Reassessing Podemos

Issue: 150

Andy Brown

The emergence of new left wing political parties in Europe in response to the crisis and government austerity policies has been discussed already in the pages of this journal.1 Specifically we have looked at the nature of the Podemos project in the Spanish state and the question of how the left should relate to it.2 It is now useful to revisit the analysis in the light of events in 2015 in the Spanish state in order better to understand the viability of Podemos in its own terms and the relationship between it, the left and the working class.

2015: Four elections and a political funeral?

For several reasons, attention focused on the general election in the Spanish state on 20 December. For the left it was of particular interest as the first general election contested by Podemos, the so-called “radical left” party launched for the European elections in 2014. The party had already contested an election in Andalusia in January 2015 and fought local and regional elections in May, sometimes as Podemos as such and sometimes as part of electoral coalitions with wider forces on the left. This was its first national test in parliamentary elections.

In the Euro elections—after a launch just weeks before and a crowd funded campaign—Podemos won 1.2 million votes and five MEPs. There followed a hectic honeymoon period in which it took centre stage in the political scene in the Spanish state. Pablo Iglesias, the party’s young and charismatic leader, became widely known both inside the country and across the world. By November 2014 opinion polls put support for the party at an astounding 28.8 percent of voting intentions, ahead of the two established political heavyweights, the conservative Popular Party (PP) and the social democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), who have dominated Spanish politics since 1982 after the transition from Francoist dictatorship to bourgeois democracy in the late 1970s. There was much talk of a new political landscape in the Spanish state. An El Pais correspondent (not a friend of Podemos) said after the Euro elections: “What Podemos’s present success reveals is the breakdown, the crisis or the collapse (choose the term you prefer) of the Spanish party system”. Izquierda Anticapitalista (the Anticapitalist Left) described Podemos as “the vehicle through which the citizens’ indignation is expressed and a unique opportunity to break at the root the miseries inherited from the dictatorship and the 40 year offensive of neoliberal and oligarchic capitalism”.3

The elections in Andalusia and regional and municipal elections showed Podemos’s vote running rather lower than in the autumn opinion polls, but nevertheless its impact was considerable. In Andalusia it won around 16 percent of the vote and deprived the PSOE of a majority in the regional parliament of its most solid heartland.4 In the May elections it ran at between 15 and 20 percent where it stood alone, but participated in left coalitions that polled much better. The trend in voting was clearly to the left. The most significant results were registered in Madrid city council and in Barcelona, but there were several other very important shifts where left campaigns based on social movements and left parties made huge breakthroughs. Anti-eviction campaigner Ada Colau became Barcelona’s first woman mayor as a candidate of Barcelona en Comú, “Barcelona Together”, a coalition including Podemos, the red-green Iniciativa per Catalunya (ICV) and the local United and Alternative Left (EUiA). The Popular Unity Candidature (CUP) stood separately getting three councillors elected. The total vote to the left of the PSOE equivalent in Barcelona leapt to 32 percent, with the Left Republican ERC taking a further 11 percent. Madrid Now, the coalition of the left in Madrid, won 32 percent of the vote and 20 seats to wrest control from the right when combined with the PSOE. There were other huge left votes: 25 percent in Zaragoza; 31 percent in A Coruña; 35 percent in Santiago de Compostela; 28 percent in Cádiz.

Across the country, the vote to the left of the PSOE was between 20 and 25 percent. Podemos mounted strong challenges to the PSOE, but beat it only in Navarre and the Basque country.5 It is important not to see the May local elections as just about Podemos, a notion that activists in Catalunya, Valencia and other regions react very unfavourably to, rightly pointing to their own sometimes long histories of articulating opposition to austerity and fighting over local issues. Nonetheless, the rise of Podemos should be seen as an integral aspect of what happened. On a state-wide level it was the most significant player to the left of the PSOE.

In May the PP vote dropped from 37 percent in the last equivalent elections to 27 percent. They lost 2.5 million votes. Many of their municipal bases (and therefore the perks that go with it) were destroyed. Areas that had been PP strongholds for decades were falling because of anger at six years of economic crisis, vicious austerity programmes and flagrant corruption. The PSOE also lost out, down from 27 percent to 25 percent (a loss of 700,000 votes). The two-party establishment that has totally dominated the Spanish state since the transition to bourgeois democracy was on the rocks. This was the second focus of interest in the December general election. The whole system of bipartidismo—the alternation of office between the PP and the PSOE—was at stake. One commentator summarised: “The legitimacy of the political system is under question after seven years of economic crisis, austerity and unemployment and the unravelling of the corruption and clientism at its heart”.6 Some indeed were saying that bipartidismo was already dead and buried.

The third focus was on another new political force arising from the crisis of the two mainstream parties—Ciudadanos (Citizens). In the months after Podemos’s launch, it quickly became clear that they were not just winning votes from those who had historically identified with the left, or from new voters who hadn’t voted before but were attracted by Podemos’s anti-austerity and anti-corruption message. An estimated 15 to 20 percent of people declaring themselves as intended Podemos voters had previously identified as supporters of the right wing parties. The right and the beneficiaries of their austerity policies were faced with the prospect of a significant swing towards the left, mostly as a protest against corruption and the feeling that politicians simply did not represent or serve the interests of the mass of citizens in the Spanish state. In order to divert this feeling and derail the rise of Podemos, they used Ciudadanos, an existing political party, but one that could claim not to be tainted by the national policies or the greed and corruption of the PP. Previously functioning principally as a voice for the more strident anti-Catalan nationalist voters in Catalunya, it became a serious state-wide party in a matter of months, with heavy funding from business interests and a comprehensive party apparatus. It was portrayed as the clean right: individualist, pro-business, Spanish nationalist, but not with its fingers in the till or to blame for the dire situation of life for many citizens of the Spanish state. Ciudadanos was at pains to suggest that it was more of a centre party than the right wing PP, using the example of the British Liberal Democrats and their position vis-a-vis the Tories in the British coalition government as an illustration of where it sees itself. Polls of self-identication of voters on a left-right scale showed that its potential voters too saw themselves as to the left of the PP, firmly in the political centre.

Ciudadanos won 9 percent in Andalusia and somewhere around the same in the local elections. It made a strong showing in the Catalan parliamentary elections in September 2015, where it took 25 percent of the vote (up from a previous 9 percent) and easily surpassed the PP in the leadership of the anti-independence vote. It received favourable coverage from some broadcast and print media and was clearly being promoted very heavily in the run up to the general election. Opinion polls from October to December showed Ciudadanos on the rise, at one point coming within a single percentage point of the PSOE and clearly in the lead over Podemos for the last month of the campaign.7 Its leader, Albert Rivera, showed clearly as the most popular party leader of the four major contenders. Like Podemos, Ciudadanos faced its first test as a serious national force in a general election.

The death of two party politics?

On 20 December the general election took place. The election results broadly reflected the opinion polls, which pointed to the PP being the leading party and the PSOE hanging on to its second place (table 1). They underestimated the Podemos vote, suggesting that the “comeback”, much talked of in the final Podemos election rallies, did actually happen. Interestingly, the private polling of the PP suggested just this. PP leader Mariano Rajoy, filmed by a TV crew at an EU meeting with Angela Merkel and other European leaders during the election campaign, suggested that Podemos was going to make a stronger showing than anticipated, to the general concern of those in shot. The Ciudadanos vote was overestimated in the opinion polls.

Table 1: December 2015 Spanish general election results.

Source: El Pais, 2015.

The Spanish Cortes (House of Commons) has 350 MPs


MPs elected

Percentage of vote
















Immediately there began a wave of speculation about just how a government could be formed out of these results. “PP has won the general election”, commented an El Pais correspondent, “That is certain. From now on, everything else is uncertain.” Similarly the Madrid daily El Mundo commented, “Nothing will ever be the same again. The Spanish political map will completely change after yesterday’s destruction of the two-party system and the emergence of two start-up forces. The PP gained the most votes, but it will be difficult to govern with ­stability.” In Madrid’s ABC the refrain was the same: “The Spanish political system last night lost the stability of the majority…and now enters a worrying process of Italianisation”.8 Whether they lamented the possible passing of bipartidismo or looked forward to it, political commentators had agreed about one thing before the results, namely that all bets were off and no-one knew what was going to happen. Now after the election they also agreed about one thing: that all bets were still off and still no-one knew what might happen.

Several possibilities were suggested. The first was that there might be a “grand coalition” between the PP and PSOE. Cynics on the left in the Spanish state have long made reference to the two main parties as the PPSOE—that is, so alike and jointly committed to the system that it’s impossible to tell them apart and you might as well just amalgamate the two. Although there have at times been significant differences on major issues between the two, they are identified by many as just the same old political establishment. To form such a government would give a stable majority, but would surely outrage many in the Spanish state and deepen the impression of a corrupt, self-serving, unrepresentative elite who take no notice of the electorate. Podemos and Ciudadanos both attacked the possibility. It would be a huge hostage to fortune for the future. PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez moved quickly to rule it out (which does not, of course, mean that it was actually ruled out).

A second possibility in which the PSOE, Podemos and Ciudadanos might link up to form a government, echoing the outcome of the recent Portuguese election was dubbed the “coalition of losers” by the press. A third was a regional based solution in which the PSOE might work with Podemos and some of the six smaller groupings with 28 MPs between them, including two different Catalan groups, two Basque groups and one from the Canary Islands. Podemos reversed its initial stance and said it was willing to consider this, provoking an enormous row inside the PSOE about whether they should collaborate with Podemos.

According to the constitution the king has to ask someone to form a government and then parliament votes on the proposal. However, there is no time limit on how long this might take. If there is no eventual agreement, there has to be a new election within two months. The whole process could take months to resolve. There is a whole mass of conflicting interests for everyone involved, with a morass of potential objections to any permutation both between parties and inside them. Both Mariano Rajoy from the PP and Pedro Sanchez from PSOE seem reluctant to form a government. There is a clear possibility that no government will be formed and there will be a new election.9 At the time of writing, all bets are indeed off.

The PP came out of the election on top, talking about economic recovery but failing to convince. Although Spain has undergone something of a recovery since it looked as though it may be forced out of the euro because of a default on its debts, the economy is still in deep trouble. Whatever marginal economic progress may have been made due to the cheap euro, the fall in oil prices or European Central Bank quantitative easing, the effects are not being felt by the majority of the Spanish population. Unemployment is officially at 21 percent (though really higher), with over 50 percent of young people out of work. Some regions are particularly badly affected. Migration levels have hit a huge peak, as witnessed by the vast number of young Spaniards living and working in Britain, where they are now the third largest group of EU citizens. Distribution of wealth in Spain is the second most unequal in the EU and over 25 percent of Spaniards live below the poverty line.

The PP lost 4.5 million votes compared to the 2011 general election with its percentage of the vote down from 45 percent then to 28.7 percent. It lost 64 seats overall. This represents the worst result for the PP since 1989 and the largest loss of vote for a sitting government since 1982. It nonetheless came first in the popular vote in most areas of the state. The PSOE lost 20 seats and fell from 28.8 percent to 22 percent. It led the popular vote only in its south west heartland of western Andalusia and Badajoz.

Political analysis is littered with bold claims about new political parties and formulations, especially electoral ones. Who among us cannot remember with glee some of the now absurd claims about the challenge of the British Liberal Democrats, or earlier the Social Democratic Party, in the 1980s? Nonetheless, the consensus is undoubtedly that the Spanish state has indeed passed from the bipartidismo of the post-Franco settlement to a new era of more parties and of coalition rather than majority governments.

What of the assessment of Podemos’s performance? As in the local elections in May, a word is needed about Podemos and its allies. In August Pablo Iglesias announced that Podemos would seek electoral alliances at a provincial level, replicating the strategies used earlier. Thus in Valencia Podemos stood alongside Coalició Compromís, a progressive regional party who did very well locally in May. In Catalunya it stood as En Comú Podem—an amalgamation of Podemos, En Comú for whom Ada Colau won the mayoralty and ICV-EUiA. In Galicia there has long been an established alliance between Podemos, Galician left regionalists, greens and the Galician United Left (once the electoral front of the Communist Party there).10 In Aragon there was an alliance, though only in the Upper Aragon region. There are also some national organisations that have in effect merged into Podemos all over the state, such as the green organisation Equo.

Altogether Podemos won 5,189,463 votes—more than quadrupling what was then regarded as a stellar performance in the Euro elections just 18 months earlier. With 69 MPs it far surpassed predictions after opinion polling that put it at an absolute maximum of 54 and sometimes as low as 36. In eight of the 17 regions of the Spanish state Podemos replaced the PSOE as the largest vote winner on the left. It came top of the popular vote in both Catalunya and the Basque country, neither of which were expected. It did especially well in urban centres—and in the Spanish state it can take up to 128,000 votes to get elected in an urban area, while it can take as few as 38,000 to win an MP in a rural one. When they took part in broadcast election debates, the Podemos leaders Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón were rated as winners (though PP and PSOE leaders Rajoy and Sanchez mostly avoided these). It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that Podemos is euphoric about its election performance—“Podemos and En Comú are still rubbing their eyes. What a success!” said the El Pais correspondent on the Catalan results.

Without a doubt, Podemos has come an immense distance in a very short time. It represents a clear choice by millions of people in the Spanish state to vote against corruption, institutionalised greed and contempt for voters, but also against austerity. As such, it weakens the ruling class in the Spanish state and strengthens the anti-austerity side in Europe. The success of Podemos in December is a cause for celebration and a source for lessons and parallels.

Podemos’s relative success in the elections in 2015 poses the question of what it might do if in a position to take office or to support another party in office. At regional level this latter question has already arisen. In Andalusia Podemos put forward very strict conditions on any possible support for a minority PSOE government. It demanded that some of the most corrupt PSOE politicians be excluded, that the regional government cease to engage highly paid consultants and instead re-engage workers who had been laid off and that it should not deal with banks making evictions. No agreement was made and there was considerable acrimony between the PSOE and Podemos. Susana Díaz, the PSOE figurehead in Andalusia, has become a leading hawk in the debates inside the party, demanding that the PSOE make no concessions in order to win Podemos backing.

After the general election Podemos stated very clearly that it would not participate in government coalitions without major changes in economic policy and the way Spain is governed, nor would it allow the PP to govern.11 Their later offer to form a left coalition with the PSOE was on condition that Iglesias be deputy prime minister. The real crunch may come if Podemos continues to progess and replaces the PSOE as the leading party on the left. As described above, this is already the case in eight regions. Iglesias has stated that the objective for 2015 was to overtake the PSOE. Depending on the outcome of negotiations to form a government and/or the result of any new election, this cannot be ruled out. Iglesias claims that, “At that stage, the PSOE will either accept the leadership of Podemos or commit political suicide by committing to that of the PP”.12 However, if Podemos were to take the lead position on the left, it too would face the same dilemma which it ascribes to the PSOE, “locked into the contradiction between the logic of the state and its interests as a party”.13

It is worth also briefly mentioning the election results of other left groups. Izquierda Unida (United Left) has been thought of as an electoral front of the PCE, the Spanish Communist Party. It stood as a separate entity in most of the state. It is fair to say that the rise of Podemos has been the cause of immense difficulty for IU and of considerable discord inside it including fierce debates about whether it should continue to stand separately in some places. Indeed, some erstwhile IU members have left for Podemos, as have many of its voters who clearly believe that one alternative to the left of the PSOE is quite enough and that Podemos is the only real game in town.

Nevertheless, IU did stand as such and won a not inconsiderable 923,000 votes, 3.7 percent of the popular vote. This was down from 5.5 percent in 2011 and it won only two MPs, down from a previous eight. This means that the IU will not have a recognised parliamentary group, for which a minimum of five MPs is required. The Catalan Republican Left (ERC) won nine MPs and 600,000 votes, a gain of six seats and a parliamentary group, more than doubling its percentage. In the Basque Country, EH Bildu, the radical nationalist party, lost out to the Podemos vote reducing its number of MPs from seven to just two.

Podemos, the left and the Indignados

This journal has characterised the current situation in Europe in recent years as having several features:

Continuing economic crisis.

A dominant government policy of austerity.

A general mood of resentment and opposition to both governments and the political establishment in general.

A generally low level of class struggle.

A fracturing and weakening of traditional political parties—what Peter Mair has called the “hollowing of western democracy”.14

The emergence of populist parties of both the left and right.

By its nature, this is a general analysis. One can point to particular national manifestations of it and to certain exceptions or peculiarities, but it holds good for most of Europe most of the time at the moment. In the Spanish state the picture fits very well. The economic situation and the election results described above show several features of this. The spectacular extent of corruption has been a particular focus. Podemos has been successful in implanting a widespread criticism of what it calls “the caste”—which Iglesias describes as “the thieves who elect political frameworks for stealing democracy from the people” and as “governance organised in the service of economic elites”.15 It has expertly exposed the rampant corruption and self-interest at public expense which has led to around 2,000 highly publicised convictions of leading business and political figures (though disappointingly few of those convicted have actually ended up behind bars where they belong). Something like 800 public bodies or councils have been investigated for corruption in the Spanish state; involvement is shared between the two major parties. Podemos seems also to have won the argument that corruption is not merely a matter of individual probity, but an intrinsic feature of the Spanish two party system.

There has been considerable and sometimes spectacular opposition. In May 2011 there was the emergence of the indignados (known in the Spanish state as the 15 May Movement, 15-M), with occupations of public squares, sometimes for extended periods, all over the country. This was a massively significant revolt by hundreds of thousands against austerity. There has been a very prominent and widely supported campaign against evictions of people behind on their mortgages, the Mortgage Victims Platform (PAH). Rank and file anti-cuts movements known as the mareas (tides) have mobilised in the public sector, especially over health and education. In March 2014 there was a huge March for Dignity in Madrid for “bread, work and a roof”, organised by the minority unions and campaign groups.

The official unions have not led this opposition effectively. In fact they are often seen to be part of the problem and part of the establishment. Since the transition, Spain’s unions have been closely tied to the state. The big unions, the CCOO and the UGT (traditionally tied to the Communist Party and the PSOE respectively) have received state subsidies. They are tightly involved in state controlled collective bargaining structures. Many union leaders, even at local level, are therefore far removed from the rank and file and often seen as wholly compromised. This has been borne out in practice. At the end of 2010 the major unions called a general strike over pension reform that was extremely well supported—far more so than the bureaucracy expected. They responded with a deal with government that essentially conceded everything. This may have a certain ring of familiarity to trade unionists in Britain. Two other general strikes over labour law reform have been similarly squandered.

In May 2012 as part of the austerity measures, the government announced huge cuts in subsidies to the mining industry which meant that the mining communities were faced with abandonment. As many will remember, the miners struck and stayed out for several weeks, using militant tactics which confronted the state forces. There was enormous support from workers all over Spain, including a massive welcome for those who had marched on Madrid from Asturias, León and Aragon. The CCOO and SOMA-UGT, the main miners’ unions, made huge concessions, in effect agreeing to shutting the pits and quibbling only about the timetable. There have been many strikes in Spain, but no strike movement to challenge the government. In surveys, 70 percent of workers say they have no trust in the unions. The unions have also been involved in the corruption scandals. The best example is in Andalusia, where the state redundancy scheme, ERE, has been systematically robbed by the PSOE, the UGT and the CCOO.

Podemos was set up as a very specific response both to the attacks of the austerity programme and the failure of the different campaigns to stem the tide. It is not the political expression of the indignados, though it was often described as such by commentators, especially in its early days. Íñigo Errejón, with Iglesias the leading public voice of Podemos, describes how he thinks that 15-M made individual discontent and suffering because of austerity into a shared, public agenda and thus generated a public will that made sure that in the Spanish state, the majority of opposition to austerity took on a democratic and progressive nature. He says:

I don’t think that 15-M was successful in changing the balance in the state, but it sowed a cultural seed… It put the elites on the defensive. It didn’t transform anything, but it generated a climate, a state of perceptions which opened the possibility that there could be political change. Whenever they ask us about the relationship between Podemos and 15-M (and abroad we are regularly asked this) we reply that Podemos is not the party of 15-M.16

The means of bringing about political change as conceived by those who set up Podemos was always an explicitly electoral one.

Podemos is extremely critical of the left parties in the Spanish state. To some degree this is because it sees them as part of the structure of the post-transition regime and tainted by the institutionalised corruption that is an integral part of it. More importantly, it is because it perceives the left as incapable of correctly analysing and therefore appropriately responding to the current political situation in the country.

Both Iglesias and Errejón have returned to this theme repeatedly. At the very beginning of his book Politics in a Time of Crisis, Iglesias lays into the left, using Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder as the classic example of tactical flexibility, he contrasts this with what he sees as the current conduct of the parties and groups to the left of the PSOE. He describes: “White knights of the purity of principle, defenders to the hilt of the symbols and phraseologies most liable to turn theory into catechism, and almost always dreadfully outnumbered, isolated and misunderstood, incapable of confronting their principles with praxis”.17

The paragraph goes on for a further 24 lines. The central point is that, “faced with the unprecedented situation created by the Eurozone crisis, our starting point was a recognition of the 20th century left’s defeat”.18 The left “has defeat written into its DNA”, as he puts it elsewhere. He describes the left in the Spanish state as “badly weakened by both infantile and senile disorders”.19 As a general rule of thumb, he suggests “if you want to get it right, don’t do what the left would do”.20 His denunciation is articulate, witty and challenging, not least because much of his caricature is uncomfortably recognisable. It confronts an objective reality that the left in most of Europe has made little progress during the worst economic crisis since the 1930s and has failed to lead an effective resistance to a vicious ruling class assault. This critique has always been an open and explicit part of the Podemos project, widely and freely articulated by its leadership.

Iglesias believes that the crisis of the regime opened opportunities that the left simply failed to grasp. It was trapped within a framework that was outdated and thus unable to move effectively to build on the emerging mood after the 15-M mobilisations:

Clearly in present conditions this has nothing to do with revolution, or a transition to socialism, in the historic sense of these terms. But it does become feasible to aim at sovereign processes that would limit the power of finance, spur the transformation of production, ensure a wider distribution of wealth and push for a more democratic configuration of European institutions.21

While he views it as strictly limited in its ability to go beyond protest and effect real change in the concrete political situation, Iglesias regards 15-M as the principal social expression of the emerging anti-regime popular feeling. He describes a regime crisis: “that is, the exhaustion of the political and social system that emerged from the post-Franco transition.”

Initially the group of political scientists around Iglesias at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid did expect the existing left parties (mainly Izquierda Unida) to be part of the response. Most key figures in the Podemos leadership had been activists, mainly in the Communist Youth or Communist Party and Izquierda Unida. Errejón comes from a rather different tradition nearer to the far left.22 All had been involved in the anti-capitalist movement, social forums and the anti-war movements in the early years of the century. They suggested a system of open primaries so “the left would look more like the people” and proposed these. They saw their own group as a force for renewal on the left. However, in Iglesias’s version of the story at least:

We did not anticipate the coldness, not to say open hostility, with which our proposals were received… The stubborn conservatism of the IU leaders, incapable of taking on other styles or perspectives, and the disdain of some of the activist groups, forced us to start putting our hypothesis into practice in virtual solitude.23

It isn’t true that none on the rest of the left were interested in the viability of what became the Podemos project. Some groups did get involved, in particular the Anticapitalist Left (probably the largest revolutionary left group in the Spanish state, with links to the Fourth International), which took a very positive view. Its members were involved in the early Podemos organisation and provided successful Podemos candidates in the Euro elections. However, it is true that many on the organised left found it difficult to relate, first to the indignados and then to the changed political situation occasioned by the mobilisations and the supportive public response to them. The response of some to the indignados was, well, indignant, with the attitude described by Iglesias as, “What do you mean, indignado? We’ve been indignado for 30 years”.24 There was considerable tension between the indignados who deliberately rejected parties of any sort and some activists of existing groups, who found themselves banned from intervening at some assemblies and mobilisations as any organised current or selling their publications. What this meant was that many on the organised left, particularly but not exclusively in the IU, were, frankly, sectarian towards not only new political organisations, but also towards many new activists involved in anti-regime and anti-austerity mobilisations or movements. This continues in the attitude to Podemos and their supporters among some today.

As a result Podemos is somewhat different from many of the “radical left” political formations which have emerged in Europe in the last few years. Many, in Germany, Portugal, France and Greece, for example, have included elements from established social democratic, Eurocommunist or post-Communist and revolutionary left parties. Less so in the Spanish state. The situation in Catalunya and the Basque Country, where there are existing radical left nationalist formations, has also played a part in this. Podemos has made a virtue of stressing its separation from the established left and its novelty and authenticity as an alternative. Iglesias sums it up: “Paradoxes of history: the enabling conditions of the Podemos phenomenon included the reservations it generated among those theoretically most likely to share our project—thanks to which we could fly higher and more freely”.25

The Podemos project

Iglesias characterises Podemos as “those of us who advocate a post-neoliberal transformation through the state—defending human rights, sovereignty and the link between democracy and redistributive policies” and says that there is no chance of an electoral victory on the symbolic terrain of left and right. Thus he rejects the label of the radical left, on the grounds that it is designed to push the project onto a terrain where it can be more easily defeated. He argues that the most important task of Podemos has been:

To contest the symbolic structure of positions, to fight for the terms of the conversation. In politics, those who decide the terms of the contest determine much of its outcome. This has nothing to do with abandoning principles or moderation, but with the assumption that unless we ourselves define the terrain of ideological struggle, it will limit the discursive repertoire at our disposal.26

Because the Spanish state is in a new and exceptional situation, he argues, a specific new definition is needed to identify appropriate frameworks to tackle it. Thus there should be a sharp focus on issues such as corruption, evictions and inequality rather than on questions previously identified with the left like the form of the state or historical memory. This will make it possible to secure an electoral majority and therefore achieve control of the administrative machinery which would allow other specific issues to be tackled effectively in other conditions. It will also mean using new methods and more effective means of political communication in order to convince and express a majority will, making ideological positions seem a matter of common sense and accepted popular wisdom.

This accounts for the emphasis Podemos places on television. Iglesias made a name for himself as a media commentator taking mainstream politicians to the cleaners on television. Beginning on cable or internet channels as a presenter on the programmes La Tuerka and Fort Apache, he went on to become the media choice as an anti-establishment voice on mainstream broadcast programmes (until his impact became obvious and his invitations to appear dried up, as he wryly points out). He was highly effective in publicising the issues of corruption and lack of democracy in the two party system, popularising the notion of the caste versus the people, exposing scandals and denouncing the collaboration of the political establishment, big business and the state machine. The use of television and of social media networks have been a key feature of Podemos. The TV phenomenon of the pony-tailed professor who said what the person in the street was thinking clearly had an effect—so much so that Podemos used Iglesias’s face on the ballot paper for the Euro elections, something no Spanish party had done before. As “the TV nation didn’t know about a new political party called Podemos, but they knew about the guy with the pony tail”, the party used the image as the political signifier of the anti-establishment feeling he expressed.

There are three ideological and political influences that stand out in the Podemos project. These are a particular reading of Antonio Gramsci, the left governments in Latin America in the last decade and Syriza. The Podemos leaders use a version of Gramsci based on the arguments of Chantal Mouffe and Argentinian theorist Ernesto Laclau in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy.27 They argue for a decisive break with “classism” in order to pursue a new “radical democratic” hegemony.28 Errejón has published a discussion of these themes with Mouffe. Both honestly admit that their reading of Gramsci is selective and that there are significant points of divergence between their position and that of Gramsci himself. However, Mouffe argues that “I am convinced that if Gramsci had lived in our time, he would have arrived at a conception similar to ours.” Errejón replies, “It’s impossible to prove that, but I’ve often thought the same”.29 There are, in addition to Gramsci, frequent references to post-Marxist theoreticians such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, reflecting a common pattern among many younger political theorists in Europe, radically inclined but with little faith in an explicitly class based politics. In their discussion of the Spanish state today, Latin America in the last two decades and Gramsci’s political thought they consistently address themes of “articulating a new political will with a majority vocation”. They contrast “the people and the power” and “the people and the caste” as a replacement for the old formulation of working class against bourgeoisie. Again the centrality of elections as a means to bring about political change (and conversely the ineffectiveness of what are characterised as confrontational means of class struggle) are central to the argument. Laclau and Mouffe are used as the theoretical basis of a political project in which there is no focus on the self-activity of workers.

Three leading figures, including Iglesias and Errejón, have visited Latin America and are clearly influenced by Hugo Chavez’s proceso bolivariano in Venezuela, the rise of Evo Morales and the Movement for Socialism (MAS) in Bolivia (and especially of vice-president Álvaro García Linera) and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Errejón describes his own political development influenced by “getting to know experiences which are capable of transferring discontent into a new, national, collective popular will which impacts on the state. There is a process of reform of the state and of transition”.30 You can recognise in their discourse various formulations from those processes in Latin America. For example, they talk of “national-popular” majorities outside the traditional parameters of left and right, describe “plebeian” or “subaltern” coalitions which enter into a part of the state, stress the need for a new constituent assembly and talk of a “union of Mediterranean states” to counter the relative weight of Germany in the EU (on the same model as the Latin American organisations set up by Chavez in opposition to the dominance of the United States). Iglesias talks about the left projects in Latin America as being about the recuperation of sovereignty after the defeat of the left. Again, in describing the various changes made in Latin America, the emphasis is placed on the central role of elections in articulating the will of mass social movements and of using the existing state machine to effect change. Developments in Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela in recent years have brought the effectiveness of these regimes into question, with major confrontations between both the Bolivian and Ecuadorean governments and some of the forces that originally supported them.31 Chavez himself admitted in his last major policy pronouncement before his death: “For new forms of planning and production for the benefit of the people to emerge requires pulverising the bourgeois form of the state which is still reproducing itself through abominable old practices”.32 The failure of the Bolivarian project to move away from a state that is both corrupt and repressive was a key factor in undermining the process set in place by Chavez. This at least partly explains the demobilising of its support base in Venezuela, the new confidence of the right and the recent electoral defeat of Nicolás Maduro’s government.

The most significant influence of all on Podemos is that of Syriza in Greece. The two organisations are extremely close politically, as the two leaders are both politically and personally. During Podemos’s first pinch me I’m dreaming victory rally in the Plaza Reina Sofía in Madrid after the Euro election debut, Iglesias told the cheering crowd that the first thing he was going to do after speaking was to phone Alexis Tsipras. Iglesias was present at the victory rally in Athens after Syriza’s first election win and a Podemos march in Madrid celebrated the Greek result. Tsipras wrote the foreword to Iglesias’s book Politics in a Time of Crisis and has always trumpeted the achievement and importance of Podemos. The slogan has been “Syriza, Podemos, unidos venceremos!”—Syriza and Podemos, together we will win! While the theoretical positions taken by Podemos have come from their own analysis of the current situation in the Spanish state, from Latin America and from Gramsci and others, the model of political practice has come largely from Syriza. This is the case in domestic policy, economy policy and their attitude to the European Union and the need to remain in it. The failure of the Tsipras government to stand up to the demands of the Troika and the crisis of Syriza has very grave implications for the whole Podemos project as conceived by Iglesias. Podemos has had little to say in the way of analysis of the Syriza experience, apart from initially arguing that Spanish democracy is stronger and so it would be harder for the European Union to boss Spain around.

There is no better short summary of the EU’s neoliberal economic orthodoxies, political obscurantism or lack of any recognisable democratic accountability than that found in Politics in a Time of Crisis, yet Podemos seems unable to contemplate any form of life outside it. Iglesias argues that there is a significant difference in the situation of Syriza faced with the Troika and Podemos in a similar situation, because the Greek economy represents between three and four percent of the Eurozone’s GDP whereas Spain represents some 13 percent.33 This, he says, would enable Podemos to have a much bigger margin for action and therefore a better chance of taking on the Troika. The overall strategy, however, would not differ substantially from Syriza’s failed one. Iglesias says he has no illusions about how difficult this would be, both on a national and European level, but asserts that the chances of success would be better.

In terms of a political programme for the election, the platform focused largely on anti-corruption measures including an end to political privileges such as the revolving door where politicians routinely expect to move from ministry to boardroom, controls on MPs’ incomes and mechanisms to allow control over representatives. It included proposals for expanded welfare provision and environmentally friendly job creation. A former Times correspondent speaking at the London School of Economics described the model as Denmark rather than Venezuela.34 That is to say, the Podemos economic agenda is recognisably social democratic, looking to boost growth, “acting with realism but not renouncing our dreams” as an earlier Podemos statement of intent had it. The proposals might have been written by John McDonnell; Iglesias himself describes them as neo-Keynesian.35 It includes progressive taxes, higher investment, a public bank, repeal of the PP’s labour reform, a Tobin tax as well as closing tax loopholes and pursuing tax evaders. Some of the points proposed for the Euro elections in May 2014 had been toned down or had vanished completely: a basic universal wage has morphed into better benefits; retirement at 60 has become 65; ­nationalisation isn’t mentioned. Like Syriza, Podemos rules out leaving the euro or the EU.

The internal organisation of Podemos

Much has been made of the difference between Podemos and previous left parties in terms of internal organisation. Both Podemos itself and enthusiasts outside the Spanish state have put great emphasis on horizontality, mass online participation, openness and democracy. Developments in 2015 confirmed the analysis made previously in this journal that the party is in fact tightly run from the centre with little effective control from below.36 The original party structure was based on circles, a hybrid of local assemblies and branches. In October 2014 there was a much trumpeted Citizens’ Assembly with 8,000 attendees to agree the structures of Podemos. Iglesias’s group proposed that the general secretary choose an executive of 15 people, with a citizens’ council of 62 elected online. There would be a national assembly of the party every three years. The general secretary can remove executive members at any time, while circles or members can do so, but only with the agreement of prohibitively high proportions of registered members or circles. This was designed to weaken the influence of the circles, where social movement activists including members of the Anticapitalist Left (IA) were prominent (at the beginning at least). It was forbidden for any leadership candidate to belong to any other organisation.

Iglesias’s group argues that this makes participation go beyond the usual suspects among the activists. In fact it was a measure designed to curb the influence of left wing organisations. The result for IA, who had been involved in the Podemos project from the start, was that none of its members including its MEP Teresa Rodríguez stood for leadership positions. Iglesias’s slate for the national council was elected online in its entirety, with its voting figures confirming the absolute dominance of the leadership group over the activists in the circles. In the local and regional elections in May 2015, the leadership flexed its muscles to control who stood on a Podemos ticket: in La Rioja and Cantabria locally selected candidates were replaced by others nominated by the leadership. In Andalusia there were similar disputes. In terms of policy making, the Podemos election platform was developed by commissions controlled largely by the party leadership. For a party that boasted of its inclusiveness and horizontality (as opposed to top-down control in the traditional left) the organisation of Podemos does not seem over-democratic.

There has been some dissent inside Podemos over both policy issues and matters of internal democracy such as described above. The leadership of IA have largely gone along with the Podemos leadership, changing their name to Anticapitalistas in 2014 so they seem less like a “party” and thus stay in Podemos. However, some members of AI have left Podemos or been expelled for refusing to accept decisions made by the group’s leadership on conditions of participation. There has been a decline in enthusiasm among left wing activists who expected Podemos to be more radical. There has been little evidence that ordinary members have serious influence over policy, whose formulation is largely in the hands of commissions approved by the leading group. Certainly there has been discontent about the watering down of certain policies, but the majority of party members and supporters have remained.

This is not to say that there is no life on the left in the Spanish state outside Podemos. Many, especially of the autonomist or anarchist tendencies and/or the indignado activists were never attracted to a political party as such, whether electoralist or not. Others have remained in their own organisations outside Podemos and are very critical of it. Many in Catalunya, the Basque Country, Galicia and elsewhere have their own regional organisations of which they are members. The CUP in Catalunya, for example, won over 370 councillors in May and 336,000 votes and ten MPs in the September Catalan elections on an overtly anti-capitalist platform. While some organisations may consider allying with Podemos in some or all elections, it is not the case that Podemos is hoovering all the members of other left organisations into its ranks.

From the beginning there were some attempts to group the active trade unionists within Podemos into a force that could represent the project in the union field. The result was the foundation in November 2014 of Somos Sindicalistas (We Are Trade Unionists), a union organisation which reflects the principles and politics of Podemos, though both organisations claim they are independent of each other. Somos rejects the existing unions as part of the regime: “The current model has been exhausted, sustained by corruption and led by a caste that has betrayed its constituency”, says its founding statement.37 The logic was that “we wanted to put our money and our guts where our mouth was” by creating a new union model to run alongside the new Podemos model of politics. Like Podemos, Somos Sindicalistas explicitly rejects the ideology of the left and indeed seems to reject the idea that unions are of the working class as such, referring to citizens rather than workers. It commits to dialogue with employers and the state, suggesting a model of social collaboration rather than any commitment to class struggle, as you might expect in the Podemos mould.

The organisation is assembly based. It rejects the use of state subsidies, which tie the major unions to the Spanish state, and renounces full time facility time as this distances union reps from the membership. This isn’t a unique stand. The anarcho-syndicalist CNT uses the slogan “Without subsidies, without full timers” and some of the regional unions like the Left Union Current (CSI) in Asturias also reject subsidies. Somos Sindicalistas is tiny as yet, though it has occasionally shown that it can win seats in union elections for works committees, as when in June 2015 it came top in union elections in the Economy Ministry. At the time it claimed 1,000 members nationally. A leader of the CCOO reacted with some disdain to Somos, saying that they “are in the papers but not in the world of work. Just in the region of Madrid there is some presence. They have fourteen [elected] delegates in two places, compared to 15,000 in the Workers’ Commissions”.38 Clearly Somos Sindicalistas is a very small organisation, though Podemos’s electoral success may boost it. More importantly, it is not likely to strengthen the united action across unions and workplaces needed to fight austerity or the employers. Nor does its existence mean that Podemos regards work in the unions or industrial action as anything like central to its political project.

Podemos on the national question

Nationalism has deep roots in several of the regions of the Spanish state. In both Catalunya and the Basque Country it goes back to 19th century bourgeois nationalism and has played a major part in the political history of these regions. In Galicia it dates from rather later, from the mid-20th century. There are less significant nationalist movements or traditions in several other regions, such as the Balearic Islands, the Canaries and Asturias. As well as a political tradition each region has its own language and culture, which in the case of Catalunya and the Basque Country were brutally repressed by Franco. Therefore nationalism played a significant part in resistance to the dictatorship. Nationalist parties (of the left and right) have had significant parliamentary representation in both regions and in the Cortes (parliament).

The national question is extremely important in the Spanish state and was arguably the biggest item of unfinished business in the transition. A measure of regional autonomy was given to Catalunya, the Basque Country and Galicia, but the unity of Spain (with the army as its defender) was also asserted. The issue has been highlighted most obviously in 2015 by the Catalan election in September, treated by many as a plebiscite on national independence. The question in the Basque Country has played a less critical role since the ceasefire and the ETA cessation of operations in 2011, but Catalunya has returned to centre stage because of the economic situation and austerity in the Spanish state and the radicalisation of Catalan nationalism.39 Furthermore, the relative weight of Catalan votes in Spanish general elections means it plays a key role in national politics, not least for Podemos. This is a difficult question for them. They are in favour of the right to an independence referendum, a position that enrages Spanish nationalist opinion. However, Iglesias has argued that the national question is subordinate to the social question. This has resulted in Catalan nationalist criticism that in effect this is a position in favour of a unitary Spanish state.40 Podemos has not called for a vote for independence.

In the Catalan elections in September Podemos did not do well, as it was identified by many left wing voters there as anti-independence. The biggest gains on the left were made by the Popular Unity Candidature (CUP), as both anti-austerity and pro-independence, whose representation went from three MPs to ten. Podemos and its allies lost seats. Yet in the general election, as described above, Podemos came top in Catalunya, standing with the support of Colau and En Comú, with the CUP not standing. The current political positions of the various Catalan parties are complex and at times contradictory, but at present Podemos seems in danger of mimicking the “Better Together” attitude of the Labour Party in the Scottish referendum. Like much of the left in the Spanish state, it cannot accept a pro-independence position, tending falsely to equate it with support for a reactionary Catalan nationalist bourgeoisie or with a lack of solidarity with the rest of Spain. Iglesias argues that success for Podemos would be the best way to open up a democratic process that might pave the way to a more permanent solution to the national question in the Spanish state. To many in Catalunya, this will seem abstract.

Relating to left reformism

This article has argued that Podemos is a mainstream left reformist organisation with its primary focus on contesting elections. It has never pretended to be anything else, though some of its earlier adherents may have wished otherwise. It does not decry popular mobilisation, social movements, industrial action or extra-parliamentary political activity, though (as Mark L Thomas recently remarked of Corbyn’s view) they are “not seen as a potential alternative source of power to parliament but as part of the necessary means of democratic persuasion”.41 Mostly it respects and celebrates all of these activities, though they will never be its principal focus. Its political programme and practice are not revolutionary, hardly surprising given that it does not pretend to be a revolutionary organisation. It has proved to be, so far, a viable political project within the parameters it has set itself. There is every chance, given the persistence of economic crisis in Europe and in the Spanish state and the continuation of government austerity policies, that it will continue to be a viable left reformist alternative. It has clearly had a major impact, not only electorally but as a force which has meant that anti-austerity politics in the Spanish state has been primarily left leaning. Many of the best activists hold hopes for Podemos and need to be engaged.

In the Spanish state revolutionaries have the task of relating to a large and important political formation in an open and comradely manner, without ducking the key political questions that Podemos cannot answer. The question of whether this is done inside or outside the Podemos circles will be answered differently in different parts of the Spanish state. Revolutionaries must retain their right to their own independent organisations and to publish and promote their positions. In the event of Podemos entering or forming a government at any level, revolutionaries must be ready to break decisively with any policy that acts against the interests of workers. In Britain revolutionaries have exactly the same tasks, albeit in very different circumstances and faced with a very different left reformist movement.

Most important are three questions. The first is about the level of popular mobilisation against austerity. In the Spanish state, even more than in Greece, this clearly dropped as the general election loomed and the electoral process took precedence over mass mobilisation and industrial action. This has been a crucial weakness. Without strikes and protests there is no possibility of confronting the realities of austerity policies in a meaningful way. It is a key task for revolutionaries to continue to push for resistance in the streets and above all in the workplaces.

This then brings to the fore, secondly, the question of how change comes about in the 21st century. It is easy for Podemos’s leaders to criticise the failure of the left and assert that change through elections and parliaments is the only possible way forward. Yet this too has failed in the case of Syriza. There is still a key debate about how much effective change can be brought about through parliamentary elections. At the root of this lies the third key question about the role of the capitalist state and what can be done when the state resists change. Greece shows that it most certainly will do this, both at a national level and through international institutions such as the EU. No amount of impressive rhetoric or popular will can substitute for a means of dealing with this crucial point. For revolutionaries the answer lies in a high level of mobilisation and combativity expressed above all through action based on the workplaces. It is to these key points that we must all return, again and again.


1 Callinicos, 2012; Blackledge, 2013.

2 Barriere, Durgan and Robson, 2015.

3 Izquierda Anticapitalista, quoted in Barriere, Durgan and Robson, 2015, p19.

4 Kassam, 2015.

5 Nichols, 2015.

6 Balfour, 2015.

7 Balfour, 2015.

8 Quoted in Burridge, 2015.

9 Buck, 2016.

10 This explains why in some election result figures there appears to be more than one Podemos—Podemos-EC in Catalunya, Podemos-C in Valencia or Podemos-E in Galicia for example.

11 Burridge, 2015.

12 Iglesias, 2015a, p21.

13 Iglesias, 2015a, p21.

14 Mair, 2013.

15 Iglesias, 2015c, p8.

16 Errejón and Mouffe, 2015, p63.

17 Iglesias, 2015c, p24.

18 Iglesias, 2015a, p7.

19 Iglesias, 2015c, p7.

20 Iglesias, 2015c, pxiii.

21 Iglesias, 2015a, p10.

22 Gil, 2015, chapters 2-3.

23 Iglesias, 2015a, p15.

24 Iglesias, 2015b, p34.

25 Iglesias, 2015a, p15.

26 Iglesias, 2015a, p16.

27 Laclau and Mouffe, 2001.

28 Barriere, Durgan and Robson, 2015, p23.

29 Errejón and Mouffe, 2015, p33.

30 Errejón, 2015, p71.

31 See for example Webber, 2012.

32 Gonzalez, 2014, p25.

33 Iglesias, 2015b, p28.

34 Chislett, 2015.

35 Iglesias, 2015b, p27.

36 Barriere, Durgan and Robson, 2015, p25.

37 Alexandre, 2014.

38 Spain Report, 2015.

39 Durgan, 2013, p14.

40 Iglesias, 2015b, p30.

41 Thomas, 2016, p49.


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