Can Europe Make It?

The rise of Podemos and its People's Assembly

How has Podemos gone from inception to Spain's most popular political party in less than a year?

Mike Pope
17 November 2014
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Pablo Iglesias in debate, February, 2014. Demotix/Nacho Goytre. All rights reserved.

Podemos, the Spanish political party, held its first ever People’s Assembly in the Palacio Vistalegre in Madrid last October. The event was significant for a number of reasons: it was a display of the party’s organizational abilities, an indication of its public support and an opportunity to demonstrate its democratic credentials.

Never before in Spain’s history had a major political party asked its members to decide the manner in which it should be organized. Podemos was doing just that. If it could get through the assembly with an agreed upon proposal, it was hoped the party would continue to grow as a legitimate force within Spanish politics. By the end of October, less than two weeks after the People’s Assembly had finished, rumors abounded that Podemos had reached the zenith of Spanish politics and become the most popular party in the country.

The party was able to do this by capturing the public imagination as it popularized politics; reacting to the plight of the majority and proposing policies accordingly. Thousands of Spaniards had been kicked out of their homes by the Spanish courts for unpaid rent; Podemos said they would stop the practice. Spain had the highest rates of youth unemployment in the European Union; Podemos said they would provide a minimum salary for all citizens to prevent them from having to accept poor working conditions and to stimulate the economy. Spain had to pay back massive loans and the interest incurred on the debt due to the banking sector bailout; Podemos said it would itemize the nation’s debt to determine which parts were illegitimate and thus wouldn’t be paid. The minimum wage in Spain was lowered to €645 a month, Podemos limited its politicians salaries to just three times that amount.

The key members of Podemos had said from the initiation of the party that they weren’t content with just playing a bit part role within the Spanish political system and that they wanted to win an outright majority. The People’s Assembly was a key element of this progression because despite the party’s success in the European Elections, no attempt had yet been made to organize the party’s structure.

Inevitably for an organization so young, there were many things not yet in place yet and it was essential that the people had a say in how this was done. Recognizing the demands and indignation of the Spanish people and implementing that frustration into an accessible movement was the only way Podemos could hope to topple an entrenched two party system.

Thus the People’s Assembly was called to decide the structure of the party and the differing opinions and proposals put forward inevitably provoked discussions and disagreements within the party. However, these debates were encouraged and necessary and were never hidden. Instead, the entire assembly was streamed live and watched by the thousands in attendance and many more online.

Pablo Iglesias as per usual, was at the forefront of the debate, with his own proposal for the party’s future structure. He asked the crowd not to cheer during one of his speeches and declared that the heavens aren’t taken by consensus but by force - a now iconic moment in Spanish political history.

The People’s Assembly was held at the Palacio Vistalegre, the once spiritual home of the Spanish Socialist party but abandoned since 2011. During Spain’s last General Election the leader of the Socialist Party Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero decided not to stage the party’s conference there for fear they would not fill it and the resulting negative media attention that would surround such an incident.

They went on to lose the election. It was no coincidence that Podemos decided to stage their first People’s Assembly at this location. In their eyes the Socialist Party long ago abandoned its roots as the defender of the Spanish working class, choosing instead to join the corrupt political elite. Thus, in keeping with Podemos’ claim of being a party of people run by the people they took on the mantle of filling the stadium. The event was paid for like everything Podemos does, by crowdfunding, and those in attendance were also asked to pay a €5 entry fee. Yet despite the youthfulness of the party, the event was well attended.

Nevertheless this was surprising, considering the negative media attention Podemos received after its success in May’s European Elections. The party gained five European Members of Parliament and over one million votes and the Spanish press had been quick to label Podemos and its organizers as populists taking advantage of the difficult situation the country finds itself in.

Likewise, the People’s Assembly was covered throughout the Spanish press but to mixed reviews as members of Podemos featured daily on Spain’s main public television channels, radio stations and newspapers. When it became apparent that some of the most well known members of the organization were split over the proposed structure of the party, some media outputs tried to project the dispute as a sign of weakness or internal struggle. The members of Podemos, however, simply stated that in a true democracy there are always disagreements and that to air them in public was a reflection of the party’s strength.

However, the charismatic leadership of Podemos is one factor in its success that should not be underestimated. The Editor of the conservative Spanish newspaper La Razon, Francisco Marhuenda, was not wrong when he said the Spanish people loved Pablo Iglesias, the figurehead of the party. Pablo Iglesias, a university professor and television pundit, had become one of the most familiar faces in Spain, and without question the spokesman of Podemos in the build up to the Assembly.

A longtime host of independent TV shows such as Fort Apache and La Tuerka, Iglesias erupted into the mainstream with his frequent appearances on some of Spain’s mainstream channels, his long hair, goatee and unbuttoned shirts separating him from the majority of politicians. His sharp tongue, intelligence and confidence in the spotlight have helped to launch Podemos on Spain's political stage.

This effort was reflected by the number of people who participated in the People’s Assembly with over 110,000 members of Podemos voting to decide the structure of the party. Several different proposals were put forward but in reality only two were ever really contested. The Claro que podemos (Of course we can) proposal presented by Pablo Iglesias and Sumando podemos (Together we can) put forward by Pablo Echenique.

Iglesias’ model of a party with one leader, as opposed to the rotating three-way leadership suggested by Echenique, won 80.71% of the votes cast. Despite the well-publicized arguments and Pablo Echneique’s defeat, Podmeos was strengthened by the process. With Pablo Iglesias as the undisputed leader of the party and its organizational structure confirmed, many of the criticisms once levied at them were no longer valid.

The response of the established political parties to the People’s Assembly and the rise of Podemos was to blame themselves for the situation and to promise to do better. Both the ruling Conservative party and the opposition Socialists tried to play down the surge of support for Podemos. They claimed it was merely a temporary blip caused by the inevitable frustration and anger of the Spanish people and that come election time they would not be fooled by such populist rhetoric.

Both parties, along with the conservative media, repeatedly asserted that a vote for Podemos was a vote for a Chavez-like regime akin to Venezuela’s Bolivian Revolution - something many Spaniards had been told for years was undemocratic and dangerous. Yet neither party was able to downplay the polls that followed.

Following the People’s Assembly and with the confirmation that Pablo Iglesias would continue as leader, Podemos registered two major feats in Spain’s most recent political polls. On Sunday, November 2, the most read Spanish newspaper, El Pais, released data indicating that Podemos would receive 27.7% of the popular vote. Meaning it was the most supported party in the country just eleven months after its inception.

Three days later on Wednesday, November 5, a different poll by the Spanish Centre of Investigations claimed that Podemos would earn 22.5% of the vote, shattering the two party system.  Since Spain began its democratic transition in 1978 following the near 40-year dictatorship of Francisco Franco, only two parties have ever ruled, but in less than a year Podemos had become a mainstay in the country’s politics. Now it too could rule.

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