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The Future of Podemos Is at Stake Today

Polling for today's general election forecasts heavy losses for Podemos. With Spanish politics polarized around the threat from the far right, Pablo Iglesias’s anti-austerity agenda is struggling to make itself heard.

Leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias speaks to the press on October 26, 2016 in Madrid, Spain. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez / Getty Images

As Pablo Iglesias addressed a campaign event for today’s general election, a voice could be heard interrupting the Podemos leader: “Viva España” (Long live Spain). The heckler was using a phrase that normally belongs to the Right, but Iglesias was quick to turn the point on its head: “Yes, of course ‘Long live Spain’. But defending Spain means defending public schools, defending public services, defending public hospitals, it means defending [publicly-funded] pensions schemes.” In a classic example of his rhetorical style, Iglesias contrasted this model of patriotism with “those who privatize, those who end up on the board of directors in big companies, those who lower taxes on the rich.” To a cheering audience, he underlined “No brass-band jingoist is going to give us lessons about what being Spanish means.”

Iglesias’s combative, polarizing discourse has been one of Podemos’s main weapons in an election campaign that has proven to be an uphill struggle. The climate in 2019 is altogether different from its first electoral assault just over three years ago; today, media are overwhelmingly framing the April 28 ballot as confirmation of its decline. Polls are placing it at around 13-14 percent (seven short of its 2016 vote), with one survey suggesting it has lost a quarter of its support to the center-left Socialist Party.

Iglesias’s return to frontline politics in late March, after three months paternity leave, has however steadied nerves and allowed a slight uptick in the party’s numbers. With still-record levels of undecided voters, Iglesias has come out fighting — claiming that whatever errors he and his colleagues have made, there has never been any doubt whose side they are on.

There are multiple reasons for Podemos’s retreat. Factional strife has undermined the party’s initial optimism, especially with the exit of former deputy leader Íñigo Errejón in February. This fragmentation worsened with the loss of former regional allies in Galicia and Valencia. Difficulties positioning the party in relation to Pedro Sánchez’s center-left government as well as communicative blunders in responding to media smears have also caused problems. An obvious example of the latter was Iglesias and deputy leader Irene Montero’s clumsy handling of the controversy whipped up around their purchase of a large family home in the affluent outskirts of Madrid.

Yet the party’s difficulties must also be placed within the context of a wider conservative shift in Spanish society, producing a terrain objectively hostile to radical left-wing politics. This context has been marked by three interrelated phenomena. First was élites’ ability to assure a partial recovery from years of economic crisis — reducing unemployment and stabilizing the economy through brutal wage suppression, austerity, and billions of euros being injected into the financial system via the European Central Bank’s quantitative easing program.

This was made easier by the second development, namely a certain exhaustion in the wave of social-movement activism and anti-establishment feeling which had coursed through Spain between 2011-16. The dominant power bloc has deployed its considerable economic, media, and institutional resources both to prevent these forces from achieving substantive advances and to sow cynicism about the possibility of progressive change. Thirdly, the return of the national question to the center of Spanish politics in the wake of October 2017’s independence drive in Catalonia has marginalized social justice issues while galvanizing the Right’s base. Whatever its own errors, Podemos faces conditions that would have weakened any force on the Left.

The Ebbing of the Wave

Podemos’s fate contrasts with that of Pedro Sánchez, the Socialist (PSOE) leader who became premier in June 2018 in unusual circumstances. In fact, he largely had his rival Podemos to thank for bringing together the parliamentary majority he needed to oust his predecessor, conservative (PP) Mariano Rajoy. Iglesias offered his unconditional support for Sánchez’s motion of no-confidence in Rajoy, while also working as a vital intermediary between the PSOE and Basque and Catalan nationalists, whose backing any new government also needed. As Spanish journalist Antonio Maestre put it, “without Pablo Iglesias the motion probably would not have succeeded.”

Such generosity reflected Iglesias’s wager that an eighteen-month PSOE government could be an opening for both his party and the wider Spanish Left to regain momentum. The Catalan independence crisis the previous fall had created a political climate dominated by nationalist confrontation. With all other issues drowned out by the supposed existential threat to Spanish unity, the Left struggled to gain traction. The combined support of PSOE and Podemos trailed that of the right-wing bloc by eleven points, with Iglesias’s formation especially leaking votes. In this context, Podemos was anxious to use the change of administration to refocus debate onto more favorable issues.

Yet betting on a Sánchez government also reflected longer-term dilemmas. Podemos had been founded at the height of the financial crisis on the belief that the collapse in the Spanish establishment’s legitimacy created a once-in-a-generation chance to “storm the heavens” — to seize state power in one leap. This blitzkrieg strategy came close to paying off at the 2015 general elections, with the party falling short of its hoped-for sorpasso (i.e. overtaking the Socialists) by less than 1.5 percent. Entering the institutions, however, marked the beginning of a new cycle. If in its initial breakthrough phase Podemos had had  a clear sense of purpose, the subsequent three years saw the party engage in a series of rapid pivots as it struggled to position itself as both a parliamentary and social force.

Its first months in parliament were defined by a brutal counterattack from elites and, related to this, a loss of optimism among the party’s base. The months between the back-to-back elections in December 2015 and June 2016 saw the PSOE’s corporate allies veto any attempt by Sánchez to pursue a coalition with Podemos while the country’s media, along with corrupt elements within the police, set out to criminalize Iglesias through a series of fabricated scandals. After six months of institutional deadlock, during which Spain was without a government, the sense of disillusionment with party politics was palpable, and evident in the higher level of abstention the Left suffered in the repeat June elections.

The question of how to respond to this situation left Podemos deeply divided. At the party’s heated Vistalegre II conference in early 2017, Iglesias squared off against his deputy leader, Errejón, winning a large mandate for a strategy of grassroots agitation and sharp confrontation with the established powers. Popular disengagement had to be fought by seeking to “politicize” social pain and remobilizing people around material conflicts. In this sense, he rejected Errejón’s more institutional-centered strategy which sought to engage the PSOE in greater parliamentary cooperation after the previous year’s failures to form a coalition.  For Iglesias, this made little sense, especially given the PSOE establishment coup against Sánchez, and that party’s concomitant decision to return conservative Rajoy back to government

Yet Podemos’s turn towards a strategy of popular mobilization was short-lived. If its failure to mobilize new movements in part reflected Podemos’s weak and top-heavy organizational structure, the problem also went beyond that. The wave of social movement organization and politicization that began with the Indignados in 2011, and from which Podemos and the radical municipalist platforms like Barcelona en Comú had emerged, was in clear retreat by 2016-17. If the PSOE was able to maintain the greater part of its vote despite its backing for Rajoy, and Podemos found itself lacking social weight of its own, there was little opportunity for the radical left to advance.

Iglesias’s position began to change in May 2017, when Sánchez was restored to the PSOE leadership. His basic idea of Podemos as “the party of the popular classes,” seeking to build the support of a clearly defined social bloc, remained distinct from Errejón’s more moderate and institutional approach. However, seizing on Sánchez’s promise of greater left-wing cooperation, Iglesias now saw a potential institutional opening. As he told Jacobin in December 2017:

I have no real confidence in Sánchez’s personal project but at a certain moment [after his primary win] he seemed to be a figure that was willing to govern with us . . . Winning in politics is not merely about accumulating your own support, it is never a simple clash between two opposed forces. You have to be able to make other actors, who will continue to exist, move their positions and eventually become allies.

An Aborted Beginning

Not all Podemos figures were so optimistic about this wager. In an interview this year, intellectual and MP Manolo Monoreo spoke of how his “loneliest moment” as part of the project came last June while his colleagues were celebrating Rajoy’s ousting. Many of them believed that the weakness of PSOE’s minority government would allow Podemos to draw out the contradictions within the Socialists’ position and so outflank them. Monoreo remained deeply circumspect about Podemos’s ability to impose its agenda, given its lack of extra-parliamentary support and the fact it had demanded no conditions of the PSOE leader.

In this respect, Monoreo believes the party has been “naive” in its approach to relations with the PSOE, perhaps overestimating the leverage it could exert on Sánchez as well as his own ability and willingness to make the concessions it sought. Within these obvious limits, however, the Podemos leadership was confident it could impose its stamp on the government’s agenda, without losing its own distinct profile. It would seek to exploit Sánchez’s notionally left-wing primaries platform and so engage “the PSOE’s margin of action” over the course of its interim term, recognizing that further pressure from below would prove key to generating political clout.

As Anticapitalista MEP Miguel Urbán argued, “If we think that we are simply better parliamentarians than them, we will lose!” A number of figures from Urbán’s and Iglesias’s wings in the party were wary of the potential subordination implied by increasing cooperation with a Sánchez government; for Urbán, nothing more than “specific, one-off agreements” like the PSOE-Podemos budget deal should be pursued. He insisted Podemos should not just help the government or promote progressive policy, but facilitate labor and social movements, “aiding[ such mobilizations…] without instrumentalizing” them.

By fall 2018 it appeared as if their gamble was beginning to pay off. The negotiation of the 2019 national budget plan represented a key, substantive concession to Podemos’s agenda. With its 22 percent rise in the minimum wage, restoration of slashed pensions, rent controls, and a €1.3 billion boost to unemployment and disability benefits, the progressive package promised to “halt the wheel of austerity.” Moreover, Iglesias began to look increasingly influential, with right-wing circles calling him the unofficial “deputy prime minister.” Indeed, a number of leading figures in the party were talking openly about such a governing arrangement with the PSOE after the next election.

However, the government’s own margin for maneuver began to narrow. First, Catalan nationalists withdrew their support for the deal, as the Spanish judiciary returned with harsher-than-expected charges for the trial of detained pro-independence leaders. Then, Sánchez received further pushback from Brussels on the budget proposals. And, finally, the electoral breakthrough of far-right party Vox in Andalusia’s regional elections changed the overall scenario further, bringing the national question and a galvanized right into focus.

This opening and a risky confrontation with the radicalized right would ultimately form the basis for Sánchez’s snap election platform. All of a sudden, Podemos’s bet on a “Frankenstein coalition” with the PSOE, Basques, and Catalans seemed very shaky. Going into the start of this year, all they had to show for all their months of negotiation and pressure was the minimum wage hike, passed via royal decree — an important gain, but a sign that Sánchez was seriously hedging his bets on the now-jeopardized budget deal.

Crucially, over the course of PSOE’s eight months in office, the social pressure that Podemos leaders hoped to make use of simply failed to materialize. Sánchez was rarely pushed into delivering on his rhetorical left-turn or made to feel the force of confrontation with sectors he had promised to reach out to. His “margin of action” was not tested in the way Podemos had hoped, and the contradictions inherent in his positioning were never really accentuated or capitalized on. This also provided him with a certain degree of breathing space on his left and scope to pivot back to the center ground, allowing him to call snap elections in the way he did — casting himself as a bulwark against the threat of the far right, and aiming to marginalize Podemos in the process.

Sánchez also got the better of Podemos on one of the few occasions the government was made to feel such pressure from below. As Iglesias promised “a great civic mobilization” to protest the Supreme Court’s November ruling on a controversial mortgage tax, Sánchez passed a decree just days later that modified the imposition of the levy so that “Spaniards would never again pay” the tax. Thwarting a likely large demonstration, the premier thus showed how he could use his position in government to orchestrate the pace of events.

Sánchez similarly caught Podemos on the back foot in February, as he called elections while Iglesias was still on paternity leave, and as Podemos was still reeling from Errejón’s acrimonious departure. Having seen its center-left rival surge in the polls since facilitating its entry into government, Podemos failed to extract the kinds of concessions it had hoped for and now found itself fighting an election campaign on hostile terrain framed around the threat of a radicalized right. As Monoreo commented last month, “We have not been attentive or intelligent enough to recognize where Sánchez fits into Spanish politics . . . We didn’t collectively identify what his team or his strategy was. And we have tried to be good in a world that isn’t.”

Holding the Line

In the month between Sánchez calling elections and Iglesias’s return from paternity leave, Podemos’s spokespeople seemed unable to do much more than refight the battles of the previous nine months. Its electoral strategy only came into focus at the end of March at the leader’s comeback rally in Madrid’s Reina Sofia square. In his speech, Iglesias promised to deliver some “home truths” to supporters on how power operates in Spain and where it resides. He launched into a polemic against the oligarchs and key financial interests, arguing that these unaccountable families and corporate groups “have more power than any MP or elected representative.” Following this assertion, he recounted a meeting he says he had with a director of an Ibex 35 [stock-exchange]-listed firm last October, who told him “They’re coming for you, Iglesias.”

This confrontational rhetoric was combined with a continued openness to a full coalition agreement with the PSOE. But by putting the emphasis on the challenges facing Spanish democracy, and the failure to uphold even the social clauses within the 1978 Constitution, Iglesias positioned Podemos as the only force able to stand up to the elites and their capture of public institutions. This message has indeed gained traction during the campaign: a series of revelations into police spying and coordinated disinformation against Podemos, including under the Sánchez administration, allowed Iglesias to shift the terms of the debate, at least temporarily, away from Catalonia and the extreme right. He insists that given PSOE’s establishment ties it cannot alone tackle such systemic corruption, which links major businessmen, the media, and the police.

This was followed by strong performances in the two electoral debates: Iglesias was widely regarded as the winner of the second such head-to-head encounter, as he dared Sánchez to rule out a government together with the neoliberal center-right Ciudadanos. With a record 40 percent of the electorate still undecided in the last week of the campaign, he warned voters that they do not face a simple choice between the radicalized right and the assorted left; after all, even a vote for PSOE could deliver big business’ preferred coalition, uniting Sánchez’s party with Ciudadanos. As other leaders squabbled over Catalonia, Iglesias advanced a vision of renewed social rights, a robust defense of universal public services, and dialogue over the national question.

Yet if the campaign looks to have stabilized Podemos’s numbers around 14 percent — which, as Alberto Garzón notes, is historically on the higher end of the vote for the radical left — this can only be a stop-gap measure. The party clearly needs both a more democratic (and less bellicose) internal culture, and some means of moving beyond its over-reliance on electoralism.

On the first point, formations like Barcelona en Comu have shown the scope to combine effective institutional engagement with grassroots participation. However, they too have been unable to tackle the contradiction between their broad electoral reach and lack of social weight. As Barcelona’s deputy mayor Gerrado Pisarello has put it: “It seems to me that the debate is above all about what to do when mobilization outside is not sufficiently intense. We have not had [such mobilization]. We have … not had a mass movement for the ‘right to the city’ which we had hoped for.”

There is no easier answer to this challenge. In Manolo Monereo’s words, left populism is the form class struggle takes in our postsocialist age, i.e., an era heavily marked by the historic defeat of the labor movement in Europe and the fracturing of working-class communities. New and lasting movements cannot be constructed overnight — building them is a long-term objective, and as Anton Jäger notes, this process is fraught with contradictions.

But without a renewed aggregation and organization of popular struggles, even Iglesias’s favored PSOE/Podemos coalition will soon run up against the limits of office.  In particular, a weakened Podemos risks being caught between the unrelenting aggression of the Spanish oligarchy and a strengthened coalition partner of ambiguous reformist credentials.