November 5, 2014

By Luke Stobart

What Podemos’s present success reveals is the breakdown, the crisis or the collapse (choose the term you prefer) of the Spanish party system. Because in reality the Transition regime is sinking like the Titanic and Podemos is merely the iceberg that caused this. So as soon as the cock crowed on 25-M, all the captains aboard began to jump ship: firstly [PSOE leader] Rubalcaba, then the King, later [the Catalan conservative] Durán, … It is a regime crisis because its previous dominant coalition, until now formed by an imperfect three-party set (PSOE, PP and [regional nationalists]), has lost the ability to impose its cultural hegemony.

—Podemos critic Enrique Gil Calvo in El País, 18 August 2014

Three years ago, the PSOE and the PP said to the people in the squares with 15-M that they should stand in the elections, and they don’t say this any more.

—Pablo Iglesias, Podemos leader, quoted in El Economista, 22 May 2014

One of the most inspiring political events internationally this year has been the meteoric rise of Spain’s Podemos — the new radical “citizens’ movement” (party). The facts speak for themselves. Despite only being created in January and having a crowd-funded electoral budget of just €150,000, Podemos obtained 1.2 million votes and five seats in the May European Parliament elections (the day referred to as “25-M” in Spain).

Subsequently it became the target of a wild (and desperate) campaign against it in the mainstream media, including attempts by leading politicians to link it with the Basque terrorist group ETA and the other usual “bêtes noires” of Spanish society — Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, etc. The counter-reaction has been an abject failure, particularly as Podemos representatives have deftly used their media exposure to talk exclusively about the social changes they plan to make — leaving their adversaries to look down and suddenly realise they are entering free fall like a Warner Brothers cartoon character, suspended in mid-air after running off a cliff. Astoundingly a new El País survey has put Podemos in the lead, and it is way ahead of the other parties in terms of first preferences (although a combination of misinformation and tactical voting may complicate an actual victory, and a growing counter-offensive is developing from PSOE (the Socialist party), the new King and others spearheading an attempt to counter Podemos by attempting the “regeneration” of institutional politics through constitutional reform and anti-corruption measures). Podemos’s membership is also growing — in the last two weeks by over 70 per cent in Andalusia.

For a great many people — including most PSOE voters, according to another survey — Podemos has already become the main opposition party.

Increasingly the media focus has been on whether Podemos can form government and what its policies will be, the subject of a fascinating full interview of Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias on Salvados watched by a record five million people. Because of its breakneck growth, the strategy of the other parties is increasingly hinging around how to respond to the political “upstart”. For example, calls by those on the Right of PSOE for an alliance between the party and the governing centre-right PP (Popular Party) are growing, even though this would probably bury PSOE, like similar alliances with the Right led to the punishment of Greece’s Socialist party, Pasok. Considering that the arrival of a left-wing (Syriza) government is likely in Greece in the short term, the breakneck emergence of the more radical Podemos (in a substantially larger European economy than that of Greece) is understandably being treated as a possible “game changer”.

But, crucially, Podemos is an exciting development also because of the level of participation in the project. Over 7000 people attended the lively, emotive and sometimes sharply contested inaugural Podemos “Citizen’s Assembly” last month, and 112,000 voted on-line for the different “ethical”, “political” and “organisational” documents presented (with an even larger number connecting to watch at least some of the assembly streamed live). Since January over a thousand local branches (“circles”) of Podemos have been set up, including among Spanish economic émigrés in cities outside Spain. These circles’ frequent mass meetings, sometimes in public squares, have had much of the air of the Indignados (15-M) occupations. It is difficult not to feel inebriated (as well as somewhat overwhelmed!) by being part of such a large, passionate and sometimes chaotic project.

Despite the significant interest in the new movement internationally, many observers of Podemos are unclear about its true nature. Critics have been positively surprised by some aspects, and sympathisers disappointed by others. There is a need for deeper analysis of this phenomenon, particularly as new Left projects internationally are using Podemos as a positive reference.

In this series of three articles I will make an attempt to theorise this original project based partly on my own experience as a founding activist of the Podemos circle in London.

Because of the magnitude of the project, the speed with which events are unfolding, the contrasting views between different participants, frequently inaccurate (and malicious) reports in the media, and the scarce research on the topic to date this analysis should be taken as a first attempt rather than a definitive view. With those caveats in mind, however, I hope to shed some light on Podemos for both its activists and those who observe it with interest from the outside. It is my contention that there are two (joined but distinct) souls in Podemos. Below I look at its most radical-participatory side — thus completing my Left Flank series on the social and political legacy of 15-M. In the next post I will look at the more contradictory Left populism that is increasingly guiding Podemos’s advance and how this connects and clashes with the spirit of the squares.