A new left rising?

Spain’s Podemos

Translator’s introduction
The newly created political party Podemos (“we can” in English) shocked the European political establishment last May when it won 1.2 million votes and elected five deputies to the European Parliament. This was quite an accomplishment for a party that didn’t even exist until early 2014.

To many on the left, the success of Podemos parallels the rise of Greece’s Syriza, with both representing an electoral and political challenge to the dominant politics of austerity in Europe. The Podemos phenomenon has been touted as a harbinger of a “new left rising” that offers “a non-market-driven, pro-worker political alternative to vote for.”1 Even the ultra-establishment Foreign Affairs, with a hint of worry, agrees that Podemos “upended Spanish politics like nothing else since the 1970s, and the party is set to make the upcoming elections the most unpredictable in decades.”2

The article we publish here, translated and reprinted with the author’s and publisher’s approval, appeared originally in the January 2015 issue of Imprecor, the international magazine of the Fourth International, under the title “Where is Podemos headed?”

It provides a brief history of Podemos and the wellspring of its support. Moreover, at the time it was written, the article aimed to provide a perspective for socialists as Podemos embarked on a 2015 filled with electoral tests. Elections to the Spanish state parliament are set for November or December 2015. A number of opinion polls taken at the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015—around the time of the article’s publication—showed that Podemos had a chance of coming in first.

As the year wore on, election results tempered some of the heady predictions of Podemos storming to power. In an early test, Podemos came in third in March 2015 regional elections held in Andalusia. While this was a clear success on its first electoral foray, the result fell short of expectations. One factor for the party’s underperformance, as the socialist Jaime Pastor noted in a post-election analysis,3 was the limits of its “populist” rhetoric condemning a “caste” running the state’s politics. A new right-wing party, Ciudadanos (Citizens), used similar anti-corruption and anti-bureaucracy rhetoric, to garner thousands of “populist” votes for the right. Podemos will face further tests in upcoming urban and regional elections. Those results may boost or undercut Podemos’s momentum.

It is tempting to see Podemos and Syriza as being cut from the same cloth, but there are some notable differences between them. Syriza is, as its name implies, a “coalition of the radical left”—a coalition of existing leftwing, anticapitalist parties forged over more than a decade of struggle. While Podemos was the product of a collaboration of a circle of left-wing professors at Madrid’s Complutense University and the Izquierda Anticapitalista (IA, Anticapitalist Left), a member of the Fourth International. It is not, as the article points out, “a party of militants or a movement party,” or even an anticapitalist party.

At its January 2015 congress, IA voted to turn itself from a political party into a movement organization renamed Anticapitalistas (Anticapitalists). This was a response, in part, to the October 2014 resolution passed in the Podemos Citizens’ Assembly barring Podemos leaders from being members of other political parties. This resolution was one of a number of initiatives supported by the Pablo Iglesias leadership team that diluted the grassroots democracy on which Podemos built its initial support. Members of Anticapitalistas are active in “circles,” the local units of organization in Podemos, around the state.

A few words of context are in order for readers new to politics in the Spanish state. The Left uses the term “the Spanish state” instead of “Spain” to recognize the fact that the state contains within it a number of nations (such as the Basque Country and Catalunya) with rights to self-determination. In November, 2014, for example, Catalunya held a nonbinding referendum to declare independence from Madrid. In the 1978 negotiated transition from the fascist Franco government to the constitutional monarchy/parliamentary regime, these nations were granted limited autonomy as “autonomous communities.” Still, a hallmark of the 1978 settlement has been the strong commitment to a centralized Spanish state on the part of the two main governing parties, the Socialist Party (PSOE) and the right-wing People’s Party (PP), which currently governs.

—Lance Selfa

In the midst of a long and severe economic and social crisis and an uninterrupted series of corruption scandals that hit almost all of the mainstream political parties, the indignados movement erupted in May 2011. Massive demonstrations in dozens of cities around the Spanish state followed. This social mobilization highlighted the loss of credibility of all of the major political parties. The slogan “they don’t represent us” captured the crisis of legitimacy of the political system inherited from the 1978 transition to democracy when the Franco dictatorship fell. The 1978 constitution was the product of an agreement between the Right and the Socialist and Communist parties.

The Spanish state is experiencing a social emergency. Inequality and poverty have increased at an alarming rate. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that job loss and salary cuts account for a drop in median family purchasing power of 17 percent, with families in the poorest third of the population losing 43 percent of their purchasing power.

Despite important mobilizations like the March 29, 2012 general strike; the July 11, 2012, 100,000-strong Madrid demonstration in solidarity with the Asturian miners; the mass 2012 “green and white”4 mobilization against education privatization; the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH) protests against evictions; the million and a half signatures on the petition supporting a parliamentary debate for legislation guaranteeing the right to housing; or the impressive mass Marches for Dignity on March 22, 2014; the People’s Party government didn’t change course. Even in the face of partial victories like the city of Madrid janitors’ and groundskeepers’ strike against layoffs, the campaign to stop the privatization of the Madrid regional health care system, or the victory of Gamonal neighborhood in Burgos against gentrification, the government didn’t budge. The only victory on a central national issue came when the movement forced the PP to withdraw its proposed anti-abortion legislation and pushed the justice minister to resign. To the majority of activists, the social struggle has not achieved its goals, and so they have looked to connect it with a political/electoral struggle.

Podemos arose in this context where alienation from the major political parties coincides with a sense that the social struggle hasn’t been able to shift the political terrain. Many social-movement activists, as well as broad sectors of the population, perceive it as a tool for social change. Not only do the results of the May 2014 European elections—where Podemos won 1.2 million votes, 7.8 percent of the total, and elected five deputies—confirm this, but so also does the dynamism of the Podemos “circles” and participation in mass meetings. Owing both to the heavy participation of experienced activists on the left, as well as people new to politics, the Podemos circles were a key point of reference.

Three factors explain Podemos’s success. First, in clearly denouncing the anti-democratic practices of the old parties and institutions, it delivered a clear and simple message: It is possible to create a political alternative to the dictates of the Troika.5 This narrative blamed a corrupt “caste” of politicians and bureaucrats in the Spanish state apparatus for austerity and for prolonging the crisis. Second, in creating a structure of direct and popular participation in selecting candidates, determining policies, and choosing leaders, Podemos made itself synonymous with transparency, horizontality, and grassroots democracy. That is, it gave a voice to ordinary people outside of the structures of the establishment parties. Third, Podemos built a strong media presence, both in the mainstream media and in social media.

A political earthquake
The “Podemos effect” shook up the political landscape, hitting particularly hard at the base of the Socialist Party and of the United Left (IU).6 The Socialist Party tried to overhaul its leadership, while at the same time indicating its willingness to forge agreements with the PP to prop up the existing system. IU, which opinion polls show has lost much of its support to Podemos, is trying to renew itself while seeking alliances with Podemos. Nevertheless, IU still does not question its bias towards “institutional politics,” which has left it governing in Andalusia with the Socialists and tolerating the PP government in Extremadura.

At this time [December, 2014] polls on the late 2015 general elections put Podemos’s support between 18 and 22 percent making it the second major force in parliament, with the possibility of it finishing first if it wins between 25 and 27.7 percent of the vote. At the same time, the public considers Podemos spokesperson Pablo Iglesias as one of the most respected leaders in the country, according to polls.

The possibility that Podemos could gain enough support to form a government is becoming a nightmare for the real powers of the European Union. The emergence of a force that threatens to break with 30 years of alternation in government between the Right and social democracy, and that wants to toss out the “caste” and strike out on a new course, is enough to strike fear in their hearts.

Podemos taking power, like Syriza in Greece did, is an absolute historical anomaly in bipartisan European systems. It represents a sharp break with the political status quo (but not with the class system) that reflects the grave social crises in Greece and in the Spanish state. And although still an electoral break, we must not forget (paraphrasing Marx) that challenges to social relations often express themselves at first as breaks with the political status quo (or as they say here, a break with the “caste”). We shouldn’t minimize this. In the systemic crisis that we’re living through, we must understand this, because it presents us with a political and social climate that we haven’t seen in decades.

Therefore, despite the limits and contradictions we see in Podemos today, it would be serious error not to understand these underlying dynamics and the historic importance of its emergence.

A dizzying ascent
With more than 208,000 members and more than 1,000 circles, involving thousands of activists—all created within the space of a year—Podemos has had unprecedented growth. True, Podemos was born during an ebb in the struggle when activists were back on their heels. The crisis had not led to growth in activist organizations nor in trade unions. Nevertheless, outrage, even desperation, continued to swell.

Undoubtedly, this influenced the character of the process that culminated in Podemos’s Citizens’ Assembly [October 2014]. There, Podemos charted a political course and created an organizational structure, but it wasn’t the type of conference that activists are used to. In the first part of the conference, Podemos members from all over the Spanish state met in Madrid for presentations of position papers and resolutions. Then members voted for proposals online. Some 7,000 activists participated in Madrid, and 112,000 voted on position papers, with 107,000 voting for resolutions on Podemos’s structure and leadership (that resulted in the creation of the Citizens’ Council, the secretariat, and General Secretary).

Podemos has not only skillfully used rhetoric that connects with broad sectors of the population (as the indignados did in their day), but it has also put together an “open” organization in which people feel they can participate. This is important, even if it doesn’t exempt Podemos from criticism over its democratic practice, as we’ll see later.

Once the European elections were over and Podemos proved it had tapped into an electoral expression for at least some of the outrage in society, Podemos found itself with three challenges if it was going to become a real force for change, and not just another electoral machine. It had to 1) organize social sectors that had already been mobilized; 2) create a concrete political program that went beyond generalities, and 3) involve wider layers of the population in social mobilizations and as its electoral base.

Meeting these challenges will depend on what happens after the Citizens’ Assembly. At this time, we can say that this perspective is completely absent from the plan approved at the Citizens Assembly. But the shape Podemos takes will not depend solely on what was approved at the Assembly; it will depend on new developments, both internal and external. 

Podemos’s evolution has been and is contradictory. On the one hand, it draws its strength from sectors sympathetic to the Left and its new participatory and democratic structures. The most active part of the membership, found in the circles, will want to be involved in areas of work and actions that go beyond electoral campaigns. On the other hand, the leadership team wants the circles’ activities to be 100 percent focused on elections. To accomplish this, the leadership will have to override any democratic control from the organization.

What did the Citizens’ Assembly accomplish?
The Citizens’ Assembly in October 2014 provided the opportunity to set a political course (and not only an electoral one) and to create an organizational structure. Endorsing the leadership team’s position, the assembly allowed only up-or-down votes on entire documents. It barred any way to amend or combine documents, so the process was compromised from the start. As a result, more than 200 documents were submitted—the majority of which delegates didn’t even read. And there was no collective debate. In this way, “formal” democracy—where more than 110,000 participated in online balloting—killed real democracy that depends on collective debate. In Podemos, there is no space to have a thoroughgoing debate—an essential aspect of democracy. “Virtual” fora are in my opinion useful, but they don’t allow for a serious debate. In spite of all of this, however, two alternative organizational proposals emerged to crystalize, in a certain way, two distinct political visions for Podemos.

The one proposed by Pablo Iglesias and his team placed all of its attention on making Podemos an exclusively electoral vehicle for the fall 2015 elections. It won overwhelming support. To the Iglesias team, today’s political crisis will be short-lived. So it’s necessary to take advantage of this “window of opportunity” before it closes. And to be able to do this, Podemos needs a unified leadership that doesn’t have to answer to internal critics. In the leadership’s organizational proposal, there is no role for the Podemos circles. The leadership also benefits from Iglesias’s widespread support and its own control of the press office, from which it can launch initiatives over the heads of the members in the circles.

This factor is very important because the current Podemos leadership not only considers itself indispensable for having built Podemos, but also for winning the elections. So their top priority was keeping themselves in charge. To win the elections, the leadership is convinced that it must moderate the positions for which it campaigned in the European elections so that Podemos can win the “center” and compete with the Socialists for voters. This same logic informs its position on running for office: the Iglesias team considers itself the only group capable of carrying forward Podemos’s social and political program.

For its part, the alternative organizational proposal, associated with the Euro deputies Pablo Echenique, Teresa Rodríguez y Lola Sánchez, argued that Podemos should have a collegial and diverse leadership at every level. And it placed a high priority on building the social and political movement rather than just focusing on elections. 

The Assembly-approved political document offers a good analysis of the political situation, but it lacks concrete proposals; its only message is that winning the parliamentary elections at the end of 2015 trumps everything else. Podemos’s main task will be to build its electoral apparatus, while staying out of the spring 2015 municipal elections. This could be a major political problem, given the importance of municipal elections in determining the configuration of political forces. Other than this, there’s nothing—little strategic discussion, hardly any discussion of program, and no assessment of the social movements.

The Citizens’ Assembly-approved party structure is very conventional, hierarchical, and closely held. Although the structure allows for the recall of elected party leaders, it doesn’t provide for democratic debate and decision-making at any level of Podemos. Everything is left at the mercy of whatever is decided through online participation. Because there’s no way to formulate proposals at the local or regional level, party positions will depend on the central leadership—namely Pablo Iglesias—announcing them through the mass media.  In this way, a positive feature—open participation in decision-making—becomes a dead letter because it has no way of developing at the local or regional level. So what seems like a genuinely democratic space is turned into an unequal space with no popular check on it. Not everyone has the same access to the mass media. As a result, democracy becomes a plebiscite, which, to a certain degree, is a contradiction in terms. For example, when it came time to vote, election by slates meant that 75 percent of the vote won 100 percent of the representation, a factor that will help candidates who back Iglesias in the future.

The nature of the project
The Citizens’ Assembly represented the end of one phase and the beginning of another. Three fundamental factors exemplify this new phase: the conversion of Podemos into a centralized and hierarchical party, the exclusion of the Far Left from the leadership, and a sharp turn, to the exclusion of everything else, towards the 2015 general elections. A centralized electoral machine “on war footing,” headed by the charismatic Pablo Iglesias, is set to carry out this plan. Online plebiscites will ratify its decisions, as they have so far.

This strategy adapts to “electoral realities,” “common sense,” and the level of consciousness of the bulk of the population. This is not a party of militants or a movement party. It’s a new type of electoral party that doesn’t seem to want to tie itself to its constituency, either through internal debate or through active participation in the circles. 

Podemos sketches its project of social change, continually adjusting it to electoral needs and popular support, with the end result that its more concrete proposals are crafted to win the middle class and to enhance its electoral “respectability.” In this sense, it relegates the social movements to the back burner.

So far, it’s clear that Pablo Iglesias and the elected leadership have emerged as the winners. A political project that expects to assemble an electoral majority of “the people” against the “caste,” or the “masses” against the “oligarchy,” undercuts this when it tries to appeal to the broadest “national popular” unity in the run-up to the upcoming general elections.

A legitimate desire to seize the opportunity presented by the decline of the two major parties and the crisis of the regime is pushing Podemos’s leaders to water down key points in the party’s European election platform. Podemos leaders want the party to appear as a “realistic” and “responsible” alternative, with experts taking charge of policy areas. As its electoral prospects have improved, Podemos has increasingly moderated its program. It acts increasingly like a “catch-all” party.

By emphasizing themes affecting broad swathes of the population regardless of ideology, Podemos has begun to compete with the Socialist Party for the political “center.” With this new social democratic posture, it wants to ditch the more left-wing program of the European elections. The draft economic program, authored by two university professors, has been the vehicle for this shift. It is economically Keynesian and politically social democratic. The leadership’s populist style, with its direct appeal to the electorate, can deliver multiple messages. This populist strategy isn’t just empty rhetoric. It allows Podemos leaders to change arguments and proposals depending on what’s most convenient at the moment. We’ll see twists and turns in several directions.

Following from this, we should not classify Podemos as anticapitalist, or even wanting to be anticapitalist. Rather, it is a national-popular Spanish political force (with the contradictions that this is creating in Catalunya and other places), antineoliberal, and dedicated to a democratic break with the 1978 constitutional regime. It is a force that, despite its leaders’ efforts to clamp down on debate, holds within it a diversity of opinion and activists who not only want to work hard “to win” in the electoral and social arenas, but who want to build popular power as well.

Going forward
It remains to be seen what will come of Podemos’s strategy of running under its own name in local and regional councils, while supporting “popular unity” candidates in May’s municipal elections. Those election results will give us a picture of Podemos’s organizational strength and of the influence of the different political forces within it.

Until now, the Podemos leadership—I emphasize the leadership, not Podemos activists—has maintained a calculated ambiguity towards social mobilization, as was the case with the November 29 Marches for Dignity. The only gesture towards mobilization that the newly elected Citizens’ Council (the broad leadership group) has made is the January 31 demonstration called to answer right-wing attacks and to test Podemos’s support. The shape of this demonstration hasn’t really been defined. Working with broader forces, we will try to make it into a protest against corruption and anti-social policies. If it’s simply a demonstration of support for Podemos, it won’t have much impact.7

Beyond this, the Podemos phenomenon is seen in the rise of a current in the CCOO (Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras, one of the main trade union federations) called Ganemos-CCOO (Take Back the CCOO). It has issued a manifesto signed by more than 1,000 union delegates, demanding a renewal of unionism and the resignation of CCOO’s secretary general.8 It opposes “social dialogue” with the bosses and argues for class-struggle unionism. It remains to be seen how this will play out, but it shows that Podemos—as an expression of the social and political crisis—has an impact that goes beyond narrow electoral confines.

The role of Izquierda Anticapitalista
Podemos brings together thousands of activists who see it as an instrument to overturn the political regime and to confront the Troika. Izquierda Anticapitalista (IA) helped to found Podemos. Despite its major differences with the current leadership, we neither can nor should abstain from building this political alternative.

Podemos represents the best initiative that the radical Left has taken for years. So we must continue working to build this organization, and try to connect with other sectors and currents that agree with our approach on key questions: internal democracy, encouraging mass working-class political participation, breaking with the established political system and working with the social movements. Barring unpredictable future developments, the best way to keep Podemos from becoming simply an electoral machine or fixating on government posts is to consolidate the Podemos circles and root the party in ongoing social movements against government policies.

Nothing is set in stone. If Podemos comes to power, it will be subject to multiple pressures, given the limited space for change, including reforms, in today’s climate of crisis. Podemos will quickly face a choice of surrendering to “realism” under pressure from the markets or responding to a mass movement demanding a break with austerity and the Troika. We can’t rule out the possibility that a Podemos victory could help to revive popular mobilization against the political and economic establishment, and create pressure from below to keep the government from surrendering to financial blackmail.

Because of this, and despite its contradictions, Podemos is an important space in which to work to break with the “regime of 78” and the Troika’s “austericide.” Anticapitalists should join and build Podemos. To many, Podemos will continue to be the vehicle to clean up the system, but turning it into a vehicle for social transformation will not be easy. Due to the impasse in social mobilization, and people’s looking to the ballot box, it will be difficult to breathe life into the activist structures of Podemos. Key tasks remain: building an organization capable of facing today’s challenges and opposing the leadership’s attempts to limit member participation.

It’s crucial for anticapitalists to understand that pushing Podemos in the right direction will require working collectively and depending on mass mobilization. The goal is to make IA an organization capable of responding to popular needs while encouraging mobilization and self-organization of the oppressed. To achieve this, we must redouble our efforts. At minimum, this means working to develop anticapitalists into Podemos cadres who understand the political situation and its challenges, who are flexible enough to respond to a changing situation, and who can propose initiatives to mobilize the social movements and place demands on the government.

Concretely, given that Podemos voted to exclude other national parties from its leadership bodies, IA will change its legal form.9 Our strategy of building the mass movement and self-organization of the oppressed means that anticapitalists need to create a space where we can generate ideas, proposals, and unity. What’s more, we need to collaborate with others in Podemos who share our goals of democratization and strengthening the Left.

No one will escape difficulties and the contradictions that exist inside Podemos. The solution isn’t to run away from or accommodate to them but to confront them. That’s the only way that we can advance an anticapitalist alternative. This approach isn’t only important in confronting the Spanish state’s political crisis. Podemos’s success in the European elections, and its meteoric rise, has had an important impact on the anti-capitalist Left in Europe as a whole. What we do in the Spanish state will be important for those committed to building an anticapitalist alternative throughout Europe.

  1. Charles Gasparovic, “New Left Rising: EU Elections Shake Up Socialists in Spain,” CommonDreams.org, June 5, 2014, http://www.commondreams.org/views/2014/0....
  2. Omar G. Encarnación, “Can the Far Left Sweep Spain?” Foreign Affairs, February 6, 2015, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/1....
  3. Jaime Pastor, “Después del 22-M andaluz, el camino hacia el cambio sigue abierto,” Viento Sur, March 25, 2015, http://www.vientosur.info/spip.php?artic....
  4. This refers to an ongoing struggle, started in 2012, when the conservative government of the autonomous community of the largely Catalán-speaking Balearic Islands attempted to impose Spanish-language instruction along with privatization in the education system. The Coordinadora de la Plataforma Crida, the community-wide social movement defending the education system, encourages its supporters to wear its green and white T-shirts.
  5. The Troika is the collective name given to the three major institutions of European neoliberalism: European Central Bank (ECB), the European Commission (EC), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). 
  6. The United Left (Izquierda Unida), founded in 1986, is an electoral coalition including the Communist Party, dissident Socialists, and Greens. It traditionally occupied the electoral space to the left of the Socialist Party, and it has lost a substantial part of its voting base to Podemos.
  7. This article was written before the January 31 demonstration, that drew hundreds of thousands to the Puerta del Sol square, the site of the main indignados protests in 2011, in Madrid. A useful article assessing the march is Anticapitalista and Podemos member Jesús Jaén’s, translated and reprinted as “Podemos Marches for Change,” Socialist Worker, February 11, 2015, http://socialistworker.org/2015/02/11/po....
  8. “Manifiesto: ¡Fuera los arribistas y los corruptos de CCOO! ¡Basta de paz social y desmovilización! ¡GANEMOS CCOO para los trabajadores!,” http://www.ganemosccoo.org/index.php/component/content/article?layout=edit&id=43.
  9. The Citizens Assembly passed an Iglesias-supported resolution to prevent Podemos leaders from being members of parties other than Podemos. This measure was aimed at the influence of organizations like Izquierda Anticapitalista (IA). At its January conference, IA voted to change itself from a political party into an association called Anticapitalistas. See http://www.anticapitalistas.org/spip.php?article30335.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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