Spanish establishment trembles before Podemos advance

Podemos supporters celebrate the results of the May European elections that put the new group on the political map.

Since the two-party political establishment in the Spanish state ― the People’s Party (PP) of prime minister Mariano Rajoy and the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) ― got less than 50% in the May 25 European elections, its nightmares have been getting scarier.

The spectre disturbing their sleep is Podemos, the political expression of the indignado movement that in May 2011 exploded against austerity and corruption and for “real democracy”.

Podemos shattered the status quo by winning five seats in the European parliament. It won a continent-wide profile when its spokesperson, 35-year-old university lecturer Pablo Iglesias, shook up the parliament with his speech as candidate of the United European Left group for the European presidency.

Podemos won 8% in the May vote. The PSOE won 23% and 10% was won by the Plural Left ― basically a coalition of the United Left (IU), Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV) and the Galician Left Alternative (AGE).

Today, just over three months later, the August 31 Sigma-Dos poll shows Podemos support climbing to 21.2%, the PSOE stagnating at 22.3% and IU collapsing to 4.1%.

It was already beating the PSOE on the “direct voting intention” scale (by 11.9% to 10.6%) and was just behind the PP (on 12.8%).

The Podemos result, which showed the highest level of committed support of any party, revealed how daunting the challenge facing the PSOE is.

It is vulnerable to further loss, despite leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba resigning and being replaced by Pedro Sanchez. The new leader is just a younger and more handsome embodiment of the same policies that produced the disaster.

Also, as Podemos circles mushroom across the country, it emerges that its “typical” supporter is not an indignado young person without a future. The new group is attracting people of all ages and walks of life.

The still partly formed political group, which now claims about 100,000 members, has more than 500 local circles. It has already organised regional assemblies in the main areas of the Spanish state.

Will this bubble burst, as establishment politicians predict, or will Podemos go on to consolidate itself as an essential part of the social and political bloc needed to overturn austerity and corruption in Spain?

Free kicks

The initial gut reaction to the Podemos challenge from the PP and PSOE grandees was to stab madly at the anti-communist button on their political control panels. Yet this fit of aggression only helped the new party.

Immediately after May 25, PP's Madrid president Esperanza Aguirre dubbed Podemos “a mutation of the totalitarian virus” and “a mixture of Venezuela’s Bolivarian populism and Marxist ideology”. She also accused the new force of receiving Venezuelan government funds and of supporting the armed group Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA).

Podemos has taken Aguirre to court for these slanders, collecting the tens of thousands of euros needed to fund the case with just one day’s crowdfunding.

However, while Aguirre continues with her apocalyptic comparisons of Iglesias with Josef Goebbels, the main PP strategists seem to have realised that abusive red-baiting just hands Podemos a string of free kicks.

His calm and witty demolition of Aguirre on a Channel Six current affairs show would certainly have driven that message home.

The main PSOE ideological warrior against Podemos has been former deputy prime minister Alfonso Guerra. In Tiempo magazine, he wrote that “years of abandonment of the vast majority of citizens in Europe … have seen neofascisms arise from the ashes, in a very intense way in some countries like France, Holland, Austria and Greece, and neocommunisms, especially in Greece and Spain.”

Guerra then made a fool of himself on a Channel Four debate with Juan Carlos Monedero, Podemos’s “number two” ― refusing to answer when asked if the term “neocommunism” was a reference to Podemos.

However the new Sanchez leadership of the PSOE has also decided that outright red-baiting of Podemos is counterproductive, even if middle-level party officials still find it hard to contain their hatred of a “populist” and “outlandish” force that in the European elections won 36% of its vote from former PSOE voters.

Change of tactics

The core difficulty for both “parties of government” is that they have no answer to Podemos’s basic approach. This is summarised in its draft statement of ethical principles as “promoting the direct and equal participation of all citizens in the areas of decision-making and execution of public policy” and “working in favour of the recovery of democratic popular sovereignty”.

Over the Spanish summer break, their attack therefore turned to a “serious critique” of Podemos’s election platform.

Rafael Hernando, the PP’s deputy spokesperson in the national parliament, told Europa Press that proposals such as cutting the retirement age to 60 would “increase public expenditure” and “affect not only retiring workers but also those who would have to increase their contributions to maintain the Social Security [Spain’s pension system is contributory]”.

It would also “increase unemployment”.

As for the Podemos proposal to suspend Spanish debt repayment until it could be monitored and restructured, Hernando said that no-one “would provide any money to allow renegotiation” and “this country has a deficit and debts and has to keep asking for loans to maintain all its services”.

The PP tactic is to paint Podemos and IU as a threat to the fragile Spanish economic recovery, while looking for ways to rejig the electoral system before next year’s municipal poll to save the skin of thousands of mayors threatened with defeat.

At the summer school of the General Union of Workers, PSOE premier of Asturias Javier Fernandez decided to take a sharper line against Podemos.

For Fernandez, the proposals of Iglesias’s party were “incoherent and unrealisable”, the “luxury shop window displays that people without responsibilities can indulge in”.

The Asturian premier also called Podemos’s use of the term “the caste” to describe the existing political elite as “a sort of dirty clothes basket into which, without looking, they throw left, right, centre, trade unions, social associations, employers and the more the merrier, in order to present themselves as the paradigm of the clean, pure and new”.

He stressed: “I’m worried because there’s a highly anti-political sentiment in this message” and claimed to find similarities between Podemos and the right-wing regionalist Asturias Forum, which also “slanders the other in order to present oneself as the only immaculate force”.

Towards founding assembly

Such criticism is likely to look pretty silly by the end of Podemos’s constituent process. This starts on September 15 with local discussion of the many submitted amendments to the three documents that will be discussed at its founding “Citizen’s Assembly” over October 18 to 19.

The documents cover its ethical principles, political orientation and organisational principles.

Once discussed and adopted, they will give shape and a method of work to what is still a provisional and quite incomplete formation. The various policy circles drafting Podemos’s positions on all the issues of politics will ― it is hoped ― equip the new group with the progressive policy detail that can contest the establishment parties at every point.

By the time its constituent process is completed with the election of its leaders in mid-November, Podemos will have involved tens of thousands of its members and supporters to show it is the most democratic political organisation in the Spanish state. This will pose an enormous challenge to the establishment parties as the 2015-16 round of local, regional and national elections approaches.

The importance of this challenge has not been lost on the rest of the left. In mid-August, Julio Anguita, former national coordinator of the United Left and spokesperson for the Civic Front (key organiser of the anti-poverty Marches for Dignity in March this year), called on the United Left and Podemos to start talks on developing a joint platform that could also act as a point of convergence for social action.

Anguita offered the Civic Forum as facilitator for such a process of convergence.

On August 20, the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), the largest component of the United Left, stated its support for the initiative.

In an August 28 article, PCE national secretary Jose-Luis Centella said: “The explanation is simple and not without self-criticism: it’s a matter of recognising that many left people do not feel represented by the existing left political forces.

“That’s why any call to create a social and political bloc of an alternative character must take account of trade unionists and the social activists who in the tides [of protest against public service cuts], the marches for dignity and the anti-eviction struggle defend the rights of the working social majority, that today is not linked to any political force.

“Only on the basis of this understanding, that the left doesn’t fit into any single movement or political force, is it possible to advance in building the unity that is so necessary in these moments of great aggression by a capitalism aware of history, and create a social and political bloc that can undertake the struggle in the streets, the mobilisations and the institutions.”

Even as it has to work out its own structures and procedures, Podemos will have to face the challenge of popular unity from its own side. Will it take part in the various citizens’ tickets for the municipal elections (like Let’s Win Barcelona)? Will it take up the offer of the Civic Front?

As we enter a critical period the challenges facing the eight-month old group are enormous.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

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