Spain: – Where did Podemos come from and why has it been so successful?

Like lightning out of a clear blue sky a new party has appeared on the Spanish political landscape: Podemos. Jonas Foldager interviewed David Rey of the IMT in Spain, the editor of Lucha de Clases on the rise of this phenomenon.

From its launch in January to the European elections in May Podemos went from nothing to 1.24 million votes. It achieved this by doing precisely the opposite of the mainstream left in Europe, especially in Denmark: it has come out boldly attacking the whole system hard and with confidence.

Since the European elections support for the party has continued to rise. David Rey gave us his analysis of Podemos' meteoric rise:

"Podemos is a reflection of the political situation in Spain and a product of the past years of mass struggles: the working class struggles, the movement against evictions, against repression. Podemos is the reflection of a deep mistrust in the system," explains David Rey during a break in the IMT's World Congress, and continues:

"While the people are suffering, those who are responsible for the crisis are rewarded with bonuses and the banks get billions of tax dollars. There have been many lawsuits, but none have been convicted. Many people in Spain feel that bankers and politicians are ‘untouchable’ in the present corrupt political system."

republic-protestIzquierda Unida – which in many ways is similar to the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark – has for some time been the only significant political force to the left of the Socialist Party PSOE. Its rank and file members have been involved in the various struggles, and are in the front line, but its apparatus has been somewhat more conservative, explains David. Therefore IU has not – as many had hoped – become the organizational expression of the mass movements that swept across Spain in the wake of the crash of 2008.

Podemos – a product of the social movements

Outside Spain, people may have the idea that Podemos is a direct continuation of the Indignados movement, and that it was promoted by this movement. However, this is not entirely accurate, says David. The Indignados movement in 2011 was primarily directed against what the activists saw as a false democracy, often under the banner of "you don't represent us". But that movement was exhausted and now no longer exists.

However, out of the Indignados were born many new movements, against evictions, against cuts in healthcare and so on, movements that came to be known as “Tides”. Thus, the health workers’ movement was the White Tide, the movement in defence of education was the Green Tide, cultural workers the Red Tide, etc…

Podemos en Malaga-CyberfrancisPablo IglesiasThen in stepped Pablo Iglesias, a professor of political science, former member of the Communist Party Youth, alternative TV host from internet-TV and avid debater who attacks the right wing hard and with passion. The private TV channel LaSexta noticed his abilities a year or so ago, and started to invite him to debates with the right wing, simply because this would attract many viewers. The by-product of this was that Pablo became a nationally known figure and respected among wide layers of the population and his popularity quickly took off.

Prior to January of this year, Pablo had never given any indication of any intention on his part of going into politics. But his huge popularity and nationwide media appearances led him and a small group of friends, unconnected to the Indignados, to stand in the European elections.

laraiglesias-250x219 copyAs he announced his candidacy, they started an effective campaign in the social media and the popular net-media Público supported him. But the TV was his primary platform, explains David Rey:

"Pablo and Podemos received unexpected exposure from LaSexta, in spite of the fact that the owner is one of the media moguls. Our guess is that they promoted Pablo to try to split the left-wing vote. This is not to say that Pablo was part of a conspiracy. On the contrary, I believe that he honestly felt that Izquierda Unida had failed to capture the enormous frustration among the population and thus to become their political expression."

When the decision to run was taken, Pablo went into top gear. Each day during the election campaign, he participated in debates, where he hit out hard at the established parties and the existing system.

"Other politicians were also very much on television, without having the same effect. The key to Pablo's success was that he managed to connect with the hundreds of thousands who participated in the many movements and who are now frustrated with the rottenness of the existing political system. He captured their imagination by mercilessly attacking the bankers and the whole system directly, as opposed to normal politicians who are always ambiguous and never say anything clearly. That section of the bourgeoisie who tried to use him to split the left-wing vote got a nasty surprise and are now regretting it bitterly," says David Rey.

More of a movement than a party

Podemos is not a traditional party. Initially you could not even become a member, and instead of branches they have so-called circles where everyone can meet up, and in theory also people from the right wing can join. Similarly, Podemos have open primary elections where all that is required is for you to record your name and e-mail to get voting rights.

Podemos' programme was drawn up from a draft prepared by the leadership (which, by the way, is not elected) and sent out to the circles which could present amendments. This was then edited by a (also unelected) committee and posted on the web where everyone could vote on it.

The primary elections were organised in the same way. All circles could draw up slates. Pablo presented his own slate, which got 97 percent of the vote. No wonder, as he – because of the lack of structures – was the only focal point and the best known figure through the media.

The Bolivarian connection

Podemos' growth has added to the panic of the bourgeoisie. Pablo and the group around him are all former lefts and a some of them were advisers to the left Presidents Chavez and Morales, in Venezuela and Bolivia respectively. This has been used by the bourgeois media to attack them in a bitter smear campaign. "Podemos is funded by the 'dictatorship' in Venezuela" and other similar accusations have been thrown at them. But this is nonsense. It is true that they were paid consultants for several years, although they advised the more conservative wing of the Bolivarian movement. However, that was years ago. In reality the smear campaign has had the opposite effect of what the bourgeoisie had hoped, and it has given Podemos even more support.

"While the conspiracy theories of the bourgeois are pure fabrications, it is also true that they have drawn inspiration from Chavez and the Bolivarian movement he led: a strong and charismatic leader, the use of ‘circles’ as the form of organization, the active use of the media, and particularly television," explains David.

"But they also seem to have taken to heart the weaknesses of the first period of the Bolivarian movement. Thus, they believe that left-wing terminology will push people away, that one should not talk about classes, but instead about 'democracy' and a new constitution, etc… They clearly view themselves as part of the left wing, but they hide it, which is crazy. There is a very high class consciousness in Spain at the moment. The working class identifies with the Left. Therefore, in reality the verbal acrobatics of Pablo and the Podemos leadership are mostly to appease the bourgeois media," he says.

Differences between IU and Podemos

The difference between IU and Podemos is not programmatic. In fact, their electoral programs for the European elections were almost identical. On the organizational side, the IU has about 30,000 members of which about 10,000 are active and has a relatively solid structure.

Podemos was formed as an election list, and is only now in the process of establishing structures. Thus, there are now about 800 circles in Spain in which 200-1000 attend the larger meetings. But there are tens of thousands who look to it. Podemos was perhaps born out of the movements, but it has not intervened in an organized manner anywhere, but only as individuals. This is in contrast to IU, which has done just that for a long time. This autumn, however, there will be a founding congress of Podemos to accelerate its organizational consolidation and to attempt to channel the electoral support (they are presently on about 15-20 per cent in the polls) into an actual organization. As part of this process over 100,000 people have signed up during the last month, which officially makes Podemos the third largest party (behind the PP and the PSOE).

What will Podemos do when in power?

Like everything else about Podemos, the answer to this question has to be a bit fluid. However, a reporter recently asked Pablo Iglesias what would be the first things Podemos would do once it came into government and he got the following answer:

  • Expropriation of empty housing (which people have been evicted from) to be rented out at 15-20 per cent of household income
  • A Ban on cutting the electricity supply to families who cannot pay and a lowering of prices. If the energy companies fail to comply with these requirements they shall be expropriated.
  • Close down tax havens and the money to be returned home.
  • Prosecute and imprison bankers who have embezzled.
  • Outlaw the eviction of families from their homes.

United Front

IU's inability to win the hundreds of thousands of dissatisfied has led to an internal crisis, which has been greatly accelerated by Podemos’s storming success. In response to this, a number of prominent people from IU's left wing were pulled into the party leadership. At the same time members of IU are not blind to the fact that IU and Podemos have very similar programs, that they are on the same side in the various battles and that the MEPs of the two parties are even in the same group in the European Parliament. Therefore, there has also been an enormous pressures and calls for unity between IU and Podemos, calls which have also met some resistance:

“The opposition to the call for unity come primarily from the right wing in IU's party apparatus, but also from individuals in Podemos. But right now they are faced with a flood which they find it difficult to resist. Already in Barcelona a united front has been formed prior to the local elections.

“If this pressure from the bottom continues, neither the top of Podemos nor IU will be able to dismiss these calls for a united front. A united front is not a fusion, but a united front between the two parties would make it a real alternative which could have major consequences and the prospects now are that they could win important cities in the local elections in the spring of 2015. Good results locally would in turn have implications for the national elections in December 2015, where IU and Podemos taken together, according to recent polls, could emerge as the biggest electoral formation in Spain with just under 30 per cent, even ahead of the PP, "says David.

The Future

On the opposite side of the political divide more and more "opinion leaders" are arguing in favour of a grand coalition government between the currently ruling conservative Partido Popular (PP) and the former ruling Socialist Party PSOE. But such a coalition government, just like the current PP government, would also be a government of crisis from the very beginning, due to the enormous social problems and the demands for more attacks on welfare coming from the “markets”. Therefore, according to David, it is theoretically possible that such a coalition government could pave the way for a left government in the longer term:

"But even a year is a long time in the current volatile political and social situation. The mood amongst large layers of workers and youth in Spain is characterized by a high level of consciousness and even class hatred. Podemos has tuned into this and its greatest strength is that it is seen as something new. It is not just career politicians; they are not entangled in the system. And above all, Podemos and especially Pablo Iglesias have confidence. He attacks the privileges and corruption of the elite, and he does it in a direct language. He is brave and is not ashamed of his radical ideas and ambitions: the old system must go!"

On the night of Podemos's huge electoral success Pablo Iglesias was greeted by numerous cameras and reporters who wanted to hear his reaction to Podemos' formidable performance. Everyone expected that he would be happy and proclaim it a great victory, like any other professional politician would have done. But something entirely different met the cameras, David explains:

"Instead of being glad to have gone from zero to 8 per cent, equivalent to 1.24 million votes, in a matter of months, and instead of proclaiming it a great victory, he looked quite grave. And he answered reporters with Chavez's words after his failed coup in 1992, which paved the way for his eventual victory: ‘Our objectives have not yet been achieved.’ And he went on to say that they could not be content because bad policies will continue to be carried out and that they will not be happy until they take power. It is statements like this that show that a new wind is blowing in Spain."