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A Year of Change Postponed?

Spain votes in a general election on Sunday. Can Podemos reclaim its earlier momentum?

At the time of writing, Podemos is making an inspiring late comeback in the Spanish general-election campaign, but few expect that 2015 will be the “year of change” that Pablo Iglesias promised when Podemos was leading in the polls last year. Mass participation in the new party and a lightning rise in popular support in its first year gave way to limited grassroots activity and an electoral slide until this October.

Although Iglesias has impressed in recent campaign debates with his opponents, and key competitors — the social-democratic Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the new-right Ciudadanos — have fallen in the polls, Podemos probably will fail to meet its goal of winning the elections on December 20, and will have to settle with being a main opposition party.

Whatever the result, the steady decline of the corrupt establishment parties — the right-wing People’s Party (PP) along with the PSOE — has slowed or reversed and it will be a neoliberal party, Ciudadanos, that will have made the biggest gains over the year. According to several polls, Podemos entered the election campaign in fourth place. At that time there was disarray among a previously energized grassroots. As Emmanuel Rodríguez wrote in October, “among activists the dominant description is ‘a big downer’ . . . referring to that state . . . that follows long nights of chemical euphoria.”

Since then, some of the Podemos spark has returned, as support for the party has risen from around 15 percent in October to 20 percent in the latest polls. This has been aided by the clear desire for change among the Spanish popular classes and several shifts by Podemos discussed below. Mass rallies (of seven thousand and twelve thousand people in Zaragoza and Madrid, respectively) suggest that the political project will continue to be at the center of left strategies in the following period.

The Window Is Cracked

The difficulties that emerged in 2015 must be analyzed all the same. These cannot be explained by changes in the Spanish economic and political situation. Although some growth and job creation has finally occurred, it has been accompanied by squeezed and stagnant wages, widespread use of insecure work contracts, the removal of bargaining rights, and slashed welfare provisions.

The continuing drive for Catalan independence and the growth of Ciudadanos — aided by its populist denunciation of the existing “partidocracy” — suggest that the “regime crisis” of recent years continues. The two parties that have dominated Spanish politics for decades have lost more than half their support in the last seven years.

The changed political landscape can be traced back to the 15-M (indignados) movement in 2011, in which a fifth of the population attended assemblies in occupied squares. These were protests against the failure of representation (expressed in the central slogan “they don’t represent us”), as much as cuts and economic mismanagement. As well as organizing mass protests, and a symbolic blockade of the Catalan parliament, the movement operated using assembly-based, participatory democracy.

One observer predicted that after 15-M, “nothing will be the same again.” Historian Xavier Domènech agreed, suggesting that the  “confidence and optimism” engendered by the democratic movement, “transmutes into courage.”

The following years saw the rise of 15-M-inspired social movements. These included the “Colored Tides” of public-sector workers and supporters that campaigned against cuts and privatizations (sometimes winning enormous support and victories) and an expanded direct-action housing movement (the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, the PAH) that has reshaped the political agenda and prevented over a thousand evictions.

Witnessing the popularity of 15-M and the PAH, Iglesias and participants in the alternative television debates he presents identified a “window of opportunity” for the Left. Together with members of (what is now) Anticapitalistas, a Marxist grouping linked to the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste in France, they launched Podemos in January 2014. A few months later this new “citizen’s movement” spectacularly won five European parliamentary seats, proving the optimism correct.

The following year’s municipal elections confirmed that 15-M’s political reverberations had continued. On May 24, “citizens” coalitions took over the city halls in four out of the country’s five biggest cities (and many other localities as well). The municipal platforms varied, but tended to share a core project predating Podemos. The coalitions involved many movement activists, including at a leadership level, such as the popular spokeswoman for the PAH Ada Colau, who now serves as Barcelona’s mayor.

These coalitions typically included Podemos and the Communist-led Izquierda Unida (IU), but in several cases candidates and policies were decided in open voting. They consciously sought to embody the will of the majority and win office — a strategy expressed in coalition names such as “Let’s Win” or “Atlantic Tide,” and which echoes what has been described as the “majoritarian” approach of the 15-M movement.

In a series of regional elections in 2015, many of which were also held on May 24, Podemos obtained results that would have been unthinkable two years ago — gaining 133 regional MPs and taking as much as 21 percent of the vote in Aragón. Yet, in light of Podemos’s emphasis on winning and the high expectations it created, the results were seen as inadequate, particularly in contrast with those of the broader municipal coalitions.

In Madrid half as many city residents voted for Podemos for the regional parliament as for the coalition including Podemos (Ahora Madrid) that ended up in control of town hall. This disjuncture pointed to dissatisfaction with the Podemos model and led to debates about whether Podemos should ally with other forces in more open coalitions.

The Catalan elections in September — in which the anticapitalist (and pro-independence) Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) won 8 percent of the vote (with their support nearly doubling afterwards according to polls) — offered another sign that the radical mood in Spain has not abated.

After such positive developments, it is necessary to identify why Podemos’s evolution has been more volatile and mixed, why it lost much of its grassroots, and why many will vote for it as a “lesser evil” rather as the project they previously strongly identified with.

People vs. the Caste

To understand the evolution of Podemos it is necessary to examine the ideologies and analyses that have molded the party. Much of the commentary on its rise (for example by party strategist Iñigo Errejón and international supporter Owen Jones) centered on its “theoretical-communicative practice,” which Errejón has identified as an effort to translate “complex analysis and diagnostics into discursive narratives and direct stories.” Particularly celebrated is the replacement of the traditional political dichotomy of “left vs. right” with “people vs. the caste,” supposedly appealing to a “transversal constituency” beyond that of the traditional left.

Unusually for progressives, Podemos regularly uses traditional bourgeois-liberal conceptualizations while defending social-democratic demands: “sovereignty” against the troika, “legality” to chase tax fraud, “progressive patriotism” to defend a pluri-national (but unified) Spanish state.

The rhetoric draws heavily on a specific theoretical approach: that of the left populism developed at the University of Essex by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. Like the Madrid scholars leading Podemos, Laclau developed his ideas by observing South American political experiments, including Peronism in Argentina.

Laclau and Mouffe revised the ideas of Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci on the combination of hegemonic rule (or political and ideological leadership) with coercion in Western states. Claiming that a radical class project had become impossible in more fragmented contemporary societies, they concluded that only a cultural, ideological, and discursive “counter-hegemonic” program could unite the majority in common cause. The strategic consequence of this approach was to champion a “reformulated socialism along the lines of radical democracy.”

Such a strategy “ascribes to intellectuals a predominant role in the political project,” as Ellen Meiksins Wood rightly lamented. The intellectuals’ task is to study social discourses, identifying the progressive ones and their “chains of equivalence” (linking concepts). “Empty” or “floating signifiers” can then be constructed — often built from the unsatisfied promises of liberalism (democracy, equality) — and it is aimed that these become associated with a “signifier par excellence,” the leader associated with these ideas.

Left-populism shares with social democracy a fundamentally institutional form of politics, both casting social mobilization in a supporting role at best. Yet left-populism distinguishes itself in the attempt to build a constituency through conflict, and the tendency to discursively counterpose “the people” with those opposed to the them (who Podemos labelled “la casta” — similar to Jones’s “the establishment”).

Laclauian populism has been criticized for treating the economy as unproblematic (despite the great importance of the issue in southern Europe), and it downplays the role of the state apparatus in shaping political processes. The role it attributes to the leader and its effort to carefully control the political message encourage top-down party centralization.

One can glimpse the blueprint for Podemos’s architecture in a 2011 academic study by Errejón, “The 15-M movement as a counter-hegemonic discourse.” Here Errejón uses Laclauian methods to identify “shared meanings” in slogans, statements, chants, banners, discussions, and social-media output from the square occupations.

For Errejón, 15-M “problematized in common” varied issues such as evictions and corruption by politicians, and linked them (in a chain of equivalence) through the figure of a hijacked democracy. He identified a “crisis of representation” that made possible a new radical-democratic project that could expand the movement’s base if it employed “a large dose of flexibility, ideological secularism, and political intelligence,” and therefore become an “alternative political power.”

Additionally, he noted that in the squares while “the ‘vertical’ boundary that separates citizens from elites is persistently and sharply stated, the ‘horizontal’ is almost liquidated.” This observation allowed for the development of the people vs. caste formulation.

Considering the large overlap between this analysis and the eventual Podemos construction, which did manage to incorporate a wider social layer than the 15-M, it is difficult not to feel some awe for Errejón’s intellectual prescience. But he made potentially fatal omissions and errors. First, Errejón viewed the politics of 15-M though the lens of Mouffe’s “post-politics” — describing the “non-antagonistic” nature of politics under neoliberalism (after the capitulation of social democracy). Mouffe herself (alongside Marxist writers such as Elizabeth Humphrys and Tad Tietze) describes 15-M as being an “anti-politics” movement.

This seemingly petty distinction matters because most Indignados were actively hostile, rather than merely apathetic, to any representative democracy. This attitude was so strong that those claiming to represent traditional organizations were asked to leave the squares. When many participants in the movement — including a great many autonomists — began to build new electoral projects in 2013, they did so partly because they were framed as participatory “citizens’ movements” instead of parties.

The call for rank-and-file participation in Podemos’s local “circles” (as captured in the great Podemos document “All power to the circles,” written by Miguel Urbán of the Anticapitalistas) was arguably as much of a draw for the 15-M generation as Iglesias’s skillful media appearances.

It was substantiated by a dizzying amount of intra-circle activity during Podemos’s first nine months. Madrid MP Isidro López has described the mass mobilization into the circles as the second act of the “democratic revolution” that began with 15-M. Most of those in the squares movement wanted more than better representation: they wanted some form of self-government.

Moreover, 15-M was a movement protesting to achieve demands through its own efforts (even if the more practically-minded PAH and Colored Tides were more effective in doing so). The dynamics of “horizontality,” self-activity, and protest were airbrushed out of Errejón’s calculating and dismal study. There was a reason for this. Though Errejón had roots in the autonomist movement, his focus shifted after researching the governing MAS party in Bolivia. His new priority was the building an institutional project in Spain, not the struggle from below.

Progressive-Populism in Practice

Podemos has different ideological influences, even among its leading cadre. The key to understanding its political development can be found in the tension between the 15-M culture shared by much of its original base and the left-populist program that has molded its apparatus. During the process of collectively designing the 2014 European election campaign it became clear that the circles would choose radical programs not reducible to the signifiers and narratives that the leadership felt would allow the party entry to (and management of) the institutions.

The leadershp’s fear of losing control was reinforced when Anticapitalistas, an organization with many hundreds of activists across the state, managed to get Teresa Rodríguez and (later) Urbán elected as MEPs, threatening to produce a plural leadership incompatible with the left-populist project.

Facing this situation, perhaps braced by Iglesias’s popularity, his grouping moved quickly to control Podemos. Anticapitalistas members were sacked as full-timers, and a new, more homogenous leadership was able to design the process for Podemos’s first congress (“Citizen’s Assembly”) in the autumn. One of their decisions was that voting would be an individualized online process rather than the deliberative collective one in the Citizen’s Assembly that many circles desired.

Online decision-making made it easier for proposals backed by Iglesias (whose name featured alongside voting options) to be passed even if strongly opposed in the circles. When Claro que Podemos (CqP, the faction around Iglesias) put forward a highly centralist and presidential party structure (including slate voting of leaders and candidates, and ruling out mandatory regular assemblies), it was met by a major revolt led by Teresa Rodríguez and Pablo Echenique, a disabled MEP.

In response, CqP refused to negotiate or compromise, and Iglesias threatened to refuse the role of general secretary if his proposals were rejected. He justified his preferred model as the one required for “storming the heavens” (paraphrasing Marx), but others saw his tactics as bullying and blackmail.

As has consistently been the case, the hostile media were keen to publicize expressions of discontent in the open activities of the organization, and many potential voters were made aware of Podemos’s bureacratization. Over the following months, thousands of activists dropped out of party-related activity, complaining of disempowerment.

Podemos emerged from the Assembly as a top-down party with a monolithic central leadership. Iglesias and CqP’s tendency to announce major changes without prior discussion grew stronger. The rank-and-file became increasingly demobilized. While an impressive 112,000 people chose Podemos’s statutes the month of the Assembly, in subsequent votes, participation fell to 84,000 (in February 2015), 69,000 (in March), and 53,000 (in the summer primaries).

Electoral support followed a similar downward curve. This was encouraged by a relentless political and media offensive against Podemos. But the bureaucratization of the organization was undeniably a major factor: “people vs. the caste” had real content when a mass of people conditioned the project, but it became an empty slogan when deployed by a centralized party.

Another way by which left-populism shaped Podemos involved the party’s relationship with the popular classes and their struggles. Despite admirable exceptions, the Podemos circles did not realize their potential of becoming local centers of agitation. This was not accidental: the CqP Political Document passed at the Assembly concluded that a phase of social mobilization had been superseded by an “institutional phase.” Revealingly the only protest Podemos strongly mobilized for was to demonstrate strength of support for its party project: a rally of up to three hundred thousand people in Madrid in January 2015.

The Laclauian approach also encouraged deepening political moderation. As part of a new strategy of building an electoral war machine aimed at reaching the Moncloa within a year, programmatic and discursive changes were introduced. Two popular left-Keynesian economists were drafted to write an economic report that helped legitimize the abandonment of some radical policies adopted in the spring, including refusal to pay illegitimate public debt, introduction of a universal basic income, renationalization of energy companies and banks, and reduction of the retirement age to sixty.

Other left-wing policies, such as introducing the thirty-four-hour work week and doubling public-sector employment, were maintained. However, with a new media strategy of “occupying the center of the chessboard,” CqP’s discourse narrowed to the denouncment of corruption by politicians and ex-politicians.

In the general election campaign, Iglesias put social reforms back at the core of his discourse — arguably a factor fueling Podemos’s late surge, but the economic policies included in the party’s ten main reforms were even more limited than those of its now-invisible economic advisors and mainly inspired by comparison with the lack of positive change offered by the other opposition parties.

Another transformation has involved Podemos’s stance on the independence process in Catalonia. Progressive Catalans were encouraged by the rise of a Spanish party that defended their “right to decide,” even if Iglesias would always rapidly qualify that he preferred Catalonia to remain in Spain. Yet when the Rajoy government and courts prevented a referendum on statehood and threatened a symbolic consultation in November 2014, CqP said little or nothing in protest.

Podemos’s hostility to the right-wing policies and corrupt practices of Catalan president Artur Mas’s Convergència party has helped keep social issues and democratic reform on an independence-dominated Catalan political agenda.

But Podemos leaders did not temper their hostility even when Mas was taken to court for organizing the symbolic referendum — an attack against the whole movement for national democracy. CqP often has dismissed the Catalan left — and by implication the mass street protests for independence — for following an unrealistic road, pointing to the constitutional prohibition of self-determination.

As an alternative CqP tells Catalans to wait until a progressive government is formed in Madrid that can initiate the process to create a new constitution allowing a Catalan referendum. It therefore has effectively advocated deactivating a mass democratic movement on the basis of the unlikely possibility of Podemos transforming the institutions!

The bankruptcy of this approach was confirmed when, due to the prohibition of a legal referendum, the September Catalan elections were held as a plebiscite on independence (a framing endorsed by most Catalans). With Iglesias and Errejón at the helm, the Catalan CSQP coalition that included Podemos and the ex-Communists (ICV) denied this plebiscitory character, refusing to put forth real steps by which Catalans could exercise greater sovereignty. CSQP was punished for this and won a smaller percentage of the vote than ICV alone obtained last time.

Part of the reason for these mistakes is Iglesias’s self-defined “progressive patriotism.” His conception seems to have been adapted from the Latin American experience, where state nationalism has been able to foster left-wing subjectivities in opposition to US imperialism. However, the concept was always going to be problematic in a European country containing several of its own independence movements.

Sadly the nationalism implicit in the populist project seems to have led a group that once showed notable sensitivity towards minority national sentiments to boast being itself the “best guarantee of the unity of Spain.”  The mistakes described were partly redeemed during the current campaign by Iglesias’s unambiguous promotion of a Catalan referendum in the face of attacks from his chauvinistic opponents.

In its wider European alliances, Podemos’s leaders identify greatly with the Syriza leadership. This identification was particularly strong before and immediately after the Greek party won its first elections in January 2015, promising to reverse austerity and the domination of Greece by the troika, but it has continued even after Alexis Tsipras accepted the imposition of historic cuts and privatizations under the troika’s supervision.

Rather than interpreting this capitulation as proving the limits of a strategy of institutional negotiation without a plan B (including exit from the euro), Iglesias adopted an irritatingly fatalistic attitude that accepts “the limits of government” without indicating any role for extra-parliamentary protest to help overcome these restrictions.

Failing on Its Own Terms

For Emmanuel Rodríguez and Isidro López, Podemos’s dependence on traditional political science methods (such as opinion poll analysis) was made necessary by the  marginalization of the circles, which prevented the party from reflecting on its progress through the experience of its members, and has led to an obsession with locating and attracting centrist voters. This encouraged a process of social-democratization and further alienated support on the Left, whose backing for Podemos dopped by nearly 20 percent between January and April 2015.

Furthermore, Podemos’s emphasis on individual ethics as opposed to social policy began to backfire when it emerged that Monedero had received substantial funding for his and Iglesias’s TV projects from left-wing Latin American governments without having declared such to the tax authorities. With Monedero’s popularity ratings plummeting, he reluctantly resigned from the party leadership.

Lastly, the tactic of aiming to gain majority support through the campaign for ethical politics framed in national-populist terms opened the door to a new competitor. Ciudadanos, originally created as a hostile centralist response to Catalan nationalism, found it could compete with Podemos to occupy the same political space.

This party of youthful good-lookers has centered its program on opposing corruption alongside defending right-wing economic measures (such as partial privatization of the health service) and authoritarian domestic and foreign policies (including bombing Syria). Aided by the media, and probably by the failure of the Left in Greece, Ciudadanos has been growing at the expense of both Podemos and the PP, and likely will be the kingmaker that allows the conservatives to continue in office.

The victories of the new municipal left, and Podemos’s relatively good result in the Aragonese regional elections headed by “dissident” MEP Pablo Echenique, led Rodríguez and López to observe:

where the tickets have responded to wide and complex social spaces, democracy has been more effective . . . than the centralization and vertical methods that some leading sectors of Podemos have been presenting as the only route towards electoral victory.

For these analysts, the “democratic revolution” should be “open to overflow,” like the 15-M movement. Rodríguez and others attempted to build a nationwide democratic coalition for the December elections, but though the proposal received tens of thousands of signatures in support (and backing from an impressive list of progressive celebrities), the initiative was spurned by Podemos and instrumentalized by the IU leadership, leading to its collapse.

The Two Souls of Podemos

Since his exit from the leadership, Monedero has complained that Podemos has “two souls”: one of “party politics” and “political marketing,” and another of “indignación social.” He adds, “the problem is that we only dedicated ourselves to the first part and forgot about the second,”  and that “Podemos has begun to look like those they want to replace.”

In non-mainstream articles and interviews, Iglesias has made overlapping (although more nuanced) self-criticisms. In June 2015 he wrote that the battle for “the center” requires focusing on “the need to democratize the economy” as opposed to “other parameters (mere regeneration or a substitution of elites),” warning that “we will not win by resembling our adversary.” Several sources suggest he was more in favor of alliances for the general elections than Errejón.

It seems Iglesias has not been convinced by Errejón’s stratagem, but there are several possible reasons why he did not break with it publicly. One, ironically, is that he may be constrained by the tight bureaucracy he (and Monedero) helped build. Even more paradoxically because he has been the key “signifier,” and allowed a cultish atmosphere to develop among some supporters, he accordingly is held responsible for all Podemos’s faults and failures.

One polling company found 51 percent disapproved of Iglesias’s political performance in December 2014, and that this disapproval rose to 68 percent by October 2015. His popularity has risen during the election campaign (with rejection falling to 59 percent by the end of November), and Podemos members have been enthused by some of his performances, but people may not rally around him in a public debate with the rigid populists. His published warnings about Podemos’s direction created little debate in the party.

A more positive reason why there has been no big public debate about the shortcomings of Errejón’s strategies is that Iglesias seems to have influenced the evolution of the election campaign. Mayor Colau has been encouraged to play a central role in the campaign — linking Podemos directly with the municipal platforms and encouraging a more plural organizational image.

Some of the 15-M spirit of the early Podemos has been revived — for example when Iglesias said voting for Podemos would bring a smile to different movements fighting for social change in speeches. Being polite to the new and therefore non-caste Ciudadanos during his disappointing performance on the Salvados show was replaced with antagonism towards the party’s right-wing policies (and its funding by big Spanish corporations). Together these small shifts represent a significant turn away from populist moderation.

If Podemos fails to reach government, there may be renewed attempts to develop a Spain-wide coalition on a more democratic basis. This will not be straightforward as Podemos’s and IU’s top-down party cultures can easily contaminate alliances.

Even in the best case scenario of broader, more democratic and movement-based alliances, the experience of the new municipal governments is that these too can be domesticated once in office. The democratic processes that brought Colau and Manuela Carmena to mayoralty (the latter in Madrid) have declined, with Carmena declaring that decisions made in assemblies are only “a guide” for elected representatives.

An alternative organizational experience that could be learned from is that of the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) in Catalonia. This radical activists’ network treats its electoral intervention as secondary, calling its ten Catalan MPs and four hundred councilors Trojan horses for the movements.

Rather than seeking majorities that represent “common sense,” it has chosen to defend sharper minority positions — for example non-payment of debt, leaving the euro, and public disregard for the laws preventing national self-determination. This approach, aided by its relationship with the independence movement, has enabled the CUP to become a substantial player in Catalan politics and arguably one of the most successful anticapitalist organizations in Europe.

We Still Can

Podemos has had many positive effects until now. It has deepened the crisis for the establishment; opened up a frequently self-referential alternative left; provided positive lessons on political communication, flexibility, and creativity; helped catapult forward the municipal left; and provided a learning curve for activists old and new.

Nonetheless, even the best result on Sunday will not prevent some feelings of frustration. The geographical and sectorial circles have penetrated the poorest neighborhoods better than the new social movements (and pro-independence parties) and brought together a great wealth of expertise.

Yet this immense capital was squandered by treating the circles as more a threat than an asset. Rather than reenergizing the social struggle, protests, which were radicalizing before and during Podemos’s creation, have generally subsided in response to the expectation of governmental change and the consumption of activists’ energies by electoral activity.

Left-populism achieved electoral success in South America but not a radical transformation of social relations. Those electoral successes, López has argued, resulted from mobilizing a huge layer of impoverished people previously excluded from politics. The Spanish context is one of recent disengagement with party politics and its disempowering methods. Here top-down institutional politics were always likely to disappoint and demobilize.

All the same, it would be an over-simplification to attribute Podemos’s limitations simply to poor leadership. Mixing winning elections with obtaining real change is common among the 15-M generation. Even the radical wing of the new left tends to treat as unproblematic the attempt to represent majority consciousness.

Confronted by a range of extra-parliamentary forces before and after reaching office, the need to gain and retain popularity can act as a lever to reverse the democratic revolution, and so far left-wing city halls appear to have delivered limited change beyond symbolic acts. The PAH has publicy criticized its old comrades now running Barcelona for not doing enough to stop evictions.

The radical left has also failed to adequately theorize institutional politics and the difficulties of participating in it. Anticapitalistas MPs have sometimes acted as a much-needed echo chamber for social struggle within the institutions, but over time they have often adapted to the ways and means of Podemos reformism: for example performing backroom negotiations over candidates and excusing Iglesias’s handpicking of a pro-NATO field marshal as future defense secretary. This has led to splits and expulsions of revolutionaries from the Trotskyist grouping.

Another weakness at all levels of the new parties has been a tendency to neglect debate over policy. Anticapitalistas’ Josep Maria Antentas has written of the urgent need to develop an alternative program to the failed hope of “concessions from the troika” practiced by Syriza and defended by Podemos, calling for the development of a strategy that is (paraphrasing Lenin) “as radical as reality itself.” Yet there is little evidence that the Podemos grassroots is having this discussion.

Whatever the result of the elections, the progressive turn that began in May 2011 will likely continue. But as Emmanuel Rodríguez has pointed out, there is still a need to develop the kind of mass social movement that helped end the dictatorship in the 1970s. Activists inside and outside the new left should consider how to help raise the uneven level of protest in workplaces, a shift that may require developing new strategies to outflank the paralyzing union bureaucracies.

The Spanish movement has already has shown its capacity to mutate. However its future script must be written collectively through mass self-organization; not by Laclau, Mouffe, or any other enlightened individual.