Podemos 2.0: Towards a Party-Movement?

by Pablo Castaño Tierno

19 October 2016

Podemos Uviéu/Flickr

Since the December 2015 general election, the political situation in Spain has been stalemated. The major parties’ inability to form a new government in December led to a repeat election in June 2016, and with similar results, the possibility of yet another election is on the horizon. The most likely result of this is a new government led by the right wing Popular party (PP). However, this would only be possible if the Socialist Workers’ party (PSOE) abstained in parliament in order to allow for the appointment of Mariano Rajoy as president.

This dilemma has provoked the biggest political crisis in decades within the once-hegemonic PSOE, whose share of the vote has collapsed in recent years due to its adoption of austerity policies. Secretary general Pedro Sánchez has been overthrown in a coup led by the socialist president of Andalusia Susana Díaz, amongst other regional socialist leaders, who would rather another PP-led government than to form a coalition with Podemos, as Sánchez was trying to do.

In this context of political uncertainty, a growing number of Podemos leaders have spoken of the need to restructure the party, particularly after the disappointing results obtained in the June election by the coalition Unidos Podemos (Together, We Can), formed by Podemos, the United Left (IU), and some regional left wing parties.

The coalition obtained 21% of the vote and 71 MPs – an impressive result for an anti-austerity party. However, Unidos Podemos did not succeed in overcoming the PSOE, and they lost more than a million votes compared with the December 2015 election. Attempts to understand this loss have led to wider discussions around the future of the party. These discussions are structured along two lines: the organisational debate, and the political-discursive debate – the same discussions that have structured internal debate within Podemos since its foundation in 2014.

The organisational debate.

The organisational debate made itself explicit in the first party congress in Madrid in November 2014. On the one hand, the de facto direction of the party at that time (no formal primary election had been celebrated yet), led by Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón, proposed a classical party structure with centralised direction – though elected through primary elections open to all citizens and subject to revocation. On the other hand, the anticapitalist camps led by Pablo Echenique and Teresa Rodríguez respectively proposed an innovative organisational model, where the grassroots groupings which had proliferated throughout the country since the foundation of Podemos (the so-called ‘circles’) would hold most of the party power, building a federation of circles. These camps also criticised the electoral system designed by Iglesias’ team for selecting both internal positions and the party’s electoral candidates in the primary elections. Indeed, this electoral system had a majoritarian and plebiscitary character that favoured the concentration of party power in the hands of its more charismatic figures – namely, Pablo Iglesias.

Of 112,000 voters, Iglesias’ organisational model gained 80% of the vote. He was subsequently elected as Podemos’ secretary general, and the regional and local candidates that he backed won in the most part of the Spanish territory, while Echenique was elected secretary general in Aragón region, and Rodríguez won in Andalusia. This turn of events gave Iglesias’ team control of party structures and autonomy in facing the 2015 electoral cycle, composed of regional, local and national elections. The results of Podemos’ “electoral war machine” – as Errejón put it – were impressive: just one year after its creation, the new anti-austerity party and its allies forced the traditional parties from power in Madrid, Barcelona and other important cities, and obtained such good results in urban regions that they almost equalled the PSOE’s results in the December 2015 general election.

The political-discursive debate.

The second major debate within Podemos has been with regard to the discursive and political orientation of the party – two closely related points of discussion. Podemos was founded with the explicit aim of doing what IU had not been able to do: to express in the political arena the social unrest provoked by the financial crisis and the austerity policies imposed by both the conservative PP and the PSOE, along with demands for deeper democracy and social rights expressed by the 15M movement and other mass protests during the 2011-2013 period. Podemos’ founders aimed to achieve this by following a populist strategy whereby the classical right-left divide was replaced by the people-elite divide. The choice of the populist strategy was based on the premise that the social and democratic demands expressed by the 15M movement were shared 1) by both working class and middle class people and 2) by people who situated themselves outside of the left-right continuum. This strategy implied the resignification of terms such as patria (‘motherland’, a term typically used by the Spanish nationalist right), giving a social and non-centralist content to it, and the repeated references to the gente (‘people’, in its most colloquial translation) instead of the working class, amongst other discursive strategies.

It is unsurprising that at the beginning, relations between Podemos and IU were not good, as the latter rightly perceived the former as a threat to its survival. But with the election of the young and popular leader Alberto Garzón as the leader of IU, and the relatively good result he achieved in the December 2015 general election, Podemos’ attitude towards the old left party changed, and they formed a coalition for the June 2016 general election. However, this development exacerbated the differences between the firmest advocates of the populist strategy in Podemos – led by the political secretary Íñigo Errejón – and those who defended the building of a new political bloc with IU – including Pablo Iglesias and their former rivals, the anticapitalist camps and Echenique (recently appointed as Iglesias’ Secretary of Organisation). The loss of more than a million votes in the June 2016 election was interpreted by Errejón’s camp as confirmation of the thesis that the alliance with IU would spoil Podemos’ effort to build a new kind of political identity capable of attracting larger sectors of the population than traditional leftist narratives.

The current state of discussions.

With regard to debate around the internal organisation of the party, no major leader defends the all-power-to-the-circles model any more. However, all sectors seem to agree with the need to evolve from the ‘electoral machine’ model to some kind of party-movement with deeper local roots. This necessarily implies a strong effort to address the circles’ and grassroots militants’ demands, as many of the circles are not even recognised as part of Podemos yet. This direction also intends to create a network of sociocultural centres called Moradas (meaning ‘purple’, Podemos’ colour, and also ‘home’), inspired by the traditional socialist Casas del Pueblo (‘Homes of the People’) that were key in the promotion of socialist ideas and cultural identity during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Other hot organisational topics that will be debated at the next Podemos congress (that will take place in 2017) include the degree of autonomy of the regional federations of the party (until now under national direction), and the future of the boards responsible for the protection of militants’ rights and the enforcement of the party’s rules, whose lack of both independence and efficacy has been criticized by militants. Regarding the political-discursive discussion, it is not clear what kind of relations Podemos will have with IU and regional allies. This issue will no doubt be debated with discussion on the validity of the populist strategy for the future of the anti-austerity party.

Podemos faces the challenge of becoming a major party without losing its popular identity, its connection with social movements, and its objective of gaining state power in order to subvert the Spanish political system. As Pablo Iglesias himself stated recently, success is not assured.

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