Can Europe Make It?

Podemos: the schizophrenic road from public squares to the institutions

If they are not going to win anyway, as seems to be the case, would it not have been better to compromise less and work toward a more profound political change as an opposition? Español.

Arianne Sved
17 December 2015

Since its birth in early 2014, Podemos experienced a dramatic rise in the polls during its first year followed by a significant nose dive throughout 2015. This roller coaster ride—which now seems to be climbing back up again—is due to several possible reasons. The truth probably lies in a combination of factors. 

What is undeniable is that the irreverent critique of the Spanish political system that Pablo Iglesias initially became known for struck a chord with a surprisingly large number of Spaniards, much beyond the traditional left. That was the plan precisely. People were sick and tired of so much injustice and corruption that Podemos seemed, without a doubt, a breath of fresh air. Most people I know said they were going to vote for Podemos back then. I remember a publicist friend trying to persuade me that Podemos wasn’t left wing. ‘Of course, it is’, I replied. ‘It’s just that Podemos leaders are very skilful at communicating left-wing ideas in new terms.’ Their language is partly inspired by the 15M and Occupy movements, which framed the conflict as the 99% versus the 1%, rather than left versus right.

The funny thing is, according to recent polls, that most people now consider Podemos to be far left, even further left than Izquierda Unida (‘United Left’), a coalition led by the Spanish Communist Party. So it seems that Podemos’s efforts to be perceived as mainstream are not working out so well.

Is it because of months of being trashed by the right-wing media? That may well be a factor. However, that same media has been equally cruel to recently elected municipal citizen platforms, Ahora Madrid and Barcelona en Comú—which include members of Podemos, but are not led by Podemos—and polls show that Madrid’s mayor Manuela Carmena and Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau are two of the best rated politicians in Spain.

Carmena and Colau’s popularity probably has something to do with the fact that neither of them resembles a conventional politician. They neither talk like politicians nor do they act like them, which can’t really be said for Pablo Iglesias.

Besides, both women have been instrumental in transcending party politics by bringing together different sensibilities for a common cause, a generosity which people obviously appreciate. Podemos joined these citizens’ platforms because the party wasn’t organized enough to run on its own for local elections in hundreds of towns and cities last May; also because its explicit raison d’etre was not to win local or regional elections, but rather the general elections.

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Dilemmas.Despite attempts by other parties and social movements to replicate the successful local ‘confluence’ model for the general elections, the leaders of Podemos refused to run with any other organizations that are not willing to submit to its brand name and, more importantly, its control. The only exceptions are in the regions of Catalonia, Galicia and Valencia, where Podemos is in a weaker position, due to the existence of regional left-wing parties, such as Iniciativa per Catalunya, Anova and Compromís.

However, Podemos has rejected joining forces with Izquierda Unida at the national level. A lot of people, including myself, are quite baffled by the arrogance Pablo Iglesias and his colleagues have shown towards a party that many of them were members of until not so long ago. One would almost suspect that there is some personal animus at stake here. Whatever the reason, this will obviously cost Podemos a good number of votes. Anyone could be a candidate in the primaries for the European Parliament and anyone could vote for these candidates online. Their political programme for the European elections was wide open to participation.

So, here we are, with the long-awaited general elections upon us; yet, Podemos’s so-called electoral machine is running out of steam. Even though polls have begun to look a little better in the past few weeks – particularly in the regions where Podemos is running in coalition with other formations – they are still far from having a real chance of beating either the governing right-wing party, Partido Popular (‘The Popular Party’), or its traditional ‘socialist’ counterpart, PSOE.

To make matters worse, Podemos is also competing against Ciudadanos (Citizens), a Catalan party that recently broke out as a national force and has been skyrocketing as fast as Podemos did a year earlier.

Podemos and Ciudadanos have things in common: both are young parties with a distinct anti-corruption message. But whereas Ciudadanos has managed to persuade most people that they are a moderate, centre party – even though their economic policies are disturbingly neoliberal – Podemos is losing the battle to occupy the ‘centre of the board’, as they call it. Did Podemos get the timing wrong? Should they have made their surprise appearance on the political scene ten months later than they did? Maybe. But they also needed time to organize.

Which brings me to another factor that has certainly played a role in Podemos’s downfall: the way they organized the party. It started off as an unconventional bottom-up party, where literally anyone could be a candidate in the primaries for the European Parliament and anyone could vote for these candidates online. Their political programme for the European elections was wide open to participation. I remember reading it and thinking that some of its most radical proposals, though exciting, were not viable for a country in today’s neoliberal, undemocratic EU. But it was definitely liberating to be able to say: this is our dream.

After receiving an unprecedented 8% of the votes after only a few months into its existence, it became obvious that Podemos had to create some sort of structure to prepare for the 2015 general elections. Deciding everything via the 15-M style assemblies was not going to be practical. However a lot of us feel that Podemos founders went too far in trying to create an efficient tool. However a lot of us feel that Podemos founders went too far in trying to create an efficient tool. The way primaries for their so-called Citizens’ Council were designed guaranteed that they were going to be formed almost exclusively by people chosen or approved by Iglesias and his closest collaborators, resulting in an excess of young academics and a blatant absence of working-class members. From that point on, the círculos (‘local circles’ or assemblies) stopped having any say in important decisions.

Despite maintaining certain aspects of online participation and a good deal of transparency in terms of its financing, Podemos has regrettably become a top-down, centralized party rather than the example of democracy so many of us had hoped it would be. Podemos has regrettably become a top-down, centralized party rather than the example of democracy so many of us had hoped it would be. The sense of disempowerment, and even deception, that this has caused in a lot of activists led us to pull back. The waning support of grassroot members has also played a significant role in weakening Podemos’s outreach.

On the other hand, Podemos’ leaders started to tone down both their message and their policies, proving eager to show that they were not the ‘irresponsible idealists’ they had once been (only a few months earlier); that they were a reliable alternative to the bipartisan politics as usual.

This strategy seems to be failing in several ways. Radical leftists are understandably disappointed, but so are potential young voters—typically abstainers—who now probably see Podemos as just another party, like all the rest. Moreover, I suspect that even many moderate progressives perceive this change of attitude as a disingenuous pandering to voters.Potential young voters—typically abstainers— …now probably see Podemos as just another party, like all the rest.

Unlike governing a city, governing a nation-state comes with some delicate responsibilities such as dealing with the European powers that be or having to make certain military decisions. Izquierda Unida can stay true to its anti-NATO stance, for example, because they know they are not going to govern Spain. But Podemos supposedly aspires to govern, which forces them to avoid making promises they cannot deliver, especially after what happened in Greece.

And herein lies the sense of schizophrenia I have felt all along regarding Podemos. How many compromises should Podemos be willing to make? If they are not going to win anyway, as seems to be the case, would it not have been better to compromise less and work toward a more profound political change as an opposition? I honestly don’t know. But one thing is sure: even in the unlikely event that Podemos wins the elections on December 20, it will only be able to do so much. A nation-state within the EU has its hands tied, and Pablo Iglesias knows this.

No national government alone, however progressive, can tackle the urgent need to radically transform both the European institutions and the global banking system. It is ultimately those unelected powers that constitute the roots of all evil, so it is about time we (politicians and regular citizens) transcend borders and come together to confront these powers. I can only hope that a strong presence of Podemos in the Spanish Parliament will at least be a step in that direction.

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