Spanish regional and local elections in May saw a variety of leftist forces achieve unprecedented results at the expense of the traditional centre-left and centre-right parties. These advances for the left come precisely four years after the 15M movement occupied squares in towns and cities across the Spanish state, ushering in a new wave of contentious politics that continues in different forms and mobilizations to this day. 15M initiated the steady decline of a two-party system that alternates power between the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the People’s Party (PP).
When the PP won the 2011 elections only to continue and deepen the austerity started by PSOE, 15M offered an alternative from the streets – sincere opposition to the one put up by the Socialists. The protesters would brand the two parties ‘PPSOE’, a single corrupt and unrepresentative entity, condemned to see their support drop over the following three years.
While it’s tempting to declare Podemos, the municipal election platforms, and other leftist formations as the electoral expression of 15M, it’s more accurate to call them the movement’s consequences, both in filling the political space created by 15M and in tapping into its grievances with the economic and political system. Podemos, Barcelona en Comú, and Ahora Madrid each sought tens of thousands of signatures from the public endorsing their vision, verifying a clamor for their project taking the next steps towards elections. The consequences of 15M on these new political formations have also manifested in other ways, like statutes limiting the income of elected candidates, refusing bank financing, and mandating the publication of donations and their contributors; the statutes themselves being debated and decided in assemblies.
These sorts of measures have a populist appeal to a public hostile to politicians, but that doesn’t mean they don’t fill a need. There’s a systemic level of corruption in Spain, best exemplified in the case of the PP treasurer, Luis Barcenas, who operated a slush fund that directed secret contributions from private contractors to elected party officials, including the current prime minister Mariano Rajoy, according to documents leaked to the press. In Catalonia, the ruling centre-right coalition CiU faces a similar scandal and just had fifteen party headquarters locked down as part of a corruption probe. PSOE has been tarnished by corruption cases as well, and in the Madrid region, board members appointed from across the political spectrum (including trade unions and United Left) to manage public-savings bank Caja Madrid were found to have spent €15m in undeclared company credit on personal expenses. The savings bank would later be merged into Bankia, a bad bank that would receive €22bn in public assistance.
The Podemos eruption
Podemos found a working formula in 2014 when it vastly exceeded pre-election polling for European elections – winning 8% of the vote and five seats – compared to the single seat widely projected. Going into the elections it wasn’t obvious where Podemos would find a base of voters. United Left had been improving in the polls through 2012 and 2013. Despite concerns from activists about United Left‘s appropriation of 15M, it remained the political actor best placed on the left to benefit from the pasokification of PSOE.
The European elections, however, showed how United Left had been failing to draw in dissatisfied voters. Although United Left came ahead with 10% of the vote, Podemos managed to tap into a wider segment of the population. In the months following the elections, as exceeded expectations compelled news coverage and brought many thousands of new participants into the informal party assemblies known as circles, Podemos blasted through the ceiling United Left had struggled to break and began rivaling and even surpassing PSOE as the largest formation on the left.
Podemos approached politics with a high sense of social urgency, an approach that contrasts with a party like United Left too often resigned to and satisfied with an improvement over previous electoral performances. It’s difficult to ask voters to back a left-wing formation in the hope that in two or three election cycles it may become an option to govern. Podemos’s goal was to build support among the existing ‘social majority’ opposed to austerity and frustrated by the failures of the two party system. It would try to discard recognizably left-wing symbols and terminology to avoid alienating parts of this social majority, though the presence of republican tricolors at party events suggests its base remains anchored in the left.
But one of the most widely cited explanations for Podemos’s success gives credit to Pablo Iglesias’s access to highly-watched political debate TV programmes, and his ability to tap into that righteous anger which has brought millions out into the street; there are dozens of videos of him on YouTube with hundreds of thousands of views for a reason. The recently departed Podemos leader Juan Carlos Monedero, and close friend of Iglesias, went as far as comparing television appearances to the German train that transported Lenin from Switzerland to Russia. Crucially, he went on to add that at some point one has to get off the train.
Monedero’s comments and departure speak to the loss of confidence in Podemos from months earlier when it reached first place in a number of opinion surveys. Podemos’s peak came after last autumn’s foundational congress where Iglesias and his allies like Monedero argued strongly for a centralized party form with the traditional position of secretary-general. Their point was that only a central figure could finish what Podemos started, while a decentralized formation with spokespersons would debilitate it. Iglesias famously said, “You don’t storm the heavens by consensus, but by assault.” The centralized model prevailed over one that devolved authority and autonomy to the circles. Having got the party model he wanted, Iglesias would go on to win the position of general secretary with 88.6% of the vote from membership.
The limits of Podemos
The first months of 2015 shook people’s confidence in Podemos. The quick rise of the centre-right Ciudadanos (Citizens) challenged Podemos’s monopoly on the anti-corruption message, even though Ciudadanos has existed in Catalonia since 2007 as an opponent of Catalan nationalism and an advocate of a centralized state. Ciudadanos offered itself as an alternative to those frustrated with PP and PSOE but wary of trusting Podemos, which was being subjected to increasing attacks by opponents associating it with Venezuela and ETA.
In March 2015, Podemos got its first test since the 2014 European elections in the most populous region of Andalusia. Andalusia is a bastion of the left that has been dominated by PSOE since the end of the Franco dictatorship. It’s also where United Left had won 11% of the vote in 2012 and had been gaining further support up until the formation of Podemos. It’s one of the places where Podemos has to run up the vote if it wants to be the primary force in Spanish politics, let alone achieve the majority Iglesias has expressly desired. Podemos won 14.8% of the vote – a large improvement on the 7.1% they took in Andalusia in 2014 European elections, but far from where it wanted to be: ahead of PSOE, which took 35% of the vote.
The Andalusian elections humbled expectations for a party that weeks before had aspirations of repeating what Syriza achieved in Greece. In Athens they had chanted in Spanish: “Syriza, Podemos, we will prevail!” It’s a tall order to climb down from dreams of a rupture with austerity across the south of Europe, but it’s something Podemos supporters and Iglesias himself appeared to be bracing for. General elections at the end of 2015 may not give Podemos a victory, but instead force it into a long-term strategy that both competes against and partners with PSOE to prevent PP from maintaining power with the support of Ciudadanos.
The triumph of left-wing municipal initiatives
Local and regional elections in May lifted expectations as left-wing formations took over 20% of the vote in four of the five biggest cities, giving them the best position to lead the new city administrations. This wasn’t a story about a Podemos victory, though. Last autumn, Podemos decided not to run in city elections after popular municipal initiative Guanyem Barcelona (later known as Barcelona en Comú) formed in the summer and was being quickly replicated in a number of other major cities. The voter overlap between Podemos and these municipal initiatives was obvious. Fearing a poor result in local elections, Podemos would participate in these municipal platforms, only running under its own name and logo in regional elections.
The contrast between the performance of Podemos in regional elections and that of municipal formations in key contests has been the subject of enormous debate and discussion in the last two weeks. At one end, you have those who point to the success of Ahora Madrid and Barcelona en Comú and call for this model to repeated for general election (this argument is being pressed by voices both inside and outside Podemos). At the other end, you have some in Podemos, notably Pablo Iglesias, pointing to a number of places where the Podemos name and logo outperformed municipal formations.
It’s a difficult debate to settle by numbers because there were places like Catalonia and Galicia were only city elections took place. And while there were many attempts to replicate Barcelona en Comú, in many cities these platforms failed to encompass the bulk of forces to the left of PSOE, and in a number cases, there were even competing municipal formations on the left with similar names, to further confuse the matter. That said, it’s difficult not to be persuaded by the idea of popular unity for general elections seeing the results in the city of Madrid, where Ahora Madrid got 519,210 votes (32%) compared with the 286,973 votes Podemos won from the same city in the regional assembly election. Ahora Madrid left PSOE just 15% of the vote, relegating the socialists to a junior partner in a coalition government.
The position of the most successful municipal left formations contrasts with Podemos in regional parliaments, where in every case its best hope is to be a junior partner in a coalition led PSOE or a strike political pact that permits a PSOE minority government. Reflecting on this post-election landscape, Pablo Iglesias spoke of the need to make Podemos a party open for other left forces to enter and strengthen it, but this reading is insufficient and plays into anxiety that Podemos is out for hegemony. Furthermore, it’s a reading that puts Podemos at risk of being outpaced by events much like United Left was in 2014.
Left plurality, not just unity
There is already an effort to replicate the success of Ahora Madrid and Barcelona en Comú in the general elections. So far, it’s Alberto Garzon, the young and popular MP from United Left, who is pressing the case for unifying forces to the left of PSOE. This is not the first time United Left has made such an appeal. It made a call for a popular front after Podemos’s strong performance in European elections. Then, Podemos dispensed the idea with good motives as it was enjoying political momentum that may have been weighed down by what Iglesias calls an ‘alphabet soup’ of political acronyms. This isn’t nearly as persuasive after the May elections.
As difficult as getting Podemos and United Left under a shared formation may be, it’s not sufficient if the goal is to truly repeat the confluence achieved in cities like Madrid, Barcelona and Zaragoza last month. Only five of Ahora Madrid’s 20 city councilors are Podemos members; the rest are independents, United left defectors, from ecosocialist Equo, or members of Ganemos Madrid – the original municipal formation organized in summer 2014. You’ll find a similar story with Barcelona en Comú which was headed by the independent housing activist Ada Colau; only two of the ten councilors joining her come from Podemos. This speaks to the depth of participation that took place in these municipal formations.
Trying to make a functional assembly-based electoral platform for a small geographic unit like a city is extremely ambitious; to attempt it across an entire country with a much smaller window of time before elections is a monumental task. Existing political parties would presumably have to carry a greater load in initiating the process, but they would have to be restrained from limiting it to a negotiation splitting an electoral list among themselves. To make popular unity a mere coalition of parties would exclude activists and campaigners who offer invaluable knowledge and experience from fighting home evictions, unearthing corruption scandals, building self-managed spaces, and countless other struggles that have blossomed out of 15M.
Popular unity would also have to encompass the territorial diversity of the Spanish state. Some of the strongest performances in May elections were put up by left nationalist formations: Compromis in Valencia, MES in the Balearic Islands, Geroa Bai and EH Bildu in Navarre, and CUP and ERC in Catalonia. To win the general election, or have any hope of approaching a majority, a formation of popular unity must attempt to include these parties, or at the very least, embrace the aspirations of their voters for self-determination, for greater self-rule and for an end to the Spanish state’s imprisonment of political dissidents in the Basque Country.
The challenges for a formation of popular unity are immense, but the benefits would be too. In the months leading up to general election, this formation could repeat the assemblies and neighbourhood engagement the municipal platforms did so successfully. It could recapture the enthusiasm and participation that marked 15M, Podemos’s high point last year and the weeks leading up to local elections last month. A formation of popular unity is the only viable alternative to either PSOE or PP returning to power, a result that would continue the social, territorial and economic crisis of the post-Franco regime and maintain Syriza’s total isolation in Europe.