Podemos: Reclaiming Democracy



Podemos have taken the Spanish political scene by storm since their formation just over a year ago. They are challenging the ruling People’s Party (PP) at the top of opinion polls, they have a growing membership that currently stands at over 350,000 – more than the combined membership of Labour and the Conservatives – and they can mobilise support like no other party can, the Madrid march at the end of January is evidence of this.

Podemos are described, often in a detrimental fashion, as radicals or populists but this is more a symptom of the neoliberal and centrist form of politics that the PP and PSOE have employed and consolidated in post-Franco Spain. Speaking to Column F, Manuel Maroto, who was elected to the Commission for Democratic Guarantees within Podemos, highlighted that Podemos openly tries to circumvent right/left categories so that it isn’t relegated to the marginal political position of ‘radical left.’ In Spain, around 40% of voters describe themselves as ‘moderate’ so support from this group is critical if any party is to win an election. Manuel also explained how Podemos’ “political language and election manifestos might reclaim political spaces that were previously abandoned by traditional parties, particularly PSOE (the ideals of a social democracy Scandinavian-style).” Appealing to moderate voters is important for developing a broad support base, in this respect Podemos talk about popular unity and citizen empowerment, ideals that are manifested through Podemos circles (a participatory space for local decision-making) and their support for citizens’ platforms in this year’s municipal elections. The idea of a citizens’ platform originated in Barcelona (Barcelona en Comú) but has now spread to other cities across Spain. The platform operates with direct democracy: proposals are drawn up collectively, elected council members would be representatives of decisions made by the collective, organisational structures are horizontal and legitimacy is gained through the endorsement of local people.

Research published in February by Spain’s Sociological Research Centre (CIS) highlights the link between Podemos and the concerns of the electorate. When asked to assess the current political situation, only 2.5% of people responded ‘good’ or ‘very good,’ while 78.7% responded ‘bad’ or ‘very bad.’ There is a strong desire for change in Spain and this is also reflected in a distrust of politicians, over 55% of people considered corruption and fraud to be a major problem in Spain. Podemos have successfully positioned themselves in opposition to the la casta (the caste or the class), a term used to describe both local and national politicians and their links with business – not dissimilar to what many people would consider to be the ’1%.’ The case of Rodrigo Rato, a former PP finance minister and head of the IMF who was found to have used company credit cards to ‘enhance’ his salary when he was the President of Bankia, a Madrid-based savings bank, highlights this nexus between the mainstream parties, the finance sector and the international organisations that increasingly restrict government policy.

Aside from corruption, unemployment is considered to be the biggest problem in Spain by the electorate (almost 80% said it was a major issue) and although it has not been utilised by Podemos as much as people’s contempt towards la casta, it has contributed to a fall in support for PP and PSOE. The aftermath of the financial crisis has been traumatic for Southern Europe, unemployment in Spain is over 23% (over 50% for youth), similar to Greece. As in Greece, much public frustration has been directed towards the policies of national governments, the EU and ECB. Podemos’ leader Pablo Iglesias has frequently echoed SYRIZA’s calls for debt relief and opposing the politics of the EU was the foundation of Podemos’ programme at last year’s European election. Manuel also spoke of the influence that Podemos has had on bringing different issues into the public consciousness, a left-wing critique of the EU, sovereign debt restructuring and tax reform were unheard of during the years of bipartisan politics.

To fully understand the rise of Podemos, we also need to consider the historical context that led to their formation as well as the previously stated reasons for their electoral support now. The most recent and obvious connection is with the indignados movement of 2011/2012 when protesters took to the streets demanding a radical change to Spanish politics. Disillusion with bipartisan politics, political corruption, economic conditions, the influence of the financial sector on decision-making and a desire for democracy are all sentiments expressed by the indignados that are apparent within Podemos today. Indeed, horizontal organisation and direct democracy were clear in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square during the demonstrations and although Podemos didn’t directly emerge from the indignados, their influence is clear. A lack of political representation was a concern for the indignados, their resistance along with the rise of Podemos has given a voice to millions and dramatically changed Spanish politics.

Podemos’ form of democratic political organisation has been likened to a new kind of resistance, comparable with more traditional methods such as rallies or sit-ins. Spain has a long history of resistance, from the anarchist movement in the 1930s and thriving neighbourhood assemblies in the 1960s to the squatting movement in Barcelona today. Many of these squats function as social centres, operating political and cultural programmes that are well established within their respective local communities. Squatters have occupied many spaces including banking offices, symbolic given that they offer alternatives to the hegemonic capitalist system. The austerity crisis has prompted a growing wave of resistance: the growing support and implementation of politics of occupation, street protests and the rise of Podemos. All of these can be considered different but similar aspects of this growing resistance, seeking to challenge the status quo in their own ways.

Spain’s transition to democracy following Franco’s death has also returned to the heart of political debate. The incumbent PP was founded by a minister who had served under the Franco dictatorship and many people currently associated with the PP have family ties with the pre-1975 regime. This lends credence to claims that the transition to democracy has been a failure in terms of pushing Spain towards progressive social change, instead creating a corrupt party system that only benefits those at the top. Again, this is related to what Podemos call la casta and is encapsulated in the term ‘myth of the transition.’

Looking beyond Spain, Podemos’ political secretary Ïñigo Errejón said at a Buenos Aires-based forum in early March, “we are not going to be a carbon copy of Latin America, but we come to the South to exchange experiences, as Podemos would not have been possible without the arsenal of ideas, analyses and bravery that this continent has been demonstrating for the last 15 years.” Bolivia’s Vice-President Álvaro García Linera also spoke at the panel and he noted how the new left-wing parties on both continents had been born from street protests and uprisings. Although the ‘pink tide’ as it is known, is somewhat retreating due to harsh economic realities with knock-on effects for social programmes, the initial conditions that brought various left-wing governments into power bear a degree of similarity to Spain now: the prevalence of neoliberal policies, discontent from below, a network of grassroots movements proposing direct democracy and a rejection of representative democracy.

This piece by Leonidas Oikonomakis highlights the pitfalls that have befallen social movements in Latin America following the rise of left-wing governments. Primarily, faith in representative democracy is restored, effectively demobilising the social movements that initially created the space for said governments to rise to power. In this sense, Podemos are a kind of party-movement, an expression of direct democracy through Podemos circles and support for citizens’ platforms but also simultaneously taking the form of a political party in elections. They attempt to connect citizens with politics and much of their language focuses on reclaiming democracy. The nature of Podemos limits the dangers that Oikonomakis details and as Marxist geographer David Harvey highlighted in a recent interview, Podemos and SYRIZA in Greece have opened up the question of what democracy means in Europe, something the Greeks in particular are grappling with. This is a question that cannot now be ignored and the policies put forward by SYRIZA and Podemos are creating the space for such questions to arise. Crucially, Podemos are effective at relating to people’s everyday experiences, a politics of the everyday that Harvey says could develop revolutionary energies, energies that seem to be evident in Podemos circles and their support base.

Recent regional elections in Andalusia saw the party win 15 seats with 15% support, another step forward for a party that was only formed just over a year ago. National elections look set to be called in late November, a vote that will show just how disillusioned the electorate is with the two-party system, the growing Ciudadanos effectively turning it into a four-party race with some form of coalition likely to be the end result. Further regional elections throughout the year will also give an indication as to how far Podemos have come. Podemos represent a new way of thinking about politics, driven by the legitimacy they gain from citizens. The German writer and anarcho-syndicalist Helmut Rudiger, who spent most of the early 1930′s in Spain observing the anarchist movement said that Spanish anarchism “is not an outcome of abstract discussions, or theories cultivated by a few intellectuals, but an outcome of a social dynamic force that is often volcanic, and the tendency towards freedom in it can always count on the sympathy of millions of people.” The Spanish establishment would do well to think about Podemos in the same terms.

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