The party’s rise has been precipitous. Within months of its founding on the 17th of January 2014, Podemos secured 1.25 million votes in that year’s European Parliament elections. By mid-2015 it had taken control of major cities such as Barcelona, Madrid, Cádiz and Zaragoza in the municipal elections, and shortly thereafter Podemos ranked first in some national polls. The party’s leader, Pablo Iglesias, had the highest approval rating of any Spanish politician at the time.
Podemos ultimately went on to finish an impressive third at the 2015 National Election with 20 per cent of the vote. ‘Podemos is here to stay’, declared the El Español newspaper.
A slightly disappointing 2016 election followed – Unidos Podemos (United We Can), a coalition of Podemos and the communist-dominated United Left, shed more than a million votes. Yet a party founded less than two years previously had nonetheless managed to scoop over 20 per cent of the national vote share in two successive elections. Polling carried out earlier this year shows Podemos retaining roughly that level of support. Both its rapid rise and persistent strength shows Podemos is a force to be reckoned with.
Podemos first emerged from the 15-M Movement, a series of 20,000 street protests that rocked Spain’s largest towns and cities in 2011. The ‘indignados’, as they were called, first gathered in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square on May 15, 2011. Inspired by the Tahrir Square demonstrations that had ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak three months earlier, the indignados refused to decamp from the square for several weeks, despite the lingering presence of the sinister Guardia Civil, Spain’s quasi military-police force. The protests were an expression of anger at the bail-out of the banks and the government’s (in this case the Socialist Party’s) imposition of austerity policies. One of the movement’s slogans was ‘No es una crisis, es una estafa’ – It’s not a crisis, it’s a con.
I recently visited Spain for UnHerd to try and understand the ideas and people that animate this new power. Prior to leaving London for Madrid I had met up at a pub near Victoria Station with the academic and member of Podemos’ London ‘Circle’ Sirio Canós Donnay. Circles are territorial or sectoral groups of people with an interest in Podemos – both inside as well as outside of Spain. They are the equivalent of a left-wing party branch meeting, though with fewer strictures handed down from on high beyond some basic democratic and organisational rules.
Sirio tells me that the initial purpose of the indignados movement – often referred to simply as M-15 – was to shift public consciousness away from the idea that the economic crisis engulfing Spain was a product of invisible market forces or personal irresponsibility:
“Collective problems had been [up to then] perceived as individual ones…At first [the indignados] were saying they [the political establishment] don’t represent us, the goods [are] in the hands of politicians and bankers.”
Similar protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Occupy London and the Geração à Rasca in Portugal were springing up at about the same time. These manifestations of anger and frustration would ultimately fizzle out.
A rejection of social democracy as well as the free market Right
Wider public blame for the financial crisis was often laid at the door of ruling social democratic parties and what was perceived as their excessive spending. In Britain, Gordon Brown’s New Labour government left power after 13 years on the back of a pledge by Conservative Party leader David Cameron to implement an unyielding programme of cuts and to create a “low-tax, low-debt economy”. Amid high unemployment and a growing number of home repossessions, Spain’s ruling Socialist Party (PSOE) suffered the same fate as New Labour. In November 2011 it crashed to its worst election result since the 1977 transition to democracy. As we drink very English glasses of London pale ale, Sirio reflects on those results:
“Something that was quite tough for all of us involved in the movement was that the same year the indignados took the squares and the country by storm, there were general elections and the conservatives won by an overwhelming national majority. And that was quite difficult to understand. Many people said ‘let’s leave things as they are, Spain will never change’”.
Yet the anger provoked by the economic crisis and recession was still there; it simply required a movement to channel it effectively. Unemployment in Spain remains at 22% even today, the second highest in the Eurozone after Greece. Youth unemployment sits at 41%.
Podemos stands out from some of the other movements which occupied European plazas and boulevards in 2011 in that there was always a sense among organizers that the residual and simmering anger had to be transmitted into something solid. Sirio again:
“Traditional parties thought it was safe because they kept winning elections, but there was some much broader cultural movement that had radically changed Spanish society. But it needed somebody to translate that, and that first occurred with Podemos and with the local coalitions that fought for the local elections.”
The 2011 Europe-wide anti-austerity protests were largely mocked by established political parties and establishment journals – often, paradoxically, by the same people and organs that would complacently pour scorn on the prospect of Brexit and a Donald Trump Presidency five years later. “This is not a revolution in the making,” declared the London Economist as it cast a scornful eye on student activists who took to a wintry Parliament Square in late 2010, perhaps living up to Lenin’s famous description of the paper as “a journal which speaks for British millionaires”.
Five years later the Economist and similar publications were caught completely flat-footed by the ascension of Jeremy Corbyn to the summit of the Labour Party.
In Spain, M-15 activists anticipated the accusation that their movement consisted of pampered students and the usual far-left troublemakers engaged in revolution as play. Podemos’ founding manifesto, published in January 2014, was titled Mover ficha: convertir la indignación en cambio político (’Making a move: turning indignation into political change’).
One of the things which disorientated the wider Spanish left was Podemos’ almost gleeful jettisoning of the terms left and right. And a degree of suspicion was perhaps wise given recent history: beyond left and right was often the snake oil used to sell the third way (along with other vacuous doggerel: forward, not back).
NOT joining the gravy train
Now that the party is a real player on the Spanish political scene – it has 71 MPs and 5 MEPs – Podemos is seeking to prevent a cleavage opening up between itself and those it represents. It is doing this by, inter alia, adopting an old idea brought to fleeting prominence in Britain in the 1980s by Coventry MP Dave Nellist. Between 1983 to 1992, Nellist, a Labour MP subsequently expelled from the party for being a member of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, drew the equivalent of what was then called a ‘workers’ wage’. This was calculated at about 40 per cent of an MP’s salary.
Podemos have adopted something similar in Spain, with its 71 MPs taking home a wage that is no more than three minimum wages (707.60 EUR) per month. The rest of the money goes to the party as well as to local social projects. Any income received by anyone working in any capacity for Podemos is also published on the party’s website.
“There’s certain tendencies in the system,” Sirio tells me: “Some people, when they become MPs, their metabolism changes and they just become completely different people.”
The trend in Leninist parties toward what Leon Trotsky in 1904 prophetically termed ‘substitutionism’ – the inclination on the part of party insiders to substitute themselves for the class they supposedly represent – is an (albeit reversible) feature of representative democracy too. An MP may enter parliament with the support of his or her working class constituents; yet on attaining power their material interests often clash with those they claim to represent. MPs of all parties can subsequently behave as a class for themselves, with an increasing chasm opening up between parliament and ordinary people.
The importance of remaining materially in touch the electorate is important for Podemos’ moral message, too
“It was Gramsci who said that every crisis is also a moral crisis,” says Adriá Porta Caballé, an academic who previously worked for the party’s deputy leader, Íñigo Errejón. He continues:
“And one of the things that surprised the left [was that], apart from the social populist dichotomies like oligarchies versus people and citizens versus privileged elites, we also used moral ones, like decent people versus corruption and so on.”
Following the disappointing 2016 election result, the unity of the early days has given way in recent times to something of an ideological rupture at the top of Podemos.
“In 2016 there was an ideological and political change in Podemos,” the party’s 34-year-old Deputy Leader and Political Secretary Íñigo Errejón told the Eldiario.es newspaper in February 2017. He added that the party was “more worried about showing how far away it is from the other parties than about setting the agenda in our country”.
The split centred around an alliance with the old Spanish Communist Party (PCE) under the umbrella of Podemos’ electoral alliance with United Left (IU). Spain has a strong anarchist tradition and many activists (both pragmatic and further left) were unhappy with Iglesias’ decision to bring the formerly Soviet-orientated communists into the Podemos tent. Errejón himself was thought to favour a more conciliatory approach to the PSOE (though the PSOE itself sought to forge an alliance instead with Ciudadanos, another new party that holds seats in the Cortes).
In one sense the gravitation toward the communists made sense for both parties. United Left won more than 900,000 votes in the December 2015 election, yet was rewarded with just two seats in congress due to Spain’s electoral system. Combined, the votes of Podemos and United Left would have seen the two parties come within a whisker of the Socialist Party in terms of seats in the Congress at the same election.
On forming the alliance for the 2016 election, called because of the inability of any party to form a government after the inconclusive result of 2015, Podemos and IU retained their own party logos and each party’s candidates stood on their respective rosters. There were of course areas of disagreement – NATO membership and the Spanish Royal family to cite two examples that were emitted from the United Podemos manifesto – but the party was as one on the essentials: a programme of higher taxes for the rich and a renegotiation of the fiscal target with Brussels.
Yet lining up alongside the hammer and sickle-waving communists – in a country where the Civil War remains a pertinent part of the cultural backdrop – came pregnant with risk. There was always a chance it would drive away centrist voters attracted by Podemos’ promise to break free from the clichés of the past. Podemos first captured the imagination in Spain with its wedding of material criticisms of Spanish society – unemployment, poverty and corruption – to moral categories that people can easily digest, something the populist right has been doing for years.
“Every revolution is first of all a revolution against the existing left,” says Porta Caballé. “And I think that’s one of the things we did.”
Going into the 2016 election, the assumption on the part of many inside both Podemos and IU was that the votes of both parties would simply collect in United Podemos. As such, predictions abounded of the party overtaking the Socialist Party and becoming the second largest political force in Spain.
As it transpired, United Left went on to win a million fewer votes than its constituent parties had done at the 2015 election; Iglesias emerged from the election a diminished figure.
Inside Podemos, however, Iglesias is still firmly in control. The inter-party struggle between Iglesias and Errejón was settled with a resounding victory for the incumbent leader at the party’s February 2017 congress in Madrid. After several months of public infighting, Iglesias’ political agenda secured the support of 56% of Podemos activists against 33% who voted for Errejón’s programme. Iglesias also won re-election as Secretary General with 89% of the vote against Andalusian MP Juan Moreno Yagüe.
Yet Iglesias sounded a conciliatory note in the wake of the result, telling the Guardian that he wanted to “have the best people close to me even if they don’t think like me.”
Whether Iglesias intends to further entrench Podemos’ rapprochement with the communist left is hard to say, though it would appear to contradict the ideas set out in his book Politics in a Time of Crisis, written shortly after the founding of Podemos in 2014. In the text, Iglesias approvingly sums up Podemos’ provocative political style as contained in the phrase ‘If you want to get it right, don’t do what the left would do’.
These don’t appear to be the words of a thuggish Stalinist dialectician. But then the foreword to the book is written by one Alexis Tsipras, the fleeting golden boy of the new European left who kept Greece in the Eurozone by implementing the very austerity measures his party set everything on opposing. That isn’t Iglesias’ fault of course. But it does rather lend weight to George Orwell’s point about saints (even socialist saints) being ‘judged guilty until they are proved innocent’.
As for getting closer to real power, the PSOE’s refusal to countenance a deal with Podemos does not mean the new party cannot bring its influence to bear on the PSOE. With the election and re-election of the left-leaning Pedro Sanchez, the PSOE has already embarked on baby steps in the direction of the radical younger party. This suits Podemos, as the insurgent party can retain its radicalism and build a new hegemony without sacrificing its edge to the blunting tendencies of power. Should the PSOE change its mind about an alliance at some later date, Podemos can perhaps view its own role in any governing coalition as one of keeping the bigger party honest.
For it is difficult at present to see how Podemos’ strengthening of ties with the old left does anything other than put an artificial ceiling on the level of support the party might pick up. Pace Pedro Iglesias, the greatest danger for the party is not that it ‘sells out’ in the manner of Tsipras in Greece, but that it is pulled down into the subterranean obscurity of the far-left.
Notwithstanding any tribulations of this kind, the more fundamental question is whether or not Podemos can retain its compartmentalized separation of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ populism in perpetuity. For there is always a danger that, once you require a group of permanent outsiders to define your politics, the search for enemies never ends. The triumph over one adversary necessitates the creation of another. To paraphrase Nietzsche, he who fights demagogues risks becoming a demagogue himself.
Part three of this series – on Podemos and Catalonia will appear tomorrow.