Spanish elections: ceiling or turning point for the ‘new politics’?

If the new politics is to succeed it must be more than a mere rebranding exercise, writes Kate Shea Baird

July 7, 2016 · 6 min read

16104083334_7cc60bc363_oPodemos leader Pablo Iglesias. Photo: Flikr/Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación

This article is taken from the forthcoming issue of Red Pepper – get a subscription now.

It was the fault of the media, the weather, the Brexit effect, a fear of change. These are just some of the theories that have been bounced around on the left to explain the third place of Unidos Podemos and its regional allies in the re-run of Spain’s general election on 26 June. Not only did the coalition’s number of seats in Congress stagnate, it lost a million votes compared to the result six months ago, and was the biggest victim of the overall fall in turnout.

According to Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, his party’s ambitions were frustrated by the voters who got cold feet when faced with the credible prospect of a Podemos-led government. Fear won. But this hypothesis doesn’t explain Podemos’ failure to mobilise non-voters, an ability that has been key to its success since its breakthrough at the 2014 European elections. It also neglects the fact that, just a year ago, citizen platforms with the support of Podemos won the local elections in many of Spain’s major cities, including Madrid and Barcelona.

So, what happened? Why has the ‘new politics’, in its broadest sense, made significant inroads locally but stalled nationally? There are a number of differences between the political processes underway at each level that might explain why.

From circles to pyramids

Election writers’ fund

The first factor is that of scale. While much was once made of Podemos’ model of local ‘circles’, translating this model into a genuine bottom-up participation mechanism in a nationwide project was never going to be easy. That said, Podemos has disempowered its local circles, and thus done little to challenge the traditional model of representative democracy that was one of the main targets of the ire of the indignados.

By contrast, the municipal scale has proved to be fertile ground for citizen platforms to open up effective participation processes at neighbourhood and city level. While participation in Podemos nationally has become reduced to voting online to approve the proposals put forward by its leaders, the citizen platforms have been better able to combine in-person and online participation in a dynamic and mutually reinforcing way (for example, to draw up election manifestos). These local processes have reflected and built on the networks and practices developed by the indignados movement, which continued through neighbourhood assemblies and online activism long after it was dislodged from the squares.

If anyone wins, we all lose

Another important difference is that Podemos didn’t stand alone, or in a traditional party coalition in the local elections. The citizen platforms were launched by activists from social movements, and the parties (Podemos and United Left among them) joined subsequently.

This model served not only to unite progressive parties but also to create a new political space in which many people who had no party affiliation or previous experience of electoral politics, felt comfortable. The cost to Podemos is the invisibility of its brand and a certain loss of control over decision-making. In exchange, it gains the capacity to engage and harness broader networks beyond its core supporters. The Galician citizen platform, Marea Atlántica sums up this spirit of putting party interests aside to achieve common goals with the motto, ‘If anyone wins, we all lose.’

This more plural approach was imposed on Podemos during the elections in Valencia, Galicia and Catalonia, where municipal and regional parties made decentralised coalitions under different names a condition of their support. It remains to be seen how much autonomy these regional coalitions will demand in Congress and what kind of tensions this might provoke with the central leadership. How the relationship between the centre and the periphery of the coalition evolves will determine whether such strategies will continue to be employed in the future. Catalonia, where Podemos is currently renewing its leadership and Barcelona en Comú is seeking to replicate its citizen-led model at the regional elections, is likely to be a bellwether for the rest of the country on this question over the coming months.

From feminism to feminisation

Finally, Podemos has run up against a significant deficit in support among female voters across all age groups. While the party subscribes to explicitly feminist policies and implements gender parity in its electoral lists, its leadership remains stubbornly male. The Iglesias-Errejón tag team dominates in Madrid and there is a striking absence of women at the highest levels of the party at regional and city level.

Podemos’ male leadership has a noticeable impact on the tone of the party’s communication, which is often accused of being aggressive, or of neglecting to give due prominence to issues such as violence against women. It has also led to Podemos being seen to ‘mansplain’ feminism to the women of Spain, a phenomenon epitomised on International Women’s Day this year, when the party was widely lambasted for tweeting feminist slogans emblazoned across portraits of its male leaders.

More seriously, Podemos’ lack of feminist, female leadership limits its transformative capacity on a structural level. It is no coincidence that the most successful social movements and political platforms that have emerged in post-crisis Spain, from the 15MpaRato anti-corruption group and the PAH housing rights movement to Barcelona en Comú, have been characterised by female leadership and networked organisations. This ‘feminisation of politics’ represents a paradigm shift in both the content and form of political life.

Ceiling or turning point?

The experience of Podemos over the past two years is just the most visible element in a broader laboratory of political projects, both electoral and non-electoral, that have emerged in Spain since the occupations of 2011. While Podemos has successfully captured and channelled much of the discontent and the language of the squares, the values and working methods of the indignados have been kept alive elsewhere, primarily by civil society.

If these general elections are to serve as a turning point, rather than a ceiling for the new politics, then parties, the municipal movement, and activists must reflect on the successes and limits of the strategies used to date. The new politics cannot be a mere rebranding exercise. Creating a real democracy is about more than winning elections. It’s about changing how politics is done from below, starting with our daily lives, in our homes, neighbourhoods and cities. Electoral politics is part of the puzzle, but only if parties take up the challenge of transforming their own ways of working. If they fail to do so, any future election victory is sure to ring hollow.

Criminalising political opposition in Catalonia

Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte explain why the political trials this week only reveal the tip of the iceberg.

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos

Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

From common sense to power: municipal politics in Madrid

Ana Méndez de Andés describes how a new kind of electoral alliance is taking back power—one city at a time—in Spain

Angela Davis quote reading we have to act as if it is possible to radically transform the world, and you have to do it all the time

What do we do now?

After knocking on so many doors, the movement built in support of Jeremy Corbyn needs to stay present particularly where people feel abandoned or under attack

Election 2019: The latest attack on travelling communities

The Conservative manifesto includes yet another attack on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. We can resist at the polls - and by responding to the public consultation, says Beth Holmes

We stand with Jeremy Corbyn

Letter: We stand with Jeremy Corbyn – just as he always stood with us

Organisations and individuals including Kehinde Andrews, Hanif Kureishi, Ahdaf Soueif, Gillian Slovo, Robert Del Naja and Anish Kapoor urge BAME and migrant communities to vote for Labour

Election 2019: Tackling tech giant tax avoidance

Conrad Bower reports on the main parties’ manifesto promises to address ‘aggressive’ tax avoidance by multinationals like the ‘Silicon Valley Six’

Election 2019: Battle lines drawn in Sheffield Hallam

Sam Gregory of Now Then magazine reports on the candidates vying for votes in a key Lib Dem-Labour marginal

Jo Swinson at the BBC leaders debate

Election 2019: Anti-semitism and phoney solidarity

The faux-concerns from the party’s opponents does little for Jewish people, argues Oscar Leyens

Football’s Race Stain

Racism marred the Manchester derby this weekend. This blemish on the game is an echo of our Prime Minister’s words, says Remi Joseph-Salisbury.

Another World is Possible

Election 2019: The end of neoliberalism in sight?

If elected, the next Labour government can finally depart from the neoliberal consensus and deliver a major shift in wealth and power, argues Adam Peggs

Small change

Simon Hedges shares his famous-on-Twitter analysis of the state of the left today

Election 2019: Transatlantic socialism rising

As Sanders and Corbyn head to the polls, Peter Gowan describes a new spirit of international collaboration on the left

Jeremy Corbyn and front bench holding copies of the 2019 manifesto

Election 2019: An ambitious, agenda-setting and credible manifesto

The 2017 Labour election manifesto was good but the 2019 version is the document we’ve really been waiting for, argues Mike Phipps

Brian Eno: Why I’m backing Labour in Kensington

In 2017, Labour won Kensington by just 20 votes. Brian Eno explains why he's backing Emma Dent Coad in the seat - and why voting Lib Dem is ‘voting Tory without admitting it’

Cartoonist from 1888 depicting John Bull (England) as the octopus of imperialism, grabbing land on every continent. Public Domain.

Election 2019: Education and Empire

Following Labour’s manifesto pledge to educate the public on the histories of empire, slavery, and migration, Kimberly McIntosh explains the dangers of colonial nostalgia in the national curriculum

Support our election writer’s fund

The stakes could not be higher during this election. Help us cover what's really happening