Spain’s political draw: a problem of programme or image?

Sunday, June 26, Spanish elections. A new alliance between Podemos and Izquierda Unida aims to unlock the political stalemate that occurred in the last elections. What is the calculation behind it?

Javier Franzé
25 June 2016
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.


Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito.Wikicommons/ Vecchia Cancelleria. Some rights reserved.On Sunday, June 26, new elections are held in Spain. After the failed attempt to form government, the biggest news to come out of the draw is the alliance between Podemos and Izquierda Unida (IU). This political party on the left of the Socialist Party was born in the eighties linked to the Communist Party and to the protests against the Spanish entry into NATO. In the last election IU won a million votes, while Podemos had five million, 300 thousand less than the Socialists. The aim of this alliance is to remove the Socialist Party from second place and force them to negotiate a progressive government in a weaker position, although the most likely scenario is the victory of the conservative Popular Party, without an absolute majority to govern. In sum, the Podemos-IU confluence aims to unlock the political stalemate occuring in the last elections. But how does this calculation work?

Macchiavelli was one of the first thinkers discovering – as Lefort has explained – how politics is always on tenterhooks between what you really are and what you seem to be. Macchiavelli analysed this during the XVI Century, when the intermediation was less complex in terms of ways and possibilities than today. Therefore, his metaphor was simply: politics is not the same in piazza as it is in palazzo.

During the second week of April, Podemos launched an internal consultation through which their affiliates could display their preferences. They were asked to choose between supporting an already existing alliance between the Socialist Party (PSOE) and a new right-wing political force called Ciudadanos (literally, “Citizens”) or, on the contrary, creating a different one in order to develop a “government for change”. This second option means the rejection of the previous alliance, trying to appeal to left political forces including the Socialist Party to join in pursuing government with the majority of the parliament’s seats. This second option won, attracting more than 90% of the votes.

The result of the Podemos internal election – without considering the opportunity and the way in which it was outlined – generates the following scenario: Podemos´ affiliates do not want an alliance with “Citizens” but they do with the Socialist Party, although not at any cost: only in order to build a “government for change”.

In fact, it couldn't be any other way. There is no compatibility among Podemos and “Citizens”, not only if we pay attention to the Being but also taking into account the Seeming. Both forces reject each other. So that’s fine. It gives clarity to the debate and therefore to the democratic process.

Podemos and “Citizens” are not compatible because their platforms have key differences: regarding the social and economic question and the territorial organization of the State. Podemos and “Citizens” share only a few aims, for example regarding democratic regeneration: not enough to support a government. They match on secondary things, not on main points.

In their Seeming they have also distinct differences. We may point out that both present themselves as “the new politics”. They do, but with a very important difference: Podemos presents themselves as the new party against the old. By contrast “Citizens” present themselves as new ones, but without going against the old. That does not involve a value judgment, so much as a characteristic feature of “Citizens” identity, which can be seen as positive or negative. “Citizens” do not want to confront the political and economic elites who have led Spanish politics since the transition to democracy. On the contrary, “Citizens” want to present themselves as a party focused on regenerating the Spanish political order, which still shares its fundamental assumptions. Where one person might see this as “true governance” and “spirit of consensus”, another will only see “continuity” and “conservatism”.

The biggest tension among the Being and the Seeming lies in the Socialist Party. In fact, at the level of Being they have few differences with Podemos, but they do in the Seeming, and as a result, the Socialist Party values their alliance with the “Citizens”.

Except with regard to Spain’s territorial organization, the Socialist Party platform is very similar to that of Podemos. However up till now the Socialist Party has not wished to appear to be negotiating alone with Podemos. In that process, the Socialists could lose their image of “centrism” and “ruling party”, as couched in terms of the political culture of the Transition. Therefore, for the Socialist Party the best prospect would be joining an alliance with Podemos and with the ‘Citizens’ simultaneously, although none of them would ever accept that formula. This tripartite alliance would be the only option guaranteeing Socialist Being and the Seeming at the same time, leaving the other two new parties dislocated. 

The fact that PSOE could make a bilateral agreement with “Citizens” but not just with Podemos shows the greater importance of Seeming over Being, as Macchiavelli articulated it, since mediation is insurmountable: there is no authenticity achievable, and maybe because of that, all the parties and politicians work to attain it.

This could also explain why the Popular Party, despite their brusque criticism of the Socialists, is able to suggest a big coalition with the Socialists, and even with the  “Citizens”, but never with Podemos, and also why PSOE rejects that agreement – and why Podemos meanwhile rejects an agreement with “Citizens”.

The current political stand-off in Spain is first of all a cultural draw, so we must understand it as a matter of imaginaries, identities and ways of doing politics. This political stalemate consists in a situation in which everyone wants to make an agreement with one who does not want to have an alliance with the former, because none of the possible agreements satisfies the Being without harming the Seeming of the forces which would take part in that deal.

The Socialist Party bears such a major tension between Being and Seeming, because in order to govern they really should re-signify their image, their Seeming, proving to themselves as well that it is possible to be a democratic and transformative force without being a “centrist” party.

Maybe this tension belongs to the Transition in itself. In both cases, the tension looks like a paradox: what is easiest in terms of Being (the programmatic level) is (or they believe it) the most onerous in terms of Seeming (the image level).

Likewise, maybe the Transition feels more threatened by Podemos in the field of Seeming than in the field of the Being.

* This article was translated into English by Rosa de la Fuente. 

How to cite:
Franzé J.(2016) Spain’s political draw: a problem of programme or image?, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements,25 June. https://opendemocracy.net/javier-franz/spain-s-political-draw-problem-of-programme-or-image


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