Halfway between a structured party and an explosive grassroots movement, Podemos remains a difficult-to-describe political UFO. Examining what lies behind the discourse and identifying some of the defining characteristics of their political strategy helps to explain why their campaign has proved so effective and allowed them to rise to power so rapidly.
Podemos, the Spanish “Yes we can” against the ruling caste
In many ways, we should welcome the fact that discontent in Spain is being voiced through Podemos — which forms part of the United Left group in the European Parliament— rather than through a party on the extreme right.
Podemos undoubtedly provides a major breath of fresh air sweeping through politics and the corrupt establishment in Spain. It stands for hope in the face of an elite that is closed in on itself and indifferent to the sufferings of the majority. A few years back, the impressive mobilisation of the Puerta del Sol’s “Indignants’ Movement” foundered on its refusal to enter the political game in the general elections, thus adding to the poignancy of the coming to power of Mariano Rajoy and the People’s Party (PP), who were elected “by default” on the basis of a programme of austerity and swingeing cuts in education and healthcare. The strength of Podemos lies also in this failure: it was able to give expression to the expectations of the Indignants and catalyse their cultural hegemony (the Indignants had the sympathy of more than 80% of Spaniards), turning this into a political hegemony built around a new set of axes. Thus, Podemos (which refuses to position itself on a Left-Right axis) presents itself as the “new” against the “old”, “democracy” against “dictatorship”, the “people” against the “caste”. The two-party system is thus being shaken to its roots and might well collapse… giving way to a three-party system (Podemos, PP and PSOE).
We are dealing after all with a Spanish “Yes we can”, which in fact relied heavily on the kind of electioneering strategies used by Barack Obama and American advertising experts: 1) provide a narrative; 2) be brief, and 3) work on people’s emotions.
Television was instrumental in making possible this Spanish “Yes We Can”, as it was through this medium that Podemos, in the person of Pablo Iglesias, gained recognition and popularity, with each TV appearance being planned and rehearsed to a nicety. It was only later that Podemos started making massive use of social networks and street mobilisations so as to create an incredibly powerful feedback loop between the mass media, the Internet and the streets.
Halfway between a structured party and an explosive grassroots movement, Podemos remains a difficult-to-describe political UFO:
- Despite its rejection of the Right-Left axis, in terms of identity it is associated with the European radical left (e.g. in the European Parliament) and professes to identify strongly with Syriza (whereas structurally, historically and ideologically Syriza is much closer to Izquierda Unida in Spain or the Front de Gauche in France).
- Podemos appeals to a grassroots electorate similar to that of the Front National (FN) in France and UKIP in Britain, i.e. it does not articulate a class-based discourse, but rather an “ancien-re?gime” type of discourse based on the concept of the people against the e?lite. Of course Podemos’s members distance themselves from such an outlook by styling themselves as heirs to the struggle against fascism, but this specific feature of the Spanish political scene does not resonate with the same connotations as in e.g. France, where the FN paradoxically claims to embody the spirit of the Resistance.
- Podemos shares aspects of Beppe Grillo’s democrazia 2.0 and Movimento 5 Stelle in Italy (use of social networks, the Internet, etc.).
- Podemos can be described as the story of a rapid evolution from the kind of populist and radical left-wing perspective we find in Latin America towards clearly and unambiguously embracing a new Nordic-style social democracy, as found in Sweden or Denmark (Podemos’s new role models).
Here is some interesting data about Podemos: a quarter of those who now intend to vote for Podemos previously voted for the People’s Party (i.e. for the Spanish Right)! Another quarter has been won over from the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), and 15% from Izquierda Unida. “Neither left nor right” is no longer a slogan or an aim for Podemos – it is now a fact: they have succeeded in becoming an “overarching” or “transversal” party.
Podemos: characteristics and organisation an election-winning machine
Podemos is primarily an electioneering machine geared to gaining power. Since its founding conference (which ended on 15 November), Podemos has in fact become an officially hierarchical, centralised structure, based on the “hyper-leadership” of a charismatic individual.
Created as a top-bottom movement by five scholars with a Marxist background and a passion for Gramsci and Laclau, the “ci?rculos” (i.e. circles or local assemblies) only play a subordinate role at national level: they are free to meet and discuss, but decisions are made at the top. A telling example of this is the fact that one of the first decisions taken by Pablo Iglesias when he became general secretary was to entrust the drafting of the first version of the party’s economic programme to experts, a “government of the best” (as opposed to a programme that is the work of members, activists or followers).
Today Pablo Iglesias’ “current” controls 100% of the national organisation. Thanks to the rules which his team managed to impose, his list won all the seats on the federal council (“consejo ciudadano”), and of course it was Iglesias who was elected “general secretary” (and sole leader, since the appointment of other “spokespersons” is considered ineffectual). Moreover, it was Iglesias who appointed the 15 members of the executive committee (to be approved by the “consejo ciudadano”, which however is fully under his control); and, to boot, the statutes committee is also made up entirely of members loyal to Iglesias. See here for more information.
Even though the majority current has a slightly weaker hold on the local-level organisations, only a few towns (not the main hubs and major cities) are in the hands of the “critical sector”. At regional level, there are only two exceptions: Andalusia and Aragon – mainly as a result of the presence of two of the most prominent MEPs heading the electoral lists (Teresa Rodri?guez and Pablo Echenique). In short, in terms of pluralism and internal democracy, Podemos is not quite at the cutting edge of the efforts to renew the party format.
But what an impact it is having! Both internally and externally, Podemos is a fully-fledged steamroller. Hegemony, whether a la Gramsci or a? la Laclau, also leads to disregard for diversity and plurality.
Podemos expresses a strong need for real democracy (“democracia real ya”) but is also marked by the need for an omnipresent charismatic figurehead. There is rejection of the established powers and mistrust of the established parties, but also enthusiasm and support for this form of collective organisation that is being built up as a centralised political party. This contradiction is apparently not seen as a hurdle by Podemos’s members. We again find here one of those paradoxes of political participation which were already apparent in the Movimento 5 Stelle movement: web surfers who feel like active stakeholders in a collective movement because they have clicked a “Like” button somewhere or other. We have here some kind of temporary collective sense of belonging which is fuelled by a sense of individual freedom. In fact, to vote as a member of Podemos, it is enough to fill in an online form; no membership fees have to be paid. When a ballot was held – just over a month ago – on its policy and organisational documents, some 112,000 members (or 55%) out of a total of approximately 200,000 cast their vote; 107,000 members (or 43%) out of approximately 250,000 voted in the elections to the national governing bodies; and 85,000 members (or 34.25%) voted in the elections for local party officials, and 78.000 for regional party officials out of approximately 300.000 members (or 26%).
It should be noted, moreover, that a key feature of this e-democratic centralism (apart from some collaborative online spaces) is the fact that most of the power does not lie with the “circles” (where a debate takes place, where people change their mind on the basis of arguments, etc.), but rather, with “online democracy”, whereby isolated individuals, who follow Podemos mainly on television and (now) also via the social networks, vote – for the most part – on documents and proposals submitted by the “leader”.
But behind the renewal of this “dematerialised” mass party, as far as its programme is concerned, Podemos is increasingly resembling a sort of “PSOE 2.0” (the PSOE is the Spanish equivalent of the French Parti Socialiste (PS)), i.e. a new social democracy which would recover the radical stance it had in the 1980s, its pristine purity in contrast with the corruption of its senior figures, and which, furthermore, would introduce the Internet for all its online voters. As a matter of fact, Podemos is now openly advocating the need to engage in “real social democracy”. Its programme (in which, since the European elections, “guaranteed income for all” has become the RMI, retirement at 60 has been pushed up to 65, etc.) is moving closer and closer to that of the average European social democratic candidate (therefore there are clearly some proposals which environmentalists can agree to). The aim is clear, namely to replace the PSOE in the political arena, offer a pragmatic image capable of captivating centre-left and centre voters (and beyond), and hit the jackpot in the 2015 general elections.
What about the environment?
As far as the environment is concerned, as I told a Mediapart reporter, the crisis of civilisation, the ecological crisis, is not a priority at all for Podemos (whose message focuses on the issue of corruption and rejection of the “ruling caste”), and this is a real problem. As Iglesias recently said on a TV show, summing up his view of the matter, “The environment is important but the priority today is for people to have something to eat.” This sort of curt statement says it all: ecology is a concern of the wealthy. Although there is in fact a very good “circle for ecology, the economy and energy”, it has little influence inside the party. Significantly, one of the experts chosen to draft the economic programme was Vicenc? Navarro, well-known in Spain for his strong opposition to political ecology (I had some fairly heated debates with him on the environmental crisis).
As regards Podemos’s economic platform, I would recommend reading Jean Gadrey’s analysis: “Podemos, bien sauf sur la transition e?cologique” (Podemos – fine, except when it comes to the ecological transition).
The referendum in Catalonia
Podemos kept a low profile when it came to the issue of the Catalan referendum, hiding behind the slogan of Catalonia’s “right to decide” and declaring that they would prefer Catalonia to remain part of a “multinational Spain” (a concept they borrowed from Bolivia). They did not speak much about the subject before the 9 November “consultation”, and leading members of Podemos have expressed differing views in the media. For an article in El Pai?s on this issue, see here. The pro-independence supporters do not really regard Podemos as an ally (see here or here), which is understandable since Podemos does not have its roots in the opposition between nationalism and centralism, but rather in that between the “people” and the “caste”; and the caste is also (and rightly so) regarded as encompassing a large fraction of Catalan nationalism (Pujol and CiU). Given that Podemos does not wage its struggle in terms of this opposition, which currently prevails in Catalonia, it will be very interesting to watch the party’s trajectory and evolution there (for the time being, polls indicate its prospects are good) from now until the Catalan elections in late September 2015, that is to say, in a social and political environment which is inherently tougher than in the rest of Spain.
Podemos: an electoral strategy based on hegemony
At national level (elections are expected to take place in November 2015), Podemos aims to achieve “political hegemony” single-handedly. In other words, Podemos does not want a coalition with anyone else but aspires to achieve an absolute majority on its own (in the Spanish electoral system, this requires a little over 40% of the vote – for the time being, Podemos has between 25% and 35%). The method: neither left nor right; Podemos needs to “occupy the central area of the chessboard”.
At regional level (most elections will be held at the end of May, with the exception of Andalusia [March], Catalonia [September 2015], the Basque Country and Galicia), the strategy is similar to the one just described (and has been voted and agreed on nationwide). In
Andalusia, EQUO, the Spanish Green Party, have decided to go to the elections inside the Podemos’ list.
At local level (end of May), things are slightly different. Podemos has decided not to stand as such anywhere (in order not to risk devaluing its “brand name”) but will leave its circles free to stand in the elections in other forms. In particular, there is a movement of very interesting “citizens’ candidacies” which are called “Ganemos” or, in Catalonia, “Guanyem” (Let’s win) and which bring together, pell-mell, Podemos, Izquierda Unida (IU) and Equo. In some cases (for example in Barcelona and Madrid), these three parties will field joint candidates; in other cases, it will just be Podemos and Equo; in others again, just Equo and IU (with Podemos standing on its own or not fielding any candidates)… but there will be no list of Podemos and IU shoulder to shoulder. A good summary of this citizens’ candidacies.
In conclusion, Podemos provides a lesson in political communication.
The philosopher inspiring the group of lecturers who created Podemos is Ernesto Laclau, an Argentinean thinker who recently died in Seville and who is the author of “The Populist Reason”, among other works.
In Laclau’s view, populism is not, in and by itself, either good or bad; it can be fascist or progressive – and why not environmentally-minded? (see Dick Pels, What’s wrong with Green populism?). According to Laclau, populism can become a powerful democratic instrument in the event of a crisis of representation since it is capable of responding to all the demands put forward by citizens, even though – let us emphasise this – it does not respond to any demand in particular, but rather, to the whole gamut…
To this end, and as a first key element of the populist strategy, Laclau advocates using “empty signifiers”, i.e. “all-encompassing words” or “catch-all” concepts which have the ability to act as a focus for extremely disparate expectations. This is what Podemos is doing when it uses catch-all words such as “caste”, “the people” and “fatherland”. The actual content is unimportant (in fact, there is an avoidance of being overly specific): the important thing is that individuals should be able see themselves mirrored in the word, each in his or her own way.
The second key element is embodiment. Laclau argues that “the rulers become a symbol of the ruled, but at the same time the ruled lay the foundations upon which a leader is built.” Podemos has done just this: strive to make the people identify as much as possible with the leader, the latter being an embodiment of the former (conveniently, Podemos’s ballot papers in the European elections did not bear the logo of the party but an image of Pablo Iglesias).
The third key element is hegemony. Since the leader and the people are one and the same thing, the leader’s decisions may not be questioned (otherwise it is the people who are being called into question…). Therefore, criticism and dissidence are not looked upon favourably. In practice this means that: 1) anyone criticising the leader or the party is, ipso facto, a member of the “caste” (this is a black-or-white view: you are either with me or against me); 2) the losers at party conferences are required not to aspire to any position within the party; 3) this results in a completely undifferentiated national structure: hegemony does not go much for plurality.
Podemos is not only a mass political phenomenon but also, and above all, a political communication phenomenon.