Podemos: what is it?

Puerta del Sol in Madrid during the 2011 Spanish protests

Puerta del Sol in Madrid during the 2011 Spanish protests

Podemos is a new political option in the Spanish state. For now it is not much more than an idea, and it will go for elections for the first time for the European Parliament, a contest wherein–for reasons I will discuss later–the left has certain advantages. It’s been compared to other movements in different countries, such as the Italian Five Star Movement or SYRIZA. However, these comparisons are not adequate to characterise what I will argue is a new strategic approach to organisation.

In order to understand Podemos, one must understand some facts of the spanish economic and political conjuncture, so I’ll have to describe some of the key differential factors at play.

Everyone knows by now that Spain is in a deep economic crisis, together with much of the Eurozone. However, each country has their own particularities in the way the crisis manifests. In the Spanish case, around 2007, during the 2nd term of the PSOE government, Spain had good figures for public deficit, debt, growth and unemployment–historically low for Spain. However, the economy had been fueled, not–like many now claim–through public spending, but through private debt on cheap credit. For example, in 2003, Spain built more housing than Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom put together. This economic model, which began with the liberaisation of the use of land through law 7/1997, resulted in a speculative frenzy that ended up with an outsized housing stock, doomed to crash hard.

In spite of many calls by all sectors of society to change the productive model, the PSOE government ignored and denied the signs of deterioration until the so-called best banking system in the world began to show the unsustainable indebtedness of the Spanish society at large. Unlike other governments in Europe at the time, the PSOE did attempt a keynesian counter-cyclical exit to the crisis, but its fiscal and financial constraints given the prevailing pro-austerity policies in Europe and the ECB’s reluctance to back such a course of action, made it impossible for the stimulus to be large or sustained enough in time to improve matters to any significant extent. Thus, the 2011 elections and the victory by absolute majority of the PP.

Corruption cases, the mismanagement of the economy, accusations of profligacy in the use of public moneys on its right and of betrayal of its social model on its left, led to the worst result in PSOE’s history. The 15M movement, the indignados, arose as a social force to try to oppose the policies and cuts imposed from European institutions and the German state. Paradoxically, the 15M movement which started as non-partisan and opposed to the two-party system, resulted in the effective control of Parliament by one single party, the right wing PP, which came to power on the narrative of solving the crisis through common sense, austerity, and the withdrawal of the scope of state action.

Of course, the PP’s victory and the systematic and shameless breach of its electoral programme, which promised tax decreases and no cuts to healthcare and education, mobilised ever more ample sectors on the left. The trade unions, though also hit by distrust due to their links to the state through subsidies, managed to call for two rather successful general strikes. The PAH, movement of persons affected by mortgages, called for very large demonstrations opposing foreclosures and evictions, which are morally and economically grotesque in a country with orders of magnitude more empty housing units than homeless people. The “mareas”, tides, managed to organise strong opposition by all stakeholders–workers, citizens, activists, trade unions, and sectors of the political left–against the policy of cuts and privatisation through stealth of the key public services: education and healthcare.

However, these movements never attempted to constitute themselves as first-class political actors. The PAH did give course to a popular legislative initiative, for which Spanish law requires half a million authentic signatures, allowing for people evicted from their homes to at least be thereby freed from the mortgage debt. This initiative was, on the light of alarming numbers of suicides linked to eviction attempts, taken up by Parliament, and there it was defanged and made useless. Likewise, in spite of the impressive support obtained by the tides, the stop to the privatisation of the capital’s healthcare system was attained through legal means, by the PSOE’s action in the courts. The main left coalition, United Left, did increase its electoral prospects, but it seems to be incapable of gaining the support of these social movements, in spite of their cadre being an indispensable element in their organisation.

The limits of the non-institutional approach have become obvious to many, and here’s the root of Podemos as a political formation: an attempt to mobilise the existing forces of social unrest into an institutional and self-consciously political form. Podemos was started by a professor of political science who often participates in TV political debates, which makes him famous. On its ranks there are actors, and other people from the cultural milieu, which is what perhaps suggests similarities to the Five Star Movement. However, Podemos is a consciously left organisation–none of that “beyond left and right” stuff–and it is, in deed and not only in word, dedicated to democracy. While the FSM is controlled by its charismatic leader through such means as contracts and a trademark, Podemos is devised as a completely democratic and open formation, where its participants can propose and vote on policy, choose the party lists, and generally realise effective democratic control of the apparat, so much so that the founder of the party, Pablo Iglesias, has stated that he’s perfectly willing to support whatever list arises from internal democracy whether he is included in it or not.

Part of the criticism addressed at Podemos is focused on its potential to divide the left vote. The Spanish electoral system uses the d’Hondte method for assigning seats, which is a slightly majoritarian-biased proportional representation method. From this, together with the uneven and arbitrary size of districts, division can be lethal to the success of a political option. However, this is not as true in elections for the European Parliament, both because they work on the basis of a single national district, and because voters are often more willing to abandon the two major political parties to declare their disatisfaction with their duopoly. Even more so, it is clear to many that Podemos has a perfectly compatible platform and programme with that of United Left, and they have expressed their interest in concurring on the same lists, on the condition that the mechanism to elect the candidates becomes democratic. This goes to the nature of United Left as a coalition led and in some measure controlled by the PCE (Communist Party of Spain).

The PCE has always been hostile to the celebration of open primaries to choose party lists within United left, and through its control of the party organs, which is fair given the sizes of the parties involved, it has always set its own candidate as head of the list. This, which is not entirely undemocratic given the support bases of the different component parts of IU, is nonetheless unattractive to many on the left, who would wish for a more transparently democratic process without PCE’s veto. In a sense, then, Podemos is a challenge to IU to democratise itself. It’s hoped that they will concur on a common list, elected by the membership in direct primaries, hence summing the support of the organised communist movement and its satellite organisations, the green and republican elements in IU, and the famous faces from Podemos. Whether this pans out and results in a coherent and solid option to the EU elections and beyond depends, largely, on the PCE’s willigness to relinquish its control over IU.

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About modulus

Modulus is an unaffiliated Marxist from South Western EU (Spanish state). He studied computer science and law, and is at present preparing for civil service exams for the Spanish administration. An avid IRC user, he enjoys arguments and will occasionally play devil's advocate. He regards himself as orthodox and is concerned about unscientific attitudes on the left on such things as nuclear energy, biotechnology, and so on. His support for the European Union as a platform to unify the class struggle across the continent has earned him plenty of strong opposition, and doubtless will continue to do so; until, that is, his view is vindicated by history.
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2 Responses to Podemos: what is it?

  1. James O'Brien says:

    Thanks for the background on Podemos. Have you any evidence that Pablo Iglesias is not a reincarnation of Pablo Iglesias πŸ™‚

    If Podemos have a compatible platform and programme with the United Left, one has to question their reason for existing in the first place. At least they are talking to the IU.

    These faddish new movements who always promise to be a breath of fresh democratic air come and go like the seasons while the old time communist parties, despite all their faults, have the not inconsiderable feat of lasting decades. If I were in the PCE I’d be a bit skeptical of jumping to the tune of the latest fad from the streets and television stations.

    Why should the PCE dispense with its organisational practices, in this case those that serve the IU, in favour of yet another will of the wisp democratic somethingorother.

    And the IU, as I understand it, is a coalition with a particularly strong PCE at its fore. By its nature such coalitions can’t just operate by simply voting or the largest party will win almost everything and they will cease to be a coalition and become a unified party.

    Now such coalitions are not my preferred choice but given that one exists and given that there is presumably no quick route to a single unified party it could well be risky to adopt a Podemos approach particularly if they are not willing to accept the discipline that being part of a party entails.

    Sure, if the PCE or the IU are entirely calcified internally there is a case for democratic renewal or even a new party. But that case has to be made. Do you know if they are making it?

    It’s not clear that Podemos are, in any case, more democratic than the PCE or the IU. There are a number of ways to facilitate the participation of the membership in any organisation. Direct voting is only one of them, and not always the best, especially if the glare of publicity inflates the profile of celebrity candidates.

    Sure, if IU accept Podemos way of doing things, they could get a boost from the media, especially if a few high profile people become their face. But it’s also likely that a couple of years down the line, the media will turn against them, leading them to fracture. And if, in accommodating Podemos, the PCE / IU have decommissioned their actually existing functional structures then there won’t be any radical left at all in a few years. It sure isn’t easy starting from scratch.

    Perhaps what Podemos are asking for is very modest. In any case, caution is in order. If they are serious they won’t be insisting on drastic change in the IU before this election but will work within it for the next few years in order to enhance its internal democracy in a way that will be sustainable for the coalition.

  2. modulus says:

    Hi, James,

    First off, I didn’t notice the comment until now, so sorry about the delay.

    It would be good if Pablo Iglesias were Pablo Iglesias, definitely πŸ˜‰

    Regarding the PCE’s scepticism, I think you’re trying to teach the grandmother how to suck eggs. There is a pretty strong sense in the PCE that open primaries are a bad idea. As it happens, I think personally that this is a mistake, simply because at some level it doesn’t matter so much who you send but what programme they run on. Letting people make the choice of who gets to run seems relatively harmless to me.

    The issue is that IU is as you say PCE-dominated. This is a fact, in spite of all written statute and good intentions, on the basis that the PCE is the real engine of IU: membership, cadre, organisation, in all these things the PCE is the only party within IU worth the name, and the only one which, were it necessary, could make its way without the coalition.

    Where you go wrong is, in my view, in considering 1) that opening the primaries would increase the PCE’s control of IU–which for all practical purposes is complete–and 2) you’re confusing the effects of open primaries to determine candidate lists for elections with open primaries for internal party organs.

    IU could very easily let the base, or even everyone who wants to–which is the Podemos proposal, to let non-party members vote if they pay a nominal fee–choose the candiates for MEPs without modifying the programme, internal balance of forces in party organs, and so on. These two things don’t need to coincide and, in my view, there’s some virtue in separating the organic leadership within the parties, whose job is to strategise, produce a programme, and so on, from the outer faΓ§ade of candidates whose job is, being blunt, looking good and drawing voters. If they are good orators and can make our case in Parliament with vigour and elegance, all the better.

    I don’t think there’s any real danger that the PCE will dismantle its organic apparat. The demands are limited to the choosing of candidates. There’s another formation, within IU itself, called Izquierda Abierta (open left), which is directed by the previous General Coordinator of IU (equivalent of sec. gen.) and which also supports the position that open primaries should be celebrated.

    It looks to me like we can’t speak of the degree of democracy within Podemos until it actually exists. For now, in spite of the paper trail, it is not much more than a potentially good idea and a bunch of people who support it. From that to becoming an actual party in the sense of being a cohesive organisation with coherent strategy and goals, there is quite a distance, and Podemos is far from having crossed it.

    It’s true that the use of famous people is a double-edged sword, and that what comes in fashion can just as easily go out of fashion. Nonetheless, I do think Podemos are pointing at a real problem: the detachment and disaffection of the common people from all political formations–including IU, in spite of its modest growth in the surveys–and that beyond a catchy name and the draw of celebrity, it is proposing something that has a much higher impact: realising a greater degree of democratic control within structures that have become, in appearance but also in fact, unaccountable to the people.

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