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.