The Problems of Podemos

by Matt Myers

3 July 2016

The Spanish elections on Sunday 26th June brought disappointing results. Unidos Podemos has received a serious and unexpected check on their predicted rise to the party of opposition. The problems for the party are not just internal and strategic. To understand the failure of the ‘sorpasso’ (‘overtaking’) – the challenge of overtaking the Socialist Party (PSOE) as the party of the left – we need to acknowledge the legacy of the Spanish history from the ‘transition’ from Francoism to democracy in the late 1970s to the anti-austerity 15M movement beginning in 2011. Lessons from the Podemos project have implications for the left across Europe.

Accounting for the results

The disappointing results were not expected. All polls bar one, conducted by the PSOE itself, put Unidos Podemos (UP) ahead of their main rivals to the left. Even the exit poll put them on course to ‘supersede’ the PSOE as the official party of opposition. But the much-awaited ‘sorpasso’ never came. Turnout dropped 4% compared to the inconclusive elections on 20th December 2015; from 73.20% to 69.84%. One in five people who said they’d vote for UP stayed at home on polling day, in elections that saw the lowest turnout in years.

This was not, however, a victory for the PSOE. They achieved 100,000 votes less than the elections on the 20th of December 2015. The Partido Popular (PP), led by Mariano Rajoy, won 600,000 more votes than December. These largely came from centre-right Ciudadanos voters (who lost 400,000 votes, largely to the PP) and previous abstainers. The conservative forces of PP and Ciudadanos gained 300,000 votes: enough to swing the balance of power away from UP, but effecting little real change from the last elections. The boiling heat, the holiday season, and five tiring months without an elected government, may have taken its toll on turnout. Fear unleashed from the Brexit revolt – front-page news for weeks in the Spanish press – may also have facilitated the swing to the status quo. Established party-politics in Spain, it seems, is stronger than many expected.

 UP lost many voters in all of the autonomous regions of Spain. UP is an electoral coalition formed of Podemos, regional affiliates (in regions such as Catalonia, Valencia, and Galicia), and Izquierda Unida (IU). It relies heavily on votes in certain regions for its success. The particularly poor results in regions and cities like Madrid came as a surprise. The election of the Mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena (for Podemos affiliate ‘Ahora Madrid’), was supposed to be a new dawn of progressive politics in the city. More than 200,000 votes were lost in Andalucía since December, while Madrid had an even higher number of people abstaining from the vote. In Valencia 130,000 votes were lost, over 80,000 in Catalonia, and more than 60,000 in Galicia. For regions and cities once touted as the crowning success of the Podemos project, this is a hard blow for the ‘new politics’ and an indicator of an alienated voter base. 

The palpable sense of disappointment emanates from the contradictions in Podemos’s cultivated self-image. ‘Vamos a ganar’ (‘We are going to win’) – other than the newly fangled patriotic discourse of ‘patria’ and ‘pueblo’ (‘homeland’ and ‘people’) – is a constant refrain at their mass meetings. The party was created to win: “politics has nothing to do with being right but with achieving success”, as Iglesias put it in a meeting in 2014. The mood at the post-election rally in the Plaza de Reina Sofía in Madrid was notably deflated.

Reasons for the disappointment didn’t take long to emerge. The ‘national-populist’ faction in Podemos led by Íñigo Errejón, were already calling the alliance, with the traditionally leftist IU, a failure. IU, they argue, are too tied with the past. Largely dominated by the Spanish Communist Party, IU militants are likely seen as an embarrassment by the ‘Errejonistas’. Flags with hammer and sickle insignia and statues of Stalin don’t fit well with the tech-savvy ‘national populists’. Needless to say, Errejón is not much liked by IU militants either, and received noticeably less applause at pre-election Unidos Podemos rallies. 

In the wake of infighting and electoral disappointment, it falls to us to ask, as did Madrid based writer and activist Emmanuel Rodríguez “Por qué ha fracasado Podemos?”; “Why did Podemos fail”. A certain public reticence towards a party that claims it ‘always wins’, dominated by self-assured intellectuals, may have played a part. Moreover, UP is a self-identified ‘alternative social democratic party’ – according to Iglesias even Marx and Engels were social democrats. This unabashed radicalism in a time of uncertainty may have encouraged many to vote for the original over the untested rookies. Podemos, after all, only embraced the label of social democracy in the past few months. When claims to ‘authenticity’ acts as political gold dust in the disillusioned ‘anti-political’ electoral climate in Europe and the United States, such a clearly crafted political maneuver, (from Podemos, from the PSOE) may smack of the same old insincerity; an attempt to triangulate political messages to win over voters. Best to stick with the lying politicians you know than the ones you don’t.

The legacy of the 15M movement should not be underestimated. Although ratified in a plebiscite, the ‘confluence’ of IU and Podemos was conducted through opaque, un-democratic, backroom deals, like much of the internal workings of both organisations. The forming of this ‘confluence’ was another step away from the experiences of the 15M, which took to the squares to reject all existing parties (including the traditional leftist IU) and to call for radically democratic and open politics. Iglesias demanded, as party of Podemos’s program, universal basic income, a constituent process, and an audit on the debt. These demands are now either noticeably omitted or radically toned down in the current election manifesto. Where local groups once had the power to directly shape decision-making, they have largely been reduced consultative bodies and electoral organising hubs. The party structure was a classical one, comprising a General Secretary and an Executive according to the traditional Spanish model. The struggle over the ‘list’ of who can and cannot be a candidate in elections, as well as who can take the new elected (and paid) positions in the circles and the party itself, has affected many circles and alienated many. The vast change from the organizational principles, spirit, and social demands of the 15M is striking, and may offer some explanation for the apathy and alienation of traditional supporters.

The legacy of 15M, or its absence, is central in understanding the result. Podemos was at its most popular in the polls, polling well over 25%, in its early stages. In October 2014, Podemos was polled the most popular party above Partido Popular at over 26%. At this time Podemos declared itself as the ‘anti-party’: the conscious expression of the 15M movement in its direct aftermath. The party itself was formed through a similar pattern of local assemblies (circles) through existing networks developed in the movement. However, in January 2015, in a political shakeup led by Errejón and the new challenge of Ciudadanos, the party dropped sharply to a low of 12-13% in September 2015. A hierarchical structure instituted at the founding Vista Alegre conference in late 2014, new internal battles for power, and a move to the center to catch PSOE voters, ran concurrently with this drop in support. The problem of Podemos’s voter base is not only issue of the past six months, but reflects the party’s development since its inception. 

A Problem of Ideology

The Podemos leadership has claimed a number of political and ideological influences. Iglesias has claimed Podemos as a party of ‘new social democracy’, while Errejon claims ‘Peronism’ (likening himself to Evita Peron). In a move which sought to win over PSOE voters this month, Iglesias even stated that José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Spanish PSOE president (2004-2011) which oversaw the start of the first austerity programs in the country, was the best president of Spanish democracy. Iglesias has also praised Eurocommunism (and the Communist Party in Italy, PCI, in particular), and in the weeks before the election has even called for the returning of Gibraltar to Spanish sovereignty. In 2013, he claimed he would never use the traditional ‘rojigualda’ flag of the official Spanish monarchy. This objection was quietly rescinded during the elections. At first glance this is contradictory: these are all different political traditions, different countries, and at different times. Yet what does unite them is the stress on the national ‘popular front’ – an alliance of different class forces and social groups with the aim of taking state power and transforming it through the ballot box. The problem for the Podemos leadership, reflected in the election results, seems to be political trust and the organic capacity of the party. Podemos is young and not very deeply rooted in Spanish society. The party made a great effort in the elections to reclaim ‘empty signifiers’ like the Spanish monarchist flag and the traditionally rightist word ‘patria’, and give it a progressive content. The mix of influences is confusing. Is Podemos a party of the left or a party outside the left-right binary? Is the party national-populist or social democrat? The lack of specificity on these questions, reflected in the different style and content of speeches by Iglesias and Errejón, reflects a precarious project in a post-1989 world-context where political models to copy (of post-war social democracy and Communism) are not self-evident.


The ‘Regime of ‘78’

During Podemos’s breakthrough in the European elections in 2014, Iglesias strongly criticized the ‘regime of 1978’: the political and economic system instituted after the death of Franco. The PSOE was a central actor in the strengthening of the new post-Franco regime, and is the same party that Podemos wishes to ‘supersede’. Mario Espinoza – a Podemos activist and member of the Institute of Democracy and Municipalism and Traficantes de Sueños Publishing collective – explained in an interview the common features of Podemos and the PSOE of the 1980s:

“They have a similar use of ideology, populism, and marketing, in public image, but on the inside doing things radically different than what they are saying to the public. The problematic democratic processes inside Podemos, and adapting their discourse for the moment, are examples of this. The PSOE claimed it was a was a Marxist party during the serious worker mobilisations of the late 1970s, but then as these receded they renounced Marxism and accepted moderate social democracy. The expectations of the transition were really high but what was actually achieved was very low. Maybe the same could be said for Podemos.”

 The comparison is not a perfect mirror image, but allows us to frame the rise of Podemos against the inheritance of Spanish history. It allows us to challenge a mythology which political projects like Podemos often tell of their own uniqueness and authenticity of their political method.



What is clear from the experiences of the past 5 years is that radical democratization has been hard, if impossible, to fit in both institutional-political channel and conventionally hierarchical parties with unquestioning loyalty to charismatic leaders. The ‘new politics’, after the June 26th elections, is now no longer so new. The tidal wave of social mobilization and the freshness of the young Podemos is unlikely to return anytime soon. After June 26th, there is clearly a need to reevaluate other ways of breaking the deadlock. Instability is likely to remain in the political as well as the economic sphere. For writer Isidro Lopez, the results will not means a stable PP government, but more political instability. Furthermore, Spain is still in a delicate economic position, as shown by the 12% drop on the Spanish stock exchange in the wake of the Brexit vote. This economic turbulence will likely continue. Parties of the right have shown the ability to manage this crisis, but not how to resolve it politically or economically.

The problems of Podemos highlight some critical contradictions facing any electoral project of the left. First is the problem of alienating your base of support in the pursuit of the voters of the mythical centre ground. Attempting to appeal to this voter-base through managed discourse and policy moderation can both alienate your own base and fail to win over anyone new. Secondly, a party-movement that wishes to take state power through elections cannot only depend on the ‘autonomy of the political’: the idea that the political world operates separately from society, according to unique laws and principles governing its own machinations. The strength of social movements, popular mobilization, and working class power are all critical to the robustness of any political project inside parliament. Parties should discount the importance of the social sphere at their peril.

The Podemos project will continue after this setback. After all, ‘Pasokification’ was never meant to be easy.


Photo: Miguel Luna/Novara Media

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