented by Spain’s economic and political crisis, plus the decisive emergence of the largest European social movement of the last 10 years (Los Indignados). It was necessary to build an organization radically innovative in terms of discourse and management, which does not resemble the traditional, failed left.
The second element is television. In 2010, Iglesias founded a web-TV channel, and because of that, in 2013, he became a regular commentator on national television stations. Had Iglesias not gained fame thanks to prime time TV debates, Podemos would not exist. The media capital the leaders accumulated was the fundamental basis for the 2014 “blitz” election.
The third element was the Spanish movements of 2011-2013: Los Indignados, the anti-austerity demonstrations in defense of health and education, as well as the PAH anti-eviction movement. For Podemos leaders, these movements represent the symbolic origins of the party — their epic, their creation myth. They adopted the main slogans, demands and symbolic elaborations of these movements, complementing activists and spokespeople. Without these movements, there would be no party.
Then there is the role of political theory, specifically the role of Ernesto Laclau’s populist theory. For Laclau, populism is politics — it is essentially the construction of speech in which a very broad spectrum of issues, questions and identity can be recognized by defining “people” as broadly as possible.
Podemos has applied the Laclau “recipe” to its brand of boundary politics (citizens vs. privileged elite) through the centrality of speech and communication, and in the representation of the party’s role in society (to restore a new kind of civil order, which the social elite have destroyed).
The empirical model
Finally, Podemos is based on empirical models: the Bolivarian parties and governments of Latin America (Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia). The party was also an attempt to translate those experiences for the Spanish context.
The founders believed — and this is a large part of their political gamble — that the economic crisis in Spain and the emergence of widespread corruption could lead to a Latin Americanization of Spanish society.
The 15-M Movement could therefore be for Spain what the large indigenous, rural and urban demonstrations have been for Latin America. Iglesias could play the role of Morales, Chavez and Correa and Podemos that of their respective parties.
The combination of these five elements represented the strength of the party, which in its first year has enjoyed an upward curve with few precedents. In a year it has increased the number of members in European Parliament from 8 percent to 27 percent. But that’s when the problems started.
The beginning of the problems
Its founding members became besieged by media campaigns and judicial investigations (all dismissed) that were very effective at cracking the image of the party. Juan Carlos Monedero, a founder and central figure still, was the first victim. Accused of tax evasion, he resigned from the executive office in March 2015, complaining of a lack of defense on the part of his party: the “Complutense core” broke. That was the first wound, and it continues to bleed.
The second problem was the rise of Ciudadanos (the “right-wing Podemos”), supported by the elite and the media. Ciudadanos ascended in the polls, depriving Podemos of its banner as the sole party of change.
With the Andalusian regional elections of March 2015, another front opened up, this time an internal debate between Íñigo Errejón, an advocate of accepting external support from the Socialists (PSOE), and Iglesias, who believed otherwise. Thus emerged a fracture that concerns the way of understanding institutional action and the relationship with the PSOE. That disagreement also continues today.
By then, Podemos’ upward climb had already stalled. The irruption period was over, and the party was now perceived as a stable presence in the political landscape. Administrative and regional elections in May 2015 had ambivalent results. Podemos governed the largest Spanish city halls in coalition with other parties. Where it campaigned alone, however, the results are less spectacular. Catalan elections in September 2015 recorded the party’s worst result: only 8 percent, three months before the general elections.
The most difficult moment
This was the most difficult time in the history of Podemos, occupying the fourth position in the polls and described in the media as a fading star. For national elections in December 2015, however, the party produced an excellent campaign and went on the offensive. In a month it gained 5-6 percentage points, gathered 5 million votes and elected 70 deputies.
That success opened a new phase and with it new fractures. Will Podemos preserve its outsider image (Iglesias) or cooperate with other forces in parliament to achieve concrete results (Errejón)? Should it look to an agreement with PSOE to form a government and, if so, how? Should it use pressure (Iglesias) or seduction (Errejón)? What relationship should it maintain with civil society?
For Errejón, the movement takes place in the streets, while the party must portray an image of institutional effectiveness and reliability. For Iglesias, the party must invent new forms of social opposition.
The new internal dispute
In June 2016, Spain voted again. A new internal front opened: How to understand the Izquierda Unida alliance? Is it an episodic and contrived electoral relationship (Errejón) or the beginning of a Gramscian “historic bloc” (Iglesias)?
The loss of 1 million votes compared to December precipitated the ruptures that had been strained for some time. So now Podemos has arrived at its party conference, Saturday and Sunday, to compare the three main candidates (Iglesias, Errejon and anti-capitalist). The comparison is very difficult, and the outcome of the conference is by no means certain.
At the base of the internal crisis we have the same five elements that allowed the rise of the party: The founding nucleus was too small to support the construction of a national party, and is now divided; electoral-institutional practices and relationships between the party and movements are hard to coordinate; the necessity of media strategy can absorb the internal dynamics of a party; the distance between the Latin American and Spanish contexts proved to be significant; it is difficult to maintain over time an image of novelty and differentiation from traditional political actors; and the concept of “populism” and its interpretation have become grounds for ideological dispute.
At the Citizens Assembly, they have the task of finding a balance.
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