Can Europe Make It?

Podemos’ March for Change

Today’s show of mass support and the clear affection people in the crowd have for him will undoubtedly give Iglesias a much needed boost.

Cristina Flesher Fominaya
31 January 2015
Pablo Iglesias arrriving at Puerto del Sol.

Pablo Iglesias arrriving at Puerto del Sol. Ignacio Luna/Demotix. All rights reservedJudging by the huge smile on Pablo Iglesias’ face as he took the podium and looked out on the completely packed Puerta del Sol, Podemos’ Marcha del Cambio gamble has paid off.

The party’s decision to call for a March for Change on 31 January was a somewhat risky move in Podemos’ desire to maintain its reputation as a “hybrid party”, a party that is both political party and popular movement. After all, in Spain, movements call for protests, not parties, and if parties call for them, they are usually seen as political rallies and nothing more. 

People, and especially movement activists, are usually very sceptical if  not downright hostile of parties’ motives when they try to join mass protests. Hence the gamble. The other gamble was, given this degree of scepticism, whether or not Podemos would be able to mobilize sufficient numbers to demonstrate a show of force or whether the numbers would be small enough to allow the other parties and the media to question their popular support.  As party strategist Ïñigo Errejón recognized as he addressed the crowd:

“They have asked us many times why we called for this protest. What a strange protest isn’t it? We haven’t come to protest against anything. We have already protested too long without being heard. We also haven’t come to ask for anything. We did not come to ask anyone for anything. We came to celebrate that in 2015 the people are going to recover our sovereignty and recover our country. We also came to reach out to others. There are many of us here, but many people are missing and to those people we offer an open hand.

Whoever you voted for, wherever you come from, whether you trust these ones or those ones , if you are indignant about what is happening in our country… you are all our people, wherever you come from…This is a foundational moment. This is a constituent moment of a new country that  has decided to recover its sovereignty, to recover its democracy. The time is now….Yes we can!”

Leading in the polls

2015 is an important year in Spain’s electoral calendar, with municipal, autonomous community and general elections all expected to take place this year, although President Rajoy might avail himself of a loophole that allows him to delay the elections until the beginning of 2016. According to a source within Podemos, part of the reason for this Podemos march was precisely to try to force his hand and call for early elections, taking advantage of Podemos’ current lead in the polls.

Rita Maestre, member of Podemos’ national citizen council and one of the event organizers, answered criticisms that the march was simply a move to raise the party’s profile before the upcoming elections by saying “"That is not true. For most people it isn’t a Podemos march it is a citizens’ march”.

There were a number of striking features that distinguished this march from other protest marches in Madrid, particularly those associated with the original 15-M movement. The first was how old the crowd was. Although there were some young people present, the vast majority of the crowd was over 30 and many marchers were in their 60s and 70s. The people marching today in Madrid are not the young 15-M protesters of 2011.

It isn’t that the youth have become less active, it’s simply that they are being active in spaces that allow them to express themselves politically in a way more in tune with their youth political culture. It is also the case that Podemos enjoys strong support for many young activists in Madrid, and Youth Without Future, one of the groups behind the original 15-M protest, lost about half its assembly when they left to devote themselves to developing the party in its early stages. However, it was clear that despite Iglesias’ statement that the 15-M youth were there, they were not very much in evidence.

The second feature is that the crowd included social movement groups whose totality of members do not necessarily support Podemos, but won’t pass by any opportunity to march on the streets. Such is the case of the group marching for the recovery of historical memory and justice for the victims of Franco and  the 15 M Mayores (15M Older People) assembly.  Although the inclusion of these groups dilutes the strong pro-Podemos identity of the crowd, it also reinforces the party’s image as being strongly connected to grassroots movements and to being open to working with anyone who shares a “desire for change” (as Errejón mentioned in his speech). Either way, the party wins: it increases its numbers which helps reinforce its political legitimacy vis-à-vis the established parties and maintains its claim to being fuelled by grassroots mobilization on the ground.

The third feature was the very hands off attitude of the police, who had clearly been told to keep well back. Normally at protest or social movement marches the police and the riot vans are placed in much greater proximity to the crowd.

A party event

Podemos has used the march to consolidate their lead but at the same time maintain the idea that they are a hybrid movement /party that primarily seeks to give expression to popular feelings and needs. The call for the protest stated : “ What before seemed impossible is now closer than ever, change is possible. It is possible to recover our rights,  possible to recover our hope,  it is possible that our institutions govern for the people and not for the elites”. 

However open Podemos are to collaborations and participation, the march was clearly a party event. At the end of the march, four members of the party leadership took the stage, against a backdrop of Podemos purple, along with their endorsed candidate for the leadership of Madrid, Luis Alegre, and two other party members who delivered the opening speeches.

Pablo Iglesias took the stage and first embraced each previous speaker before stepping up to the podium amid chants of “Pablo! Pablo!”

 “How beautiful! How beautiful it is to see people making history!” he began, before launching into a rousing speech punctuated by a recurrent refrain,  repeated at the end of almost every paragraph : “We must dream, but we take our dreams very seriously”.  Iglesias managed to effectively cover and reference all of the major social struggles in Spain over the past three years, thanking all of those who have fought against austerity.

In addition to the themes of anti-austerity and anti-corruption, and recovering sovereignty and democracy, the emphasis on nation and national sovereignty was strongly recurrent throughout Iglesias’ speech, which evoked Quixote, Machado and other national cultural symbols, and grounded Spain’s nationhood in a shared history and a rootedness in place and space, rather than abstractions. 

Iglesias made the place he was standing, Madrid’s Puerta del Sol , a central protagonist of his speech. He recalled the many fights for liberty that have taken place there, alluding to them clearly but without ever using Spain’s divisive trigger words ‘Republica’ or ‘Franquismo’, instead speaking of how those “below” fought for liberty, democracy, justice and the “dignity of our country”  against  terror and totalitarianism. “This Puerta del Sol has witnessed the recovery of our freedoms” he continued, “ and on that 15th of May, thousands of young people cried ‘They don’t represent us! We want democracy!’ Those brave people are here today, you are the force of change, thank you for being here”.

Syriza and the winds of change

“The winds of change are blowing over Europe!” he declared, before enumerating  the many changes Syriza had gained for Greek citizens in their first week of government. “Who says change is not possible?” he asked, but made no mention of Syriza’s 100% male cabinet nor its decision to form an alliance with the racist/xenophobic and homophobic right wing anti-Troika party ANEL. 

Tsipras’ appointment of a 100% male cabinet set the Spanish Twittersphere on fire with the hashtag #sinmujeresnohaydemocracia (Without women there is no democracy) becoming  a trending topic in Spain. Although some members of Podemos have criticized the gender configuration of Tsipras’ cabinet, and have reiterated their own commitment to gender parity, the response has been to largely look the other way and to celebrate SYRIZA’s victory as a great popular success soon to be replicated in Spain.

Neither Iglesias, Monedero or Errejón, seen as the three most visible spokespeople for the party, have issued any statements about this issue. This has angered some supporters, and is likely to reinforce the feeling that they are opting to pursue politics as usual (celebrate “winning” at any cost to principles) rather than taking a strong stand on the principle of gender equality and political representation even if that means openly criticizing their brothers in arms.

Luis Alegre, cofounder, member of the Podemos power nucleus and candidate of Claro que Podemos (the lists aligned with Pablo Iglesias and most likely to win if the trend established in the elections to the party organs and citizen councils are any indication) did state in answer to a direct question in an interview to El “ We believe it is regrettable that there are no women ministers in the Greek government. It is obvious that in Podemos we believe in equality and in gender parity in our party organs and our electoral  lists. It seems to us incomprehensible and regrettable to renounce half of the country’s talent in a situation of change such as that which (Tsipras/Syriza) will face. It seems to us rather absurd.”

Protest and winning

Carolina Bescansa, Podemos’ cofounder and Secretary of Political and Social Analysis, has stated that Podemos has two souls, one dedicated to protest and one to winning.  Podemos’ attempt to maintain the balance between party and citizens’ movement is a challenge that becomes ever more difficult as they advance into the treacherous waters of electoral politics, facing the institutional structures and practices of established parties. The more they are perceived as just another party, the less powerful and effective their anti-party party stance becomes.

The PP and PSOE and associated media have attempted to undermine the moral high ground that Podemos has established as an anti-corruption party by trying to smear Juan Carlos Monedero’s reputation, alleging that his earnings as a consultant for various Latin American governments were somehow illegal or fraudulent, despite such allegations being thrown out of court for lack of any grounds to proceed. Podemos’ supporters are having none of it, and chanted “Monedero! We are with you!” at the end of the speeches. Iglesias is beginning to show signs of wear from an exhausting schedule, relentless scrutiny and the vociferous political attacks of a threatened political establishment. Today’s show of mass support and the clear affection people in the crowd have for him will undoubtedly give him a much needed boost.

But some voices within the party and observers have also been uncomfortable with the overwhelming success of candidates who are running with the Claro que Podemos seal of approval (aligned with the party leadership).

However participatory the mechanisms, clearly the media presence and advantage offered to candidates by the endorsement by Iglesias, Monedero, Errejón and Bescansa are swaying voters within the party. This reinforces a perception that personalismos - a sort of cult of personality around leaders and a constant feature of the Spanish political landscape - are alive and well in the party. Some activists in Madrid have ironically taken to referring to the party as “Pablemos” in reference to Iglesias’ strong influence and the cult of personality that has sprung up around him. These are the same activists who are likely to perceive today’s march as a distasteful exercise in populism, rather than an expression of grassroots politics “from below”.

No nos fallemos

The biggest show of support yet for the anti-austerity party in Sol Square.

The biggest show of support yet for the anti-austerity party in Sol Square. Czuko Williams/Demotix. All rights reserved.Podemos has a long road to march until the general elections. Although Spain has a strong alternative critical press, especially in the digital sphere, many mainstream outlets are dominated by the established majority parties. Podemos’ success to date is nothing less than extraordinary. Podemos’ leadership, and particularly Iglesias himself, must feel the enormous pressure placed on them by their supporters’ high and perhaps impossible expectations.  Errejón made reference to this in his speech: “We constantly hear people say to us, ‘Don’t let us down’, but we say let’s not let each other down (No nos fallemos)”.  Podemos will continue to be attacked from all sides as it tries to maintain its lead. Syriza’s victory and the boost from the success of their March for Change might help them along the way. And as the vox populi puts it: What could possibly be worse than what we have now?

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