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Podemos, beyond the populist movement

Posted on 03/06/2021

by Óscar García Agustín

What is the future of the left in Spain after the losses in the Madrid election? 

The resignation of Pablo Iglesias from political leadership immediately after the regional elections in Madrid on 4 May, as well as underlining the poor results of Unidas Podemos in the poll, has opened up an uncertain time for the party, which now needs to start a process of redefinition and reorganisation.1 Significantly, the election was also disastrous for the recently emergent centre-right party, Ciudadanos, the other representative of the Spanish ‘new politics’, which seems to be on its way to oblivion (the party lost all their 26 seats in the regional assembly), following the withdrawal of former leader Albert Rivera from politics. 

National and regional electoral results for Podemos have continued to worsen since 2015, despite the party entering into coalition government with PSOE (the social-democratic party) in 2019. Iglesias himself has recognised his apparent inability to expand support for Podemos in his honest admission that the party need a new leadership. Iglesias’ resignation highlights one of the key issues facing Podemos: it has moved far away from its origins as a grass-roots, assemblarian, group, and has become a hierarchical and centralised party relying on the figure of Iglesias. As if in further proof of this shift, Iglesias has already made proposals for his successor(s) – Ione Belarra, the secretary of Podemos (although for this to happen she must win the vote at the General Assembly in June), and Yolanda Díaz, the lead candidate of Unidas Podemos. This would create a new scenario with two leaders, one from Podemos and the other one from the Communist Party. 

In the meantime, Iñigo Errejón, co-founder and former member of Podemos, encouraged by the good results in the election of Más Madrid, the regional branch of his party Más País, is planning to articulate a more solid organisational structure. And that is not the only problem for Podemos. Teresa Rodríguez, a former member of Podemos and one of the most visible faces of its Anticapitalists grouping, is now aiming to create Adelante Andalucía, a progressive coalition in Andalusia. It is clear that the next few months are going to be crucial not only for Podemos but for the reorganisation of the left in Spain. 

The populist moment (a period when the political divide between the people and the elite became central to political discourse), during which time Podemos rose to the fore, seems to have been replaced with other, unconnected, moments, and with disagreements and tensions between left political forces that will create further problems for the elaboration of a left majority politics in Spain.

The feminist moment

Iglesias’s campaign in Madrid was characterised in its first phase by an appeal to the working class, while its second phase was organised around the centrality of the conflict between democracy and fascism. But a few days before leaving the party he commented that feminism was more capable of sustaining a transversal range of alliances than the working-class movement. For him, feminism has now become the key position from which to make alliances for equality and social policies, and for social and economic transformations. 

Support for the election of two female leaders corresponds to this strategy. Belarra, the preferred candidate for general secretary, has placed great importance on the feminist moment, the need for collectivising the leadership, a strong focus on Podemos activists, and a strengthening of local and regional organisation from the periphery. These necessary changes address some of the major shortcomings of Podemos: its centralised organisation around the leader, its weak roots in the regions and localities and excessive dependence on Madrid, and the lack of collective leadership.

The proposal as candidate of Díaz, the current minister of labour, is aimed at expanding the electoral base. Díaz is a woman of dialogue, more moderate in her tone than Iglesias, and pragmatically oriented when it comes to obtaining political agreements. Whilst Belarra’s proposed role seems to be aimed at developing the territorial organisation, Díaz is clearly meant to recover the broad capacity of Podemos to win support from a large variety of constituencies. The fact that both candidates are ministers in the government reinforces the idea of Podemos as a party of government and as being institutionally responsible. Here the selling points are the party’s social policies, such as the Temporary Lay-off Plan (ERTE), which addressed loss of employment due to COVID-19, its support for a minimum income, and its gender agenda – in particular its support for the Sexual Freedom Law, which includes central clauses on consent, and for the legal protection of trans rights.

However, Podemos has experienced difficulties in solving internal disagreements and promoting internal dialogue. And it is an open question whether the relationship between the secretary and the candidate will work, or if tensions will emerge. Equally, the strong governmental profile of the proposed leaders may not be the best way for the party to reconnect with civil society and put an end to the perception that it is yet another party of the established system. 

The green moment

The remarkable results for Más Madrid in the elections – it won the second largest number of seats, beating PSOE by a small margin – has generated expectations that a larger political space will now develop for Más País. The main challenge for the party will be to create an infrastructure in other regions, and not to remain a solely Madrilenian party. For now they are counting on the support of Compromís in Valencia to enter into electoral coalition. 

Errejón is ready to profile the party as a green party, in line with the increase in support for environmental social movements and the support of other green parties in Europe. His idea is to create a transversal party from a green perspective.

The objective is to oppose everyday politics against ‘the politics of noise’, and to introduce initiatives on the political agenda that are helpful for ordinary citizens. As well as a politics oriented towards promoting a green transformation, the objective is to make people’s lives better. With this aim, the proposal for a 32-hour working week and a mental health plan have added new themes to the public and political discussion. Whether or not the party is capable of becoming a major national party depends on its ability to develop the party in other regions and localities, and to be perceived as a serious alternative to both PSOE and Podemos.

The territorial moment

Podemos has suffered from its lack of regionally based power, and the absence of an inclusive and plural territorial organisation. Podemos has never put forward municipal candidatures itself, but it has been involved in the ‘governments of change’ that have sometimes been called the Spanish new municipalism. In 2019, however, municipalism suffered a severe blow. Its only victories were in Valencia with Compromís (now in alliance with Más País), and in Cádiz with Anticapitalists (now split away from Podemos). Later, Ada Colau did succeed in continuing as mayor of Barcelona, but the possibility of former mayor Manuela Carmena continuing to lead Madrid on behalf of Más Madrid was lost in 2019, as a conflict raged between Errejón and the Podemos majority (who continued to have no representatives in the municipal elections). 

There have been many organisational conflicts in the regions. Technical teams designated by the national leadership have often taken over the functions of regional committees as a result of strong internal disagreements and departures from the official party line, which is fixed from Madrid. It was such a conflict in Madrid that led to the formation of Más Madrid by Errejón and others. Despite an initially amicable rupture, after the Anticapitalists group left Podemos they developed an alternative in Andalusia led by Rodríguez, which brought together local progressive political and social forces, but did not include Podemos. This seems to imply that there may be three left political parties competing in regional elections, which would hinder both the development of municipalism and a stronger and more locally rooted regional left.

And the people’s moment?

Paradoxically, following on from the initial impulse to unify the social demands of the people against the elite characteristic of the populist moment, the result so far has been to divide the left. The puzzle is complicated: it encompasses the difficulties of Podemos in recovering their initial popular support to lead a progressive alternative; the challenge of Más País to create a new state-party in competition with Podemos and PSOE; and the complexities of the regional groups on the ground. 

The internal (and personal) tensions within the fragmented progressive bloc make it difficult to imagine the convergence of left political forces in Spain. ‘Politics with a capital P is the tool of the people for achieving democratic transformations’, said Díaz recently, echoing the sentiments of the 15M movement on its tenth anniversary. Right now, it is hard to imagine that the aggregation of politics in small caps can turn into such a Politics. Whether or not that situation can be changed depends on the ability of the new leaders to reverse before it is too late the dynamics I have been describing. If they do not succeed, the right and extreme right (with Ciudadanos now out of the running) will be ready to take power, and the people’s moment that Podemos originally claimed will be totally gone.

Notes

1. The right-wing Popular Party won 65 seats in the regional parliament, four short of an absolute majority. The far-right Vox won 13. On the left PSOE won 24 seats, Más Madrid 24 and Unidas Podemos 10. 

Óscar García Agustín is Associate Professor at the Department of Culture and Learning, Aalborg University, Denmark. He is co-editor, together with Marco Briziarelli, of Podemos and the New Political Cycle. Left-Wing Populism and Anti-Establishment Politics (Palgrave, 2017) and author of Left-Wing Populism. The Politics of the People (Emerald, 2020).

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