Spain: Eruption of Podemos sparks turmoil on left

June 20, 2014
Podemos representatives celebrate the new group's strong showing in last month's European elections.

The five seats and 7.9% won by the new Podemos (“We Can”) ticket in the May 25 European election was an earthquake in Spanish politics.

Podemos was inspired by the indignado movement that exploded across the Spanish state in 2011 against austerity and for “real democracy”. The movement was driven by mass popular assemblies, which provided a striking counter-point to the frequently corrupt “politics as usual”.

Ten days after the European poll, when the older left parties were still adjusting to having to share “their” political space with the upstart newcomer, they were hit by a powerful aftershock.

A Gesop poll showed that if a national election were held, Podemos would be the third-largest force. It would win 14% to 15% of the vote (more than three million votes) and up to 58 seats in the 350-seat congress of deputies.

Podemos would leave the social democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) with its lowest vote ever (19.4%) and leap over the United Left, the traditional left opposition force, with 8.1% of the vote.

By contrast, the last Gesop poll taken before the February launch of Podemos showed the PSOE with 24.9% and United Left with 13.2%.

The highest number of Podemos’s 1.24 million votes, won with a paltry €150,000 budget, came from disenchanted PSOE voters (36%), followed by those who hadn’t voted (25%), then those who had voted United Left (19%).

New force breaks gridlock

The arrival of the new group, which gained 50,000 supporters in the day-and-half after its February launch and whose program and candidate list was decided by the input and votes of more than 33,000 supporters, has dissolved a political gridlock.

Now at least 1 million people, especially the young ― angry with austerity and corruption and unable to identify with any existing political options ― have their own organisation.

About 9% of those who voted PSOE on May 25 would now vote Podemos, while 19% of those who voted United Left would switch to the new group.

The Podemos result has also made clearer that the overall social mood in the Spanish state continues to shift leftward. The broadly defined parties of the left (from the PSOE through to left and centre-left nationalist forces) won 29 of Spain’s 54 seats in the European parliament, representing 8.25 million voters as against 7.06 million for the right and centre.

Within that broad left vote, the segment belonging to forces to the left of the PSOE rose, surpassing its score in 25 of Spain’s 50 provinces, including Madrid.

Three weeks after May 25, and two weeks after the abdication of King Juan Carlos, the new political dynamic is clear: the struggle to defend existing political bases or win away those of rivals is speeding up, especially as the chances of the left achieving a majority over the PSOE and governing People’s Party (PP) have risen sharply.

The main upshot is a flurry of soul-searching and debate about renewal ― in both the PSOE and United Left. And in Podemos itself, faced with the job of converting an electoral platform into a party, a quite tense discussion has broken out about structures and decision making.

PSOE sinking

The PSOE increasingly resembles a slowly sinking hulk. After the resignation of national secretary Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba and the secretaries of its Euskadi and Navarra affiliates, the latest leader to depart is Pere Navarro, secretary of its Catalan affiliate, the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC).

Under Navarro, who converted the PSC into an outright franchise of a PSOE that opposed any Catalan right to self-determination, the party’s vote fell from 36% in the 2009 European poll to 14.3%.

In Navarra, the Socialist Party of Navarra (PSN) could have helped bring down the corrupt ruling regional coalition of the Union of the People of Navarra and PP if it had found the will to disobey PSOE headquarters and make common cause with United Left and Basque and Navarra left-nationalists.

The price of its spinelessness was that on May 25, the Basque left-nationalist EH Bildu overtook it as the second-biggest political force in the region.

Meanwhile, the emergence of Podemos has given disgusted PSOE voters a new home, making its resuscitation even more difficult.

As its traditional base increasingly departs, the PSOE faces impossible choices. Its only hope of regaining lost ground is to make a sharp left turn to get into line with popular sentiment on such issues as: a referendum on monarchy or republic; Catalonia’s right to decide; amending section 135 of the constitution to remove the priority obligation to pay back state debt; and rejection of any “grand coalition” government with the PP.

There are currents within the PSOE that support one or all of these positions against its central apparatus. One of them, the Socialist Left, has already announced its candidate to replace Rubalcaba.

However, the PSOE has been an escalator for careerists for so long that it is doubtful a serious challenge to the apparatus can be built at this late stage.

Those few currents that stand up against the right, like the Catalanist opposition in the PSC, have themselves been coming apart.

The shambolic state of the PSOE is best dramatised by the abandon with which its elected representatives are voting on the call for a referendum on the Spanish monarchy. In the parliament of Navarra, the PSN deputies joined the UPN and PP in opposing the call; on Barcelona City Council PSC councillors supported it.

United Left reaction

In the multi-tendency United Left, debate is sharp even at the best of times. Since May 25, debate has focused on how much of its vote Podemos “stole” and what should have been done to stop it.

For some, like United Left election campaign head Miguel Reneses, most of the Podemos vote came overwhelmingly from the PSOE, “including moderate sections” who would never vote United Left.

For others, like an anonymous United Left “source” cited by the website InfoLibre, “whoever doesn’t see what those 1.2 million votes for Podemos mean is making a mistake. They are like a kick in the guts.”

United Left leaders have already moved to present various reforms to the alliance’s next Federal Political Council. These include holding open primaries for candidates ― which it rejected in negotiations with Podemos before May 25.

There are also plans to give United Left’s best political asset, 28-year-old indignado MP and author Alberto Garzon, a more prominent role, partly as a concession to those who argued that its team for the European elections should have been led by its best-known younger leaders.

Various United Left currents question whether such moves will be enough. Their alternatives range from implementing a full generational change in leaders to discussing whether federal coordinator Cayo Lara should keep his job.

Podemos debate

Nor are the waters calm in Podemos itself. The platform is due to have its founding convention in October.

On June 5, Pablo Iglesias explained to the media that its election campaign committee would put forward a list of 25 as a technical team to organise the event. The proposal would be submitted to internet vote on June 12-13, and any Podemos member could put up an alternative team. The vote would be for the whole list.

When the proposal was announced to a June 8 meeting of representatives from Madrid Podemos circles, it led to a tense four-hour debate. It features accusations that the closed-list approach went against Podemos’s “democracy now!” message and, above all, because the proposal had not been voted on by anybody.

A report in the June 9 El Pais said close Iglesias collaborator and fellow university lecturer Juan Carlos Monedero explained the need for the proposal like this: “The idea of the [closed] lists doesn’t seem very sensible to us, but there are people conspiring to fool around with Podemos and we don’t feel like copping that.

“People with responsibilities in other parties have sent emails to sympathisers giving instructions as to what to do on June 14 [date of national meeting of Podemos sympathisers].”

This was a reference to the Anti-capitalist Left (IA), co-founder of Podemos along with Iglesias and his supporters. In a June 9 statement, IA replied: “Whoever sees conspiracies and coups where there is only democracy has very little faith in the intelligence of Podemos people.”

Behind this unfortunate clash lies a real issue over how Podemos will make decisions. This includes the role of its 400 circles as opposed to the model of open decision-making by internet.

IA leader Jaime Pastor said: “We are in a new stage where we have to look for a hybrid space, which mixes internal forms of decision-making with forms of participation via social networks, email lists etc.”

In a June 13 comment for the website Cuartopoder, election campaign coordinator Inigo Errejon summed up the issue: “We have to look for mechanisms that try to avoid the risk of us ending up looking more inwards than outwards ...

“On the other hand, we have to look for counterweights that allow citizen participation in a way that avoids the feeling that Podemos only calls for participation to vote on already decided proposals.”

The debate continues, even as Iglesias’s proposed conference organising team was endorsed with 86% support over an alternative list.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will soon appear on the web site of Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]


It is really a serious discussion for the government.

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