Can Europe Make It?

A dilemma for Podemos

Bitter-sweet success in Spain’s regional and local election forces Podemos to choose - between joining with other left parties, following the example of Barcelona and Madrid, or going it alone in the autumn legislative election.

Jordi Vaquer
17 June 2015
Pablo Iglesias with new mayor of Madrid,Ahora Madrid candidate Manuela Carmen.

Pablo Iglesias with new mayor of Madrid,Ahora Madrid candidate Manuela Carmen. Demotix/ Jose Hinojosa. All rights reserved.A reader of the international press could be forgiven for thinking the May 24 local and regional elections in Spain were an outstanding success for Podemos, the new hope of the southern European left.

The minority victory of the Podemos-backed civic lists in Barcelona and the near-win in Madrid were directly attributed to the new party, together with good results in other cities, and in regional elections. The soon-to-be new mayors of Spain’s largest cities, anti-evictions activist Ada Colau in Barcelona and retired human rights judge Manuela Carmena in Madrid, shared the space with the victory celebrations of Pablo Iglesias, Podemos’s iconic leader, and the party’s chief ideologist, Íñigo Errejón.

And yet, an outright victory for the 17 months-old purple party, this was not.

Podemos did gain entry into all 13 regional parliaments, thanks to an unprecedented level of support (between 9% and 20%, around 15% on average) for a party outside Spain’s big two, the Conservative PP and the Socialist PSOE. Although this is an impressive result, Podemos failed in every region in its stated goal of becoming the largest challenger to the PP, and then forcing the Socialists to choose between giving Podemos the regional presidency, or keeping the Conservatives in power.

The slow erosion of its popular support since the end-of-2014 peak, signaled by all nationwide polls, was confirmed. If 15% of the vote in the March Andalusian elections could be presented as a function of local conditions, the same average result in most other regions (except Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country, which did not vote in May) could not be brushed aside to easily. Podemos is there to stay, and has consolidated a significant presence in the regional assemblies, which manage nearly 50% of public spending in Spain.

However, the Socialist parliamentary groups are larger in all but one of the newly elected regional assemblies (highly complex Navarre), and Podemos’s clear positioning on the left leaves only one choice open to them: to support Socialists to oust the right from power, where possible.

Since Podemos has announced its refusal to enter governments that it does not preside over, and since removing a Socialist-led government before the end of its term would require forming an impossible alternative majority with the Conservatives, Podemos’s regional parliamentarians will have limited leverage over regional executives even where they helped to elect them. Four months of opposition work in regional parliaments, including the summer break, are unlikely to add much to the Podemos appeal for the November elections.

By contrast, Podemos’s decision not to run in local elections under its own banners, and to support and participate in activist-organized civic lists (not coalitions) has probably denied it hundreds of seats in local councils (and indirectly-elected provincial assemblies).

But it also allows the party to associate itself with inspiring victories to which its members, undeniably, made a big contribution. The big thrill of the May 24 election night was the close counts of neck-to-neck races in some of Spain’s largest cities.

Eventually, in Barcelona, A Coruña and Santiago de Compostela the civic lists came first; in Madrid, Zaragoza and Cádiz they were a close second; in all of them, Socialists came third or lower.

Further post-election negotiations ensured that all these six cities (which include three of Spain’s five largest) have mayors elected on civic lists with Podemos support. However, with the exception of Cádiz Mayor José María González 'Kichi,' none of them are members of Podemos and some of them, in particular Madrid’s new Mayor Manuela Carmena, have insisted on making precisely that point in public.

Even where the civic lists will not head up governments, they will help other left options oust the PP from Valencia, Sevilla, Valladolid, Alicante and dozens of other cities. If the aggregated local election results are still dominated by two colours (Conservative blue and Socialist red), the civic lists have fundamentally altered the scene in cities of over 100,000 inhabitants.

The call for unity

The contrast between somewhat disappointing regional results, where Podemos ran under its own name, and the success of the civic lists, where Podemos joined other parties and civic groups under shared labels, has become a topic of discussion in every progressive circle, and across the media and the net.

Of the most notable local winners only one, Por Cádiz si se puede, was clearly an instrument of Podemos, using the terminology and purple colour of the party. By contrast, in the city of Madrid, where Podemos was born and where its whole core group is based, the civic list Ahora Madrid got nearly twice as many votes in the local election (519,200) as Podemos did in the regional election (287,600) that same day. Leadership of the progressive camp escaped Podemos in the regional assembly in favour of the Socialists, in stark contrast with Ahora Madrid’s clear win.

In general, the big successes went to civic lists that got the support, alongside regional progressive parties, of both the United Left and Podemos: Barcelona en Comú, Zaragoza en Común, A Coruña’s Marea Atlántica and Santiago’s Compostela Aberta. The very prominent exception was Madrid, where the local United Left split precisely over convergence with Podemos, to the point where regional party structures forced the pro-convergence candidates elected in primaries to resign, which in turn resulted in the national United Left turning its back on the local and regional lists in Madrid during the campaign.

Often, in cities where Podemos and the United Left failed to support a common list and ran separately, results were disappointing to both. These competing lists in some places at least have been able to support the election of Socialist mayors and contribute to ousting the right (Sevilla, Valladolid or Córdoba, for instance); in other cities, they remain in opposition to Conservative mayors (in Málaga or Murcia, for example).

The United Left, the traditional leader of Spain’s left that includes the Communist Party of Spain, learned their lesson the hard way. The relative disappointment of the May 2014 European parliamentary elections created internal pressure to change course, which grew as the party sunk in the polls and would-be voters migrated en masse to Podemos in the second half of 2014.

A new, young, pro-convergence leader, Alberto Garzón, did not manage to buck the trend. The party structures resisted, but convergence was an attractive option in many local and regional settings, and it did indeed happen in dozens of cities. The division in Madrid was the most visible crisis within the United Left, and resulted in the loss of all representation in both the city and the regional parliament for the first time since the reinstatement of democracy.

Regional results were disappointing across Spain: the United Left went from 35 to 9 parliamentarians, losing representation in four of the eight assemblies where it had been present. The local elections in most of Spain were a modest success: the United Left kept, by and large, the power it had (small gains compensated for losses), and it grew where it ran inside unity civic coalitions.

In València and its region, the big surprise of election day was not Podemos, but Compromís, a coalition between eco-socialists and progressive Valencian nationalists that had become the scourge of corrupt Conservative politicians in the region with a charismatic female leader, Mònica Oltra, whose passionate speeches in the regional parliament are a viral sensation amongst Spanish progressives.

Compromís came a close third, behind the Socialists, in the regional assembly, and a close second, behind the PP, in the city of València. The new mayor of Spain’s third city is thus Joan Ribó, from Compromís (backed by Socialists and Podemos to reclaim the city for the left after 24 years); and popular Mònica Oltra will most likely become a powerful vice-president and visible number two of a Socialist-led regional government in Spain’s fourth most populous region.

Compromís has thus become a desirable partner, and the most visible of a plethora of other relatively successful progressive nationalists and/or left green coalitions and parties that also exist in places like Catalonia (long-standing United Left ally ICV, and assembly-led pro-independence CUP), the Balearics (MES), Galicia (Anova) or even Aragon (CHA). Equo, the new-ish, small national green party, ensured some presence by converging with civic lists wherever it could (it gained councillors in 14 provincial capitals where it would otherwise probably have struggled to find any representation).

A Spanish Syriza?

Unsurprisingly, and with the perspective of legislative elections in the autumn, the debate about a unity list bringing together all options to the left of the Socialists is raging. Podemos and the United Left competed around the Greek elections in January 2015 to establish themselves as the Spanish equivalent to Syriza. The obvious contradiction, that Syriza started as a large coalition whereas these two parties stubbornly insisted in running alone or, at most, with junior partners, did not seem to register.

The results of the local and regional elections have transformed the debate. The United Left leader, Alberto Garzón, has already issued a call for a ‘popular unity’ (read ‘left of the Socialists’ unity) list, and other leaders, such as Equo’s Juan López Uralde, have shown their willingness. The first reaction of the Podemos core, built around the Complutense University professors and lecturers that started the party and created a centralized and tight vertical command, has been to reject the idea of a common brand and invite these groups to coalesce around the Podemos banner, as the greens of Equo did in Andalusia and Murcia. Popular unity, some argue, already exists and it is embodied by Podemos. Their position is understandable: in May Podemos was polling around 20% for the national elections, within striking distance of the Socialists; all the other groups put together poll under a third of that.

However, the opposition to diluting Podemos within a broad coalition is not shared by everyone in the party. In Catalonia, where regional elections are scheduled for September 27, the polls give Podemos relatively modest prospects, the independence issue means the political spectrum is much more diverse, the culture of coalitions is consolidated, and the wave of civic lists started (in Barcelona, which inspired all the others), the regional Podemos leader already has shown her readiness to join a list not necessarily dominated by Podemos the day after the local elections. Note that this was something the central leadership of the party explicitly rejected for the 13 regions at play in May. A group of prominent Podemos members, including former MEP Pablo Echenique (the closest to an alternative leader in the party, loser in the October 2014 first party conference but boosted by Podemos’ best regional result in Aragon, where he headed the list), issued a letter calling for the party to join in the spirit of popular unity and prepare to run in lists similar to the ones that got such good results in the large cities.

Podemos, and not just its leadership, is the main obstacle to a unity list, but by no means the only one. The successful civic lists benefited from not being seen as instruments either of Podemos or the United Left. Many failed that test, and maybe got less than an outright Podemos list may have obtained.

In Barcelona, the leadership of Ada Colau provided the rallying point around which everything else coalesced; party leaders – in particular the charismatic Pablo Iglesias – will be less inclined than their local counterparts to step aside within sight of a national election. A unity list may try to disguise itself as a civic initiative, but it will be, rightly, universally perceived as a coalition of parties, something the city lists were not. For all these reasons, there are serious doubts not just about the normal difficulties of rapidly assembling a list before November, but also about its overall added value.

Leaving aside all the difficulties that it would entail, what would be the prospects of a popular unity list? Useing local and regional elections as an indicator, with all due caution, there are reasons to think the benefits for the left may be considerable. If we take as the measure of success a result good enough to seriously threaten the Conservatives (ideally, to oust them) and to overtake the Socialists, that kind of success would seem possible in Madrid, the eastern regions of the former Crown of Aragon (Aragon,  Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearics) and perhaps even the North-West (Galicia and Asturias). In other regions the left unity list could get noticeable results, but the big two (PP and PSOE) seem at this point out of reach in all but a couple of exceptional provinces (like Podemos-enthused Cádiz, or politically atomized Navarre). All that still may be just enough to arrive ahead of the Socialists to emerge as the leaders of the alternative to the Popular party. Not an easy win by any stretch of imagination, but a plausible, if difficult, road to a victory that would have been unthinkable one year ago.

Existential dilemmas

Podemos is no longer a booming party and, according to the polls, it is in slow decline in the affections of Spaniards; the polls published after the May elections show a growing gap with the big two, and point to a share of vote similar to that obtained in regional elections. Podemos’s growth in the center stalled, and then receded, with the sudden emergence of Ciudadanos, a party that mirrored some of Podemos’s tactics (in particular in the media and social networks) from a liberal centre position.

The attempt to monopolize new politics in an old versus new frame of reference is also complicated by the successes of Ciudadanos. Podemos is increasingly placed on the left by voters: the broad populist appeal seems to have reached its limits. The party maintains its overwhelming popularity amongst the youngest voters (an advantage qualified by the fact that they are not many, nor are they very reliable in terms of actually voting), but has lost its once widespread appeal: as José Fernández Albertos describes it, Podemos is becoming less the party of the ‘indignados’ and more that of the excluded.   

Podemos’s explosive growth of 2014 was based on a skilful exploitation of the political momentum of Spain in crisis. The political equation, however, has changed. The Socialist party is not disintegrating as some had hoped (no PASOKIzation, one of Iglesias’s favorite Greek analogies).

Despite modest results in the local and regional elections, PSOE recovered a substantial amount of local and regional power, helped by its ability to form coalitions with nearly every political force, thereby reinforcing its claim to be the main alternative to PP. The Socialist new leader, Pedro Sánchez, has the control of the party and a decent public opinion rating.

The PP was the big loser in the election, but it withstood the ascent of Ciudadanos better than some polls indicated; it counts on a slow economic recovery that should keep bringing good news until November, and may gain back some voters, especially those satisfied that they have punished the party for its corruption in the regional and local elections already.

The two big parties together have recovered 5% of voter intention in the June polls, compared to one month before. The dream of a rapid ascent to power, and from there to a new hegemony, clearly articulated by Pablo Iglesias and his close associates, seems now a chimera.

At this point, the most likely result in November’s general election is not unlike the ones in most regions: around 15%-20%. That would not be enough to overcome the Socialists, and the options after the elections may well end up as being either entry into government as the junior partner of PSOE, a party that until the election had been reviled as a representative of ‘La Casta’, or staying outside in opposition to PSOE, perhaps after supporting its access to power, or even a PP-led government.

Contrast this with the far-fetched, but not totally implausible scenario of a successful popular unity list. Podemos cannot escape giving it careful consideration. The timing is terrible – four months, with summer in between, until the national elections – but the tempo of Spanish politics has accelerated to a point where four months can make a huge difference. Podemos has lost some of the freshness, the winner image that seduced not just Spain but many in Europe, and enough radicalism to alienate some of its enthusiastic followers (but not enough to soften its rough edges for crucial constituencies such as women and, in particular, older voters).

It has compromised already in cities and regions with the parties it reviled only weeks ago, in particular the Socialists. Pablo Iglesias had to take a step back in the local and regional elections’ campaign because his ubiquitous image risked in fact hurting some of the local and regional candidates, and the party itself. Unlike the successful winners of the big cities – non-partisan, consensus-builders – he cultivates a strident tone that may now limit the appeal of the party as much as it expanded it initially; he may try to soften it, but hundreds of viral videos will remain as a reminder.

There are good reasons for Podemos to resist the calls for a popular unity list, though. The party has declined in the polls, but remains a clear third in citizen preferences, at a level never attained by a third party in Spain. With a good campaign, and depending on the evolution of the political situation, it may rebound.

A unity list with parties that have existed for decades may well deprive Podemos of its current appeal as complete outsiders. And, afterwards, the resulting parliamentary group may find it difficult to rule in opposition, let alone as part of a government coalition. Ultimately, Pablo Iglesias and his colleagues from the Complutense University in Madrid, the core of Podemos, face a simple dilemma. If they go back to their original goals when they created the party (to shake the left of the Socialists into a new, competitive register, using the crisis to overtake PSOE, dislodge PP, and craft a new ideological hegemony that would beat austerity and neoliberalism out of those powers), the popular unity coalition seems the best choice.

But stepping aside and sharing the space with parties they have long seen as permanent losers has risks outside Podemos – no net gain, or even a loss in election appeal – and also inside – the cohesion and enthusiasm of the party members may falter as a result of the inevitable compromises. The decision may not even be theirs: negotiations with other partners, in particular the United Left, will be anything but easy. Ultimately, with a broad range of scenarios looming on the horizon – from being a powerless, if enlarged, representation of the left in a Parliament dominated by the two mainstream parties, all the way to holding government as a senior coalition partner of the Socialists – the decision of whether or not to go for popular unity may be the most important one in the short life of Podemos.

Created to enforce the unity of the Spanish left, Podemos has to decide whether it will try and embody it on its own, or become its instrument, at the cost of sacrificing the party’s extraordinary preeminence.

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