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To Recapture the Spirit of the Indignados, Podemos Has to Speak to Working People

Coming almost exactly ten years since Spain’s Indignados protests, Pablo Iglesias’s retirement as Podemos leader marks the end of a political era. In its early years, Podemos appealed to Spaniards outside traditional left-wing circles — yet it failed to build a party working people could consider their own.

Pablo Iglesias on May 2, 2021, in Madrid, Spain. (Isabel Infantes / Europa Press via Getty Images)

Pablo Iglesias’s resignation as Podemos leader is a watershed moment in Spanish politics. Coming as a result of the party’s meager 7 percent vote in last week’s Madrid regional elections, it also demands a wider reflection on what Podemos’s fate means for left-wing strategy, even far beyond Spain itself.

Podemos was one of the boldest political innovations to emerge from the protests and mobilization that spread across the West over the 2010s, including Spain’s own 15-M Movement. The party presented itself as a political instrument able to represent the hundreds of thousands of people who had gathered in town squares across Spain to denounce the political class to the cry of “they don’t represent us.”

At the helm of the party founded in 2014, Iglesias seemed to represent a new brand of left leader, one fully cognizant of the importance of media and popular culture in the contemporary battle for consensus. He was a youthful and joyful populist tribune perfectly at home in TV studios and capable of pitching his radical message far beyond the traditional hard-left core electorate. Yet seven years since Podemos’s foundation, the enthusiasm for it seems to have fizzled out.

Having promised to speak to social majorities, Podemos seems to have reverted to type, resembling more of a traditional radical left party — with its habitual sectarianism, navel-gazing, and sanctimonious rage — while Iglesias’s once magnetic charisma and contagious optimism seem to have worn out. Understanding why this has happened provides useful lessons about the nature and ultimate limits of the 2010s wave of left revival — and some indication of the challenges that lie ahead in the decade to come.

The “Podemos Method”

Understanding Podemos’s fate is so important because it is the most iconic of the new left parties and candidacies that emerged in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Alongside Syriza in Greece, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, and Bernie Sanders’s primary campaigns, it was seen as part of a “purple tide” (as per Podemos’s color), paralleling the left-populist “pink tide” in Latin America from which it drew such inspiration.

Its creation is the story of a political miracle, which can be understood only in light of the vibrant social revolt ignited by the indignados movement, which started on May 15, 2011, and its effect in creating a sense of possibility the Left had long been lacking.

Many of its founding figures were young precarious researchers based at Madrid’s Complutense University. They had drawn two fundamental lessons that set their project apart from the traditional Spanish left and, in particular, from the Communist-derived Izquierda Unida.

In the popular anti-austerity protests, Podemos’s founders saw both a vindication of the Left’s criticism of neoliberalism and a demonstration of its irrelevance among the wider public. How could it be that a citizens’ movement won supermajoritarian support for its criticism of the economic system, while the Left voicing these issues never captured more than a few percent of the vote? This was the “populist” lesson emphasized by party ideologue Íñigo Errejón, himself inspired by the theories of political theorist Ernesto Laclau. It suggested the need to dispose of traditional signifiers of leftist identity and adopt a more vernacular language that could speak to a lowly politicized electorate.

Second, they had understood — and this was Iglesias’s most important intuition, drawn from his experience of Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy — that the battle for consensus is won or lost in TV studios more than on the campaign trail. Iglesias, who had demonstrated his media prowess in the independent La Tuerka TV show and then as a regular talk show guest, became the obvious figurehead, his ponytailed head initially appearing on the ballot instead of the party logo. Drawing on these two axiomatic assumptions, Podemos aimed at replicating electorally what the indignados had done in the squares, mounting what activists called the “assault on the institutions.”

Contrary to “the long march through the institutions” posited by German student protest leader Rudi Dutschke in 1967, with its implication of incremental and diffuse organizing, the idea was that, in present historical circumstance, speed, centralization, and resoluteness were key. The popular discontent with neoliberal elites, demonstrated in the square protests, had to be rapidly converted into control over political institutions. The times demanded it — and the risk was that the window of political opportunity would rapidly close. Hence, Podemos had to be as flexible and agile as possible, avoiding the usual tendency of left parties to expend huge amount of energy in internal debates. Iglesias’s charismatic-plebiscitarian leadership would be an insurance policy against internecine bickering.

Shooting Up and Gliding Down

This political experiment initially proved incredibly successful — sending shivers down the spine of Spain’s ruling class. In the May 2014 European elections, just months after its foundation by a small group of professors and activists, Podemos received 8 percent of the national vote. It soon grew. In the May 2015 local elections, grassroots candidates supported by Podemos won the mayor’s office in Barcelona with Ada Colau, and in Madrid with Manuela Carmena. In the December 20, 2015, general election, Podemos scored 20.7 percent, just one point shy of stealing second place from the Socialist Party (PSOE). Many commentators said that Pasokification — the decline of social democratic parties, surpassed by new parties on their Left — was coming to Spain.

After negotiations to form a government failed, a new election was held in May 2016. On this occasion, Podemos built a coalition with Izquierda Unida, Equo, and some regional left formations under the banner of Unidas Podemos (United We Can). But this did not significantly increase its vote share and the conservative Partido Popular managed to install a government led by Mariano Rajoy, giving a temporary respite to a period marked by a series of snap elections.

From that point, Podemos started losing steam — and there began to take hold the internecine struggles it had hoped to overcome. Some, including Iglesias, saw the necessary way forward in a unity of the Left, solidifying the alliance with Izquierda Unida. Others, including party strategist Errejón, instead insisted that Podemos had to continue pursuing a populist strategy able to appeal to voters not traditionally aligned to the Left. This conflict came to a head in the second party conference, held in February 2017 in the former bullfighting arena of Vistalegre.

While not running as a candidate for party secretary, Errejón presented an alternative political document — losing to Iglesias’s by 50 percent to 33. In the ensuing months, the rift became a formal split, with Errejón launching the list Más Madrid ahead of the 2019 regional elections and the national movement Más País for the national elections to be celebrated the same year. In 2020, this was followed by the Trotskyist faction Anticapitalistas, with important figures such as Teresa Rodríguez — one of the MEPs elected in 2014 and its general secretary in Andalusia — also abandoning Podemos.

Despite these internal troubles, Podemos eventually reached the government position it had long aimed for. Its vote share shrunk in April 2019 (14.3 percent) and the successive snap elections in November 2019 (12.9 percent); but eventually, Pedro Sánchez’s soft-left PSOE was forced to clinch a deal with Podemos, in the first coalition government since the return of democracy in the 1970s.

As the Socialist/Podemos government won a confidence vote on January 2020, Iglesias broke into tears in parliament. It felt, despite the bumps on the road, like a vindication of a generation of left activists, first politicized by the struggles against corporate globalization in the late 1990s and early 2000s and galvanized by the 2010s anti-austerity protests. But Podemos’s incipient identity crisis was only going to get worse.

A Rough Ride in Government

Being in government has not been an easy experience for many left parties; the case of Syriza in Greece, with its capitulation to EU austerity demands in 2015, perhaps being the most infamous. While Podemos used its position to push through some progressive policies that substantially improved the condition of many poor and working Spaniards, Iglesias’s party did not manage to capitalize on this electorally.

This is paradoxical given that many of the social policies Podemos enforced had high popular approval. This was most evidently the case with the government’s guaranteed minimum income policy. Announced in April 2020, it will eventually cover 850,000 households. Even the far-right party Vox that had initially pledged to vote against it had to backtrack and support it. Similarly popular were the halts to electricity and gas disconnections for families struggling to pay during the pandemic, and a tax raise on high wealth and income. Yet Podemos performed badly in local elections in 2020 in Galicia and the Basque country. National polls positioned it ever closer to the single-digit percentages it had long seen as a marker of left’s minoritarianism.

Technical problems in rolling out some of these policies, due to bureaucratic hurdles, limited Podemos’s ability to present them as victories. On other occasions, the watering down of initial proposals (as with the case of the tax on the rich), made Podemos look weak in its negotiations with a PSOE still influenced by neoliberal hawks such as economy minister Nadia Calviño.

Most indicative of this situation was the confrontation on rent controls in March 2021. PSOE had agreed to them in the government pact with Podemos. But it soon backtracked, demonstrating how much, despite carrying the name “socialist,” Sánchez’s party these days represents the interests of a middle class jealously defending the value of its meager property against any attempt to protect those who don’t own any asset.

While Podemos threatened to pull the government down on this issue, it ultimately had to beat a retreat.

Iglesias often tried to communicate to supporters how difficult it was for a left party to navigate institutional politics and the enormous pressure of lobbies on government. Yet, as with other populist parties founded on a promise to radically overhaul the political system, these calls to reason did not find a receptive audience. In the meantime, the right-wing news media, which has spared Podemos no venom, had already managed to impress upon the public imagination the idea that, contrary to his populist discourse, Iglesias had become a politician just like the ones he had long ranted against.

Thus, rather than demonstrating how the Left could change things in power, Podemos’s government experience seemed to engender disappointment among its supporters and restlessness in its leadership. This deadlock ultimately led Iglesias to make a risky bet ahead of the Madrid elections: abandoning parliament and taking to the streets as a means of reinfusing enthusiasm in the movement. However, rather than marking a new beginning for the party, this would mark the end of Iglesias’s political career.

The Madrid Debacle

The Madrid electoral campaign was a recapitulation of Iglesias’s and Podemos’s own political involution. Podemos’s majoritarian appeal had been premised on its antagonizing of the political-economic elites: the “caste” (casta), a term borrowed from the Italian Five Star Movement. But on this occasion, Iglesias’s crosshairs were almost exclusively pointed at far-right party Vox, which has been pushing its own populist discourse from the opposite side of the spectrum. Iglesias called for the Left to unite to stop Vox and stamp out fascism, and this theme inflected the entire campaign.

In his first electoral appearance, Iglesias faced off against a group of fascists who called him “casta.” A rally of Vox in the Vallecas — the working-class neighborhood in which Iglesias lived until recently, and where the studio of the TV show La Tuerka was based — was followed by scuffles between fascists and left-wing protestors, which were presented by the media as a fight between oppositional extremisms. An electoral debate hosted by Cadena SER saw Iglesias leave the studio after the Vox candidate, Rocío Monasterio, heir to rich landowners in Cuba, cast doubt on the death threats directed against Iglesias and his family.

The framing of the electoral campaign as an anti-fascist mobilization did not work in Podemos’s favor. Despite favorable early polls, Vox saw its votes barely increase vis-à-vis the previous elections in 2019 (0.25 percent). But the incumbent president of the Madrid region, the media-savvy Isabel Díaz Ayuso — who had cleverly kept herself out of the confrontation between Podemos and Vox — profited from the situation. Her Partido Popular doubled its vote share from 22 percent to 44 percent and conquered more seats than all the parties of the Left combined. A focus on anti-fascism turned out to be not that different from many causes célèbres of the Left: ethically indisputable and highly popular with core supporters, but a hard sell for the general public.

The only good news for the Left was that Más Madrid performed fairly well, rising to 17 percent (+2). This was down to not only the good performance of its candidate Mónica García, but also the fact that Más Madrid focused on the bread-and-butter issues voters tend to care more about in local elections: health (García is a doctor), public services, and the environment.

Accepting defeat on results night, Iglesias announced his retirement from politics, admitting that he had now become more of a burden than a resource. Many on the Left congratulated Iglesias, including Gabriel Rufián of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, who noted how he was the first personality who appeared on TV saying things as they really were. Admiration for a leader whose dedication and flair has few equals in recent decades should, however, now be accompanied by some sober analysis about what went wrong.

Podemos After Pablo

As Complutense professor Jorge Resina puts it, “Iglesias was Podemos, but Podemos will not be Iglesias anymore.” Podemos’s new leader in waiting, Yolanda Díaz, could offer the leadership the party needs at the moment. She is popular among voters; she is competent, reassuring, and not too bent on ideological confrontation; and her stewardship of the Labor Ministry has been widely applauded. She could be the right figure to guide Podemos’s transition. Yet important questions of party organization and strategy remain.

From an organizational perspective, it is apparent that Podemos has now overgrown the minimalist model of electoral machinery and the plebiscitarian-charismatic phase of its origins. Initially, Podemos built local circles styled after 15-M assemblies at the local level, and they were an important means of local organization. But their role was progressively weakened, with little role in deciding party policy.

This was meant to avoid energy being expended in never-ending discussions dominated by what political sociologist Robert Michels called the habitués of meetings. However, rather like what happened in other new parties such as Italy’s Five Star Movement, the marginalization of the circles has resulted in a lack of organizational capacity at the local level, which goes a long way to explain its underperformance in local elections. More generally, Podemos needs to rethink its internal forms of party democracy, adopting a more pluralist outlook on internal debates than the plebiscitary process centering on internal referendums it has so far adopted, which would also function as an insurance policy against splits.

Spanish activists will also need to reconsider the relationship between social movements and parties. Podemos’s strength was a function of the strength of social movements. Its party cadres and militants were, to a great extent, drawn from the ranks of the 15-M protest wave. Some contended that this ultimately resulted in diverting energy away from social mobilization and toward party activism.

The only hope for a revival of Podemos’s strength lies in a revitalization of broad-based social movements; yet excessive identification between social movements and parties can end up being detrimental for both. A political party capable of coping with ups and downs in enthusiasm should actively educate and train its own party cadres and militants rather than relying on social movements for forming them; but this requires a far more capillary organizational structure, and a more effective fundraising operation, than Podemos currently has.

Podemos’s greatest challenge has, however, to do first and foremost with questions of strategy and vision. Its gradual electoral decline has coincided with its retreating to traditional radical left positions and identities. This retreat parallels that of many other formations and candidates of the left-populist wave, which at some point felt as if they had gone too far in departing from traditional left identities and had to find an anchoring point. Yet this often meant falling prey to the usual siren calls of left identitarianism and losing majoritarian appeal. This was seen in the transformation of Iglesias’s own media performances: if initially he could combine indignation and conviction, irony, kindness, and enthusiasm, his discourse gradually took the usual radical-left form of dogged antagonism.

Díaz’s more reassuring and down-to-earth persona could help guide the party out of a rut. However, Podemos risks becoming little more than an expanded version of Izquierda Unida, a radical-left party whose only role is to be junior partner in coalition governments led and controlled by an increasingly sclerotic PSOE. What Spain and other European countries need, though, is something different: forces that can really break the mold of institutional politics and upset the false alternative between center-left and center-right. This was Podemos’s initial electrifying promise, and either Podemos or new social movements and parties will have to take it forward.