About 8000 people packed the Palacio Vistalegre in Madrid on October 18 and 19, with 150,000 taking part online, for the the final stages of the Citizens' Assembly “Si se puede” (Yes we can).
The assembly discussed draft documents for the foundation of Podemos.
Over the past seven months since a call was made for a new political force to be formed, Podemos has grown into an organisation of 150,000 registered members with 20% support in the polls. This is the same level of support enjoyed by the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) ― Spain's main social democratic party with more than 100 years of history.
In one of the greatest examples of spontaneous organisation anywhere in recent decades, more than 900 Podemos circles have been formed throughout the Spanish state.
Behind this phenomenon lies resistance to draconian cuts to the public sector, devastating unemployment and a seemingly unending series of corruption scandals. These are the results of the economic and political crisis that has gripped Spain since 2008.
This resistance achieved international attention when people occupied public squares in hundreds of Spanish cities in the lead-up to the 2011 general elections ― the so-called indignado or 15M movement.
It also includes other social movements, such as the campaign for a minimum income for the nearly 2 million jobless who are ineligible for any kind of benefit. Other movements include the Camps and Marches for Dignity and the campaign to stop evictions carried out by the banks.
More than 500,000 people have been forced out of their homes since 2008 amid a jobless rate of nearly 30%. Big banks, meanwhile, have been bailed out with billions of euros in public money with no strings attached.
In this context of ongoing social and economic crisis, corruption scandals keep erupting. These include the theft of public funds by members of the royal family through dummy foundations; inflated public contracts for friends and family of the ruling right-wing Popular Party (PP), as well as the payment of monthly bonuses in undeclared cash to the upper echelons of the PP for more than 20 years; and the theft of hundreds of millions of euros worth of funds destined for redundant workers by members of the PSOE and major unions.
The most recent case is the use of “black” credit cards by members of the board of a publicly operated Madrid building society that was bailed out by billions of euros in public money.
These credit cards allowed representatives of political parties and unions nominated to various positions in the bank to spend unlimited amounts of money ― unaccounted for and undeclared to the tax office. All up, 83 politically appointed directors spent more than 15 million euros on “black” credit cards.
The United Left's Jose Antonio Moral Santin spent 465,000 euros on his card on top of his 500,000 euro annual salary. Moral Santin, a United Left regional MP in Madrid for eight years, became a director as a result of a political deal between the United Left and the PP.
Podemos was initially formed by academics from the Complutense University in Madrid in discussions with Anticapitalist Left. It grew rapidly through a call to run in the European elections via social networks.
The key Podemos spokesperson is Pablo Iglesias, an academic from the Complutense. He was a media figure, starting with presenting political chat shows on obscure online or cable TV channels to frequent appearances on national networks.
The aim of the congress was to establish internal organisational structures for Podemos. The congress began on September 15 with pre-draft discussions and proposals through an online platform. This was followed by a presentation of draft documents on ethical principles, political organisation and political strategy on September 28.
Nearly 100 teams presented more than 300 documents and 100 resolutions to the congress. This was followed by a negotiations process until final drafts, totalling more than 2500 pages, were presented over October 18 and 19.
The resolutions were voted on online. The top five were passed and spoken on at the congress in Madrid by the teams that presented them.
At the congress, each team had equal time to argue the case for their proposals. The congress was streamed live and each team faced questions.
Voting on the documents was online and open until October 26. Anyone who registers online can vote. There were 130,000 registered before the congress and 20,000 more registered during the congress.
The principal areas of agreement at the congress were over ethical accountability of all publicly elected and internal positions, as well as salary limits and limits on the length of time anyone can hold a position.
Salaries for all Podemos officials will be limited to the average salary of a skilled worker. Podemos officials may only be employed in politics for up to eight years, after which they are expected to return to their previous employment with no special privileges such as pensions.
They also may not occupy a position on a board of directors or work as consultants for 10 years after stepping down.
During their time in any political position, officials agree not to receive special privileges such as official cars or claim expenses apart from the minimum required to fulfill their responsibilities.
The principle areas of difference concerned political organisation and political strategy.
The Claro Que Podemos (CQP) team was lead by European MP Pablo Iglesias and his close collaborators. They proposed a more centralised model of one general secretary and a Citizen’s Council of 71 elected directly by members.
The general secretary would choose an advisory council of 15 from among members of the Citizen’s Council.
Sumando Podemos (SP), the opposing team with the highest level of support, is led by European MPs Pablo Echenique, Teresa Rodriguez and Lola Sanchez along with Victor Garcia and Diego Pacheco. They propose a team of three general secretaries, a larger citizen’s council of 99 including 20 members chosen randomly and an advisory council elected by the citizen’s council rather than chosen by the general secretary.
They also call for lower percentages of support for recall procedures and the calling of extraordinary Citizen’s Assemblies.
However, both proposals are based on open voting for individuals for candidate lists rather than closed lists presented by the leadership. The general secretary positions will be directly elected by all registered members.
All political alliances and electoral programs must be ratified by Citizen’s Assembly ― local, regional or national; and all elected positions are recallable with procedures all based on support by either a percentage of individual members or a proportion of circles.
The debate over political strategy revolves around whether to run in municipal elections under the name of Podemos. There are more than 8000 municipal governments in Spain and the group is still too undeveloped to make sure appropriate controls are in place everywhere.
The congress was marked by various statements by Iglesias. He said that if an opposing set of documents wins, he will step aside and expects the opposing teams to do the same if his perspective is carried.
In response to calls for a consensus position between the two teams with the highest support, and the unwillingness of CQP to meet with SP, Iglesias said he disagreed with SP's position.
Iglesias said Podemos was not a party in which deals were done and the result presented for symbolic ratification ― rather, the members would decide.
Both sides maintain their proposals reach the right balance between efficiency and democracy. But CQP says its organisational structure is one that can win elections in a hostile environment and SP's cannot.
CQP has presented proposals in each of the three categories ― ethics, organisation and strategy ― whereas SP has presented only an organisational proposal. Each team has the choice of deciding how their proposals are to be voted on, as a package or separately.
CQP has presented its as a package, meaning members cannot vote for a mixture of CQP and other proposals ― but must vote for all their proposals or none.
Powerful new force
The internal discussion on organisational forms can be easily followed in the mass media. The media focuses on the divisions, but the real story is missed.
Podemos is a force with millions of supporters and 150,000 registered members ― and is growing. It is present across the whole Spanish state and capable of producing a founding congress in which tens of thousands have directly taken part ― 45,000 people voted on the questions to be answered by each team at the Citizen's Assembly.
Podemos has dominated Spanish politics and has 900 active circles.
It is a force that is not looking for pacts or coalitions, is not seeking to do deals behind closed doors and, regardless of which proposal wins, will be the most democratic mass political party in Spanish history.
The economic and political crisis in Spain has produced a new way to fight back ― a form of resistance with deep roots across the country and a real chance of winning power.
And Spain’s rulers are scared; the rest of European ruling class ought to be too.