With Spain’s election looming, can Podemos do it?

In the run-up to Spain’s general election, David Ferreira looks at the factors behind Podemos’ failure to sustain its initial surge of support

December 17, 2015 · 8 min read

podemos-pollsPodemos has struggled in the polls as it centralised its campaign and lost ground to new rivals. Illustration: Tom Lynton

Podemos up-ended Spanish politics in 2014 with its breakthrough success in the European elections, securing almost 1.25 million votes and five MEPs just months after it was founded. Podemos emerged in a context of deep social discontent, manifesting in multiple forms since the 15M (indignados) movement occupied squares across Spain in the summer of 2011. In the year Podemos was founded, the ‘Marches of Dignity’ saw a million people fill the streets of Madrid demanding ‘bread, housing, and jobs’. This was followed by protests in Spain’s major cities demanding a referendum on the monarchy after king Juan Carlos I’s abdication.

The Spanish political establishment was in retreat and Podemos was well positioned to be the electoral expression of political rupture with the post-Franco regime. Within months of the European elections, it was topping opinion polls and crowds in Athens chanted ‘Syriza! Podemos! Venceremos! [We will triumph!]’ The possibility of Podemos winning power began to seem very real.

These were enormous expectations for an organisation that at that point had yet to give itself the structure of a party. The prominence of the new MEP and best-known Podemos politician, Pablo Iglesias, weighed heavily on the citizen assembly tasked with organising the founding conference in the autumn of 2014.

Advocates of some kind of horizontal party leadership formation found themselves at a disadvantage, lacking the media presence of Iglesias, who argued for a more consolidated leadership structure, centred upon the traditional position of secretary-general. Iglesias was assertive on this point. Should his plan be defeated, he warned, ‘It will have to be others who lead the process.’ His proposal prevailed and Iglesias went on to win the job of secretary-general with 96 per cent of the vote.

This outcome didn’t hurt Podemos. Indeed, the party topped the opinion polls that winter and Iglesias had the highest approval rating of any politician in Spain. But it in formalising his pre-eminence it stored up trouble as Podemos would in effect have to live or die by the popularity of this one man. The Podemos assemblies, or circles, that had attracted thousands across Spain during the summer were to lose out to a campaign focused on television appearances. The figure of Pablo Iglesias could capitalise on these media appearances in a way a horizontal formation could not, or so it was presumed.

But the same media that sustained the story of Podemos’s meteoric rise could victimise the party and facilitate the rise of a rival. Juan Carlos Monedero, one of the key figures in Podemos’s early development, argued against an over-reliance on such an approach. ‘We understood that television was the train that the Germans put Lenin on,’ he said of Podemos’s initial use of the media, drawing an analogy with Lenin’s use of transport that was under the control of his enemies. ‘But then you have to get off the train, to reunite with the people!’

Rise of Ciudadanos

This precarious relationship with the media was highlighted by the rise of Ciudadanos, a formation that started in Catalonia, building up a profile across Spain as opponents of Catalan nationalists. This permitted Ciudadanos to make the leap to national politics and contest the banner of ‘change’ claimed by Podemos, especially as it relates to corruption.

Podemos’s political culture of lower salaries for its elected officials and Pablo Iglesias’s discourse against ‘la casta’ – the corrupt political class – helped fuel the party’s rise at the expense of traditional parties. This included the United Left coalition, which encompasses the Communist Party among others, and was implicated in a scandal involving millions of euros in unjustified expenses claimed by board members of a public savings bank in Madrid.

Podemos’s focus on corruption, however, made political debate revolve around who would administer government better, as opposed to the economic and political structure of Spanish society. This was initially advantageous, but when Ciudadanos inserted itself into the discussion, it contested the anti-corruption vote and pressed the advantage on administering government, offering a seemingly prudent, centrist electoral choice. Voters could have ‘change’ without the purported radicalism of Podemos.

The same media that sustained the story of Podemos’s meteoric rise could victimise the party and facilitate the rise of a rival

Ciudadanos has a number of further advantages in this rivalry. The importance of the Catalan independence debate in the lead-up to the general election favours the Spanish nationalism Ciudadanos taps into, while Podemos defends the resolution of the dispute by means of a referendum, a position without great electoral rewards. Further, Ciudadanos is privileged by a media uninterested in its sources of funding and alleged links to the far right. Podemos, on the other hand, gets burdened with unsupported allegations of Venezuelan or even Iranian funding. Its links with left-wing politics and campaigns are highlighted, undermining Pablo Iglesias’s desire to avoid placing Podemos on the left-right spectrum. Ciudadanos has soared in the polls with its leader, Albert Rivera, now enjoying the best personal approval rating of any national political leader at the same time that Iglesias’s own rating has plummeted.

This difficult political scenario puts at risk one of the goals of Iglesias: surpassing the social-democratic Socialist Party in the general election and forcing it to choose between a Podemos-led government or the conservative Popular Party. The focus on a centralised campaign, referred to by Podemos political secretary Íñigo Errejón as the ‘electoral machine’, has understandably been questioned. ‘We have lost, in part, the ability to look at the most important asset we have, which are the assemblies,’ remarked Teresa Rodríguez, the Podemos leader in Andalusia, in a recent interview. ‘Against the attacks,’ she continued, ‘the best defence has always been the word of mouth by our people from below.’

Mobilising the base

There is a successful precedent of a form of politics built on the mobilisation of a broad base of supporters. The local elections in May saw the popular municipal platforms such as Ahora Madrid and Barcelona en Comú go neighbourhood by neighbourhood, hosting assemblies and outdoor gatherings that attracted thousands of people. This type of political practice and engagement sidestepped the need to rely on private television or the conservative-controlled public broadcasters. The political reach of Ahora Madrid was such that it was able to capture 32 per cent of the vote in a city the right-wing Popular Party has ruled since 1991.

Pablo Iglesias attributed the victories of the municipal platforms to the personalities of the new city mayors Manuela Carmena and Ada Colau. Writing soon after the local elections, he said: ‘We must take note of the importance of the leadership and the styles that serve to go beyond the identity of a party.’ This is a convenient interpretation for Iglesias that reinforces the false choice between effective political figureheads and a political organisation with an identity and a form of politics coherent with that identity. Manuela Carmena and Ada Colau are undoubtedly effective political communicators but Ahora Madrid and Barcelona en Comú can’t be reduced to their individual leadership.

Failing to draw more profound lessons from the local election victories puts the Spanish left in danger of squandering the opportunity of the upcoming general election. Rather than the post-Franco regime facing defeat, the election threatens merely to give it a new composition of rival blocs. The regional governments already reflect this recomposition, with the Popular Party aligning with Ciudadanos in most regions and the Socialist Party turning to Podemos.

Sensing this outcome, Barcelona mayor Ada Colau directly addressed Podemos: ‘You were brave when you set off to challenge the two-party system… I ask you to continue being brave, because it’s the moment to push all together, with all our strength to put an end to this regime of sorrow.’ It is a powerful appeal for the pluralism and participation that characterised the municipal elections, but one made without the many months of preparations that went into Barcelona en Comú and Ahora Madrid. There’s no turning back for Iglesias at this point. It will be the politics and party form of Podemos that will be evaluated by voters on 20 December.

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