Can Europe Make It?

Contradictions and challenges of the Podemos phenomenon

Podemos came from the streets, social media platforms and out of a horizontal ideology not found in the traditional parties.

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia
19 April 2015
Teresa Rodriguez celebrates Podemos coming third in Andalusia.

Teresa Rodriguez celebrates Podemos coming third in Andalusia. Demoted/JaviTorres. All rights reserved.The party Podemos has been representing the hope of millions of Spaniards to overcome the crisis that hit Spain, part of the massive protests since 2011 that have rocked local political structures and spread throughout Europe. In its internal constitution process and its leadership elections, the party presents a new model of horizontal internal organization, with broad participation from its base in its debates and discussions. It proposes a left-wing programme for the country.

The path chosen, however, is not easy, and there are internal contradictions within the left spectrum itself. Let us look at some of the challenges confronting the party in its (short) walk hitherto.

From the streets

Podemos (We Can) emerged as a spotlight in Spanish politics, exposing the dead-end features of a nominally bipartisan political system. After the death of dictator Francisco Franco and the return to some kind of democracy, PP and PSOE alternated in power and despite some differences in the social field – such as the defence of abortion and LGBT rights by the PSOE - in the economic field and also when it comes to corruption, both parties are in tune with the discourse imposed by the EU Troika.

Podemos was born of the Indignados and of the 15M movement that spread through Spain’s streets a few years ago. Podemos is constituted from those movements or local circles of dissatisfied citizens who managed to channel this discontent into a political project. It drew also on the Partido X (Party X), based on the heavy use of social media tools, and the Guanyem (We'll Win) in Catalunya, which will compete in alliance with Podemos in the Catalan region. It is a response to the profound Spanish and European capitalist crisis that has seen employment plummet, "desahucios" (evictions) and even hunger and child malnutrition on a significant scale. So Podemos has pulled together the feeling of dissatisfaction with austerity policies pushed through by the conservative PP (often with support from a PSOE posing as the left alternative) and of the lack of alternatives to this. On May 15, 2011 (the 15M movement) finally found an alternative to the traditional parties of power, and named the problem the "caste".

The "traditional" left, represented by Izquierda Unida (United Left), whose base was the PCE (Spanish Communist Party), did not convince many that it was a real alternative, because they seemed so attached to political traditions considered outdated if not defunct. Podemos came from the streets, social media platforms and out of a horizontal ideology not found in the traditional parties. As we shall see, the maintenance of that horizontality is one of the biggest challenges the party faces as it attempts to secure for itself a decisive parliamentary presence.

Challenges in institutional participation: apathy

In its first year of life, Podemos ​​managed to surpass the mark of 300,000 members (or registered members), all of them with the right to participate in internal debates and to vote via the Internet in the policies and candidates for internal party positions. In the first internal elections, just over 50% of those registered to vote ‘attended’ the virtual polls in October 2014. Only 42% voted in the November 2014 elections that elected Pablo Iglesias as Secretary General of the party and in December the same year the number dropped to 34% of voters in the election for regional leaders.

The party has grown in the polls, threatening the hegemony of the PP and in some research even surpassing it, prompting PP party leaders to explore the prospects of a broad German-like coalition with the PSOE. However, an announcement prior to the election of the mere possibility of a coalition with PP could result in a stampede of voters from PSOE to Podemos. But though the number of people affiliated to Podemos has grown, the number of actual voters within its ranks apparently has not. This is a serious problem for Podemos if this apathy is reflected in the vote in the Spanish elections, at the end of 2015. Can Podemos do anything about the general apathy in Spain, whereby previous elections to the Spanish Parliament presented a no-show of almost 30% of registered voters.

Podemos did succeed in gathering at least 100,000 people in Madrid for a rally/protest on January 31 (numbers were much disputed – some said 400,000) a way of measuring their strength that was effectively tested during the elections in the region of Andalusia.

Local autonomy, internal fractions and centralization of power

Podemos must also struggle to maintain internal cohesion while respecting the many differences of minority groups. The largest of the fractions is led by Pablo Echenique, who was elected MEP with Iglesias and other members of the party.

Podemos has been much criticised for the reverse problem -- precisely the centralization of the party around Iglesias, and his right arm men, Iñigo Errejon and Juan Carlos Monedero. These three are the undisputed leaders of the party, which especially displeases the minority fractions.

So how much will this centralization hinder one of the most important Podemos "brands", i.e. decentralization /horizontality and local circles? It is worth noting that the election that brought Pablo Iglesias into the top post of the party also turned down the option of electing a committee of managers instead of a Secretary General – the  proposal that came from  Echeniques' fraction.

Another major challenge will be to combine the idea of ​​a federal Spain as advocated by the majority fraction of the party and the "right to decide" advocated by members of Catalonia and the Basque Country (along with Navarre). In such very thorny issues, Iglesias generally searches for an intermediate position, trying not to alienate potential Catalan and Basque nationalist voters or unionist Spanish voters (and Spanish nationalists in some cases). The danger is that in the end this just displeases both sides. But so far all signs are that voting intentions put Podemos in an excellent position in the Basque Country and Catalonia in its alliance with Guanyem.

It is clear that voters with a Basque or Catalan nationalist profile not only have some sympathy for Podemos, but they can be sure that whatever happens, the party wil at least oxygenate the debate on the Basque conflict and the Catalan situation. But will Podemos be able to talk these issues through and remain open to listening to the voice of minorities, if even some are not pleased by the path chosen by the party's leadership on so many issues?

At least in one of the Podemos circles, in Navarre, the nationalist issue caught fire in the city of Orkoien, where the local circle dissolved due to disagreements with the statist orientation (focused on Madrid) of the party, even in issues whose relevance was confined to the regions or autonomous communities. These kinds of tension are always present in any party that proposes itself as a new solution, but has not been able to talk frankly about the issue of minorities and the right to self-determination.

In the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country two major local fractions of the party, "Euskal Hiria" (Basque City) and "Orain Ahal Dugu" (Now We Can) differ on the right to decide and on the ETA issue. While the first group adopts a speech setting aside Basque national aspirations, as well as requiring the end of ETA without further measures, the second argues that the right to decide is an important topic and not a secondary one and also calls for a truth commission to determine not only the alleged crimes of ETA, but also those of the Spanish government against Basque citizenship.

A third group, "Si se puede Euskadi" (Yes we can Basque Country) decided to compete at the last minute and has a more nebulous agenda. In common among the three fractions is the fact that they differ from the official line of Pablo Iglesias, though Si se Puede Euskadi is said to be the closest. In the event, Euskal Hiria won the elections in the Basque Country on March 2014. Their position concerning Basque rights might yet be a problem in the local elections to come.

While this option of non-alignment to the majority fraction of the party is an important feature of a horizontal organization born of the radical left, it is also accompanied by visible attempts to soften positions in order to become more palatable to voters of a more centrist persuasion. Differences between members of different fractions have become public and vocal, causing some discomfort in the leadership, and leading to further rumours criticising alleged maneuvers to centralize processes, decisions and policy paths.

There are also debates on apparent setbacks in the relationship with the European Union, on the euro, over minimum/universal basic income, the retirement age and the calculation of debt. Critics (and even supporters) are cautious about some of the changes to the programme since the European elections, and cast doubt on the "purity" of a party that has somehow adopted more "realistic" positions despite these not being exactly the ones chosen by its party members.

The first test

The result of the elections in the autonomous region of Andalusia in southern Spain have led some to argue that Podemos had a victory, while others point out that they were also losers.

On March 22, the results of the regional elections were announced. One of the regions worst affected by the crisis, the big winner of the elections was nevertheless the PSOE, who managed to distance itself from the crisis in the region and keep its 47 seats in the Andalusian Parliament. The PSOE successfully saddled the PP with the crisis and the national problems of unemployment, impoverishment and other social ills, since this is the party that governs Spain.

Podemos ended up getting 15 seats in parliament, a large number for a party born just over a year ago and still in the process of organizing internally, exposing fractures and conflicts and sometimes ideological inconsistencies - and having little time to effectively organize for an election campaign of such a considerable size. Despite the creditable number of votes - the party doubled the number of votes obtained in May 2014 to the European Parliament elections, jumping from less than 200,000 votes to 500,000 - Podemos ended up short of its electoral expectations and projections in Andalusia. According to the latest polls before election day, the party hoped to get more like 19 to 22 seats.

The bipartisanship that persists not only in the Spanish Parliament, but also in different regions - among them Andalusia – remains very persistent. Over 60% of the Andalusian parliament will be dominated by PSOE and PP, although new parties have dawned to challenge this hegemony.

Yet more tensions

Around 60 members of one of the internal fractions of the party in Andalusia - anticapitalist heirs of the Izquierda Anticapitalista or Anticapitalist Left political party that dissolved itself within Podemos, were recently expelled from that fraction, due to disagreements with Teresa Rodríguez (herself a member of the same fraction and leader of Podemos in the region and former candidate for the local presidency) and Pablo Iglesias. 

What has been exposed is the plans of Rodríguez and Iglesias to decrease the power of the Anticapitalist fraction regionally in order to facilitate agreements of the party with the re-elected PSOE, and also to undermine the radical left programme approved by the majority of the party members.

There is nothing new in the fact that Iglesias and other leaders of the party seek to soften their programme and adjust their speeches to become more palatable to broader audiences, especially now with the eruption of a fourth strong contestant to the general Spanish elections, the right-wing Ciudadanos (Citizens). It is clear that Iglesias is convinced that many potential voters for Ciudadanos could be won over if Podemos simply lowered its tone on some issues.

But those 60 former Anticapitalists maintain their membership in Podemos and they will remain, as they announced earlier this month, working inside and for the party.

In the beginning of April, election fraud reared its head in the choice of candidates to  run in the local elections in La Rioja (north of Spain). The process was annulled and the local secretary general of the party, Raúl Ausejo - himself the head of the annulled list - was suspended. 

Is this just the typical problem of all traditional political parties, or is it more likely to occur where left-wingers are used to factional struggles for power and intestinal disputes?

Doubts and hopes

Podemos has quickly reached its political maturity (with the vices and common problems of all traditional parties). But it is still too early to tell if the hopes placed in the "new" as allegedly represented by Iglesias and his team were nothing but a dream. Four parties fiercely compete for the lead in the polls (Podemos, PSOE, PP and Ciudadanos) in the general elections, but lots may still happen before that even t in December, 2015.

Meanwhile, the Andalusian regional election and the party's behavior in other regions has left progressive analysts and left-wing militants worried. Despite many seeing the party as their central hope for change in Spain, there are many doubts.

Impertinent criticism from right-wing individuals and groups are joined by more pertinent and valuable challenges from broad sectors of the left and from within the party. While the majority fraction has some interest in cultivating an image of internal cohesion, minority groups are bound to seek ways to be heard and to raise theircounter-arguments.

Spain is a country that still refuses to look to its past, to the dictatorship and the thousands of political assassinations and mass graves still untouched. Left-wing political movements not aligned to the PSOE have been subjected to persecution - even from the PSOE - in a country that still has open wounds.

Podemos was born from these same Spanish streets. Will it be able to continue to be the unexpurgated voice of those streets?

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