In a dismal post-European election scenario, in which the extreme right has managed to emerge as the leading political formation in a number of European democracies, Spain has once again lived up to the 1960’s tourist slogan “Spain is different”.
While the right-wing party Partido Popular (PP) won the most votes, the real news is the remarkable eruption of brand new party “Podemos” (“We can”) onto the political scene, becoming the fourth most voted for party with over 1.25 million votes and gaining an astonishing 5 seats in the European Parliament.
The only recent party in Spain to come even close to such a feat was the arrival on the scene in 2004 of Unión, Progreso y Democracía (UPyD) who, in that tumultuous post-Madrid bombing general election managed to gain one seat.
Of course, European elections and general elections are two very different things, but the impact of this new party has been extremely significant. As Fernández Albertos (2014) writes, in some cities and autonomous communities Podemos managed to beat traditional parties even in their strongholds, managing, for example, to surpass the Galician Nationalist Party BNG in Galicia and progressive/nationalist/ecological coalition party Compromís in Valencia.
Podemos is already being trashed as ‘anti-system’ in the right-wing media, hailed by some progressive leftists, vilified by others for “dividing the left” (a somewhat hilarious assertion given leftist politics in Spain), and courted by Izquierda Unida (IU), and the PSOE. Ex-socialist and now UPyD front person Rosa Díez has made the (ludicrous) allegation that there are “enormous similarities between some ideas of Podemos and those of Front National’s leader Le Pen.
If one wants to look for ideological points of reference for the team behind Podemos probably Gramsci and Subcomandante Marcos would be the logical place to start. But it is precisely an anti-ideological stance, a refusal to self-define in terms of political ideologies, typical of autonomous social movements and 15-M that has marked an important element of the effective Podemos strategy.
It is here that Podemos has distinguished itself from it’s closest political rival, leftist coalition formation Izquierda Unida (IU). If many of their positions are the same, the language and framing has been very different. To many, IU seems old, tired and stuck in the past, and has for quite some time. By contrast, Podemos has understood that if people are not willing to think in terms of anti-capitalism, they are very open to criticisms of fraudulent bankers and corrupt politicians.
Podemos has presented itself as a party of “decent ordinary people”, who understand the needs of ordinary citizens and are open to taking their lead from them through the participatory process (as opposed to positioning themselves as the intellectual vanguard). They want to go “beyond acronyms” (again a very typical stance of progressive autonomous social movements in Spain.)
Clearly the strategy has worked very well, and the capture of 1.25 million votes for a very young party is nothing short of remarkable. The political fallout has been immediate. PSOE leader Rubalcaba announced he will be stepping down and opening the process for the election of a new leader (many bets are on Susana Díaz, after her excellent results in Andalucía). IU is also going through a significant internal shakeup and period of self-reflection. And, of course, what everyone wants to know is who actually voted for Podemos.
From early data on Madrid analyzed by Fernández-Albertos, the voter profile of Podemos highlights some intriguing features. First, the campaign slogan, “when was the last time you voted with excitement?” seems to have worked, as Podemos appears to have activated the abstentionist vote. There is a strong correlation between increased participation and support for Podemos.
Second, districts where there has been an increase in unemployment are also strongly correlated with the Podemos vote, showing that the crisis is an important element.
Third, Podemos has mobilized the youth vote, so that even holding income constant, the younger the voting district the stronger the vote for Podemos. Finally, it is possible that some PSOE voters switched their vote to Podemos. In the analysis by district, there is a weak correlation between increase in the vote for IU and Podemos and a slightly stronger correlation between a decrease in the vote for the PSOE and an increase in the vote for Podemos. But as yet there is insufficient data for any firm conclusions.
Why Podemos and why now?
It is impossible to understand Podemos without taking into account the crisis and the social response to the crisis in the form of the Indignados/15-M movements and related or constituent movements such as the remarkably successful Platform for those Affected by Mortgages (PAH) and the Movement for the Right to Housing.
These movements prepared the terrain for Podemos, through a sustained critique of the existing parties and party system, and direct actions such as the PAH’s “escrache al bipartidismo” a form of direct action protest against the bipartisan system of the PP and the PSOE (referred to as the “PPSOE”) who supported austerity measures and have not taken care of citizen needs in the wake of the crisis, instead using public money to socialize private banking debt. They even changed the Spanish constitution (art. 135) to limit the deficit (thus ensuring austerity in times of crisis).
The name of the party “Podemos” reflects the PAH’s slogan “Sí se puede!” (Yes it can be done! as well as recalling Obama’s campaign slogan “Yes, we can!” and 15-M Acampada Sol’s humourous take on it, “Yes, we camp” .
The influence and importance of 15-M on Podemos cannot be overstated: Podemos and other similar formations such as Partido X are known as “15mayistas”. As one observer stated when summarizing the consequences of 15-M, “without 15-M there would be no Podemos”. Indeed, without the existence of anti-austerity and pro-democracy (radical, alternative or reformist) social movements there would be no 15-M, and without the crisis and 15-M, there would be no Podemos. This does not in any way diminish the extraordinary effort and talent of Iglesias and the Podemos team, who have read the national mood (an astonishing 80% of support for 15-M in 2011), learned from social movements and known how to use alternative and mass media to maximum effect.
Podemos “frontman” Pablo Iglesias and many of the Podemos team are in fact long term activists, and were inspired by 15-M as much as every other activist in Spain’s progressive social movement milieu.
Iglesias came to public attention through the web/TV program “La Tuerka” (www.latuerka.net), where he (and fellow Podemos team member Juan Carlos Monedero) voiced a relentless criticism of austerity, corruption, social inequality, banking fraud, the Troika, bailouts, the housing crisis and other issues along with panels of invited guests from a range of leftist political parties and movements.
From there he began to be invited to appear regularly on political “tertulias” or televised forum debates recently so popular in Spain, breaking from the alternative leftist circles into a wider audience. Iglesias has been an eloquent spokesperson, echoing the critiques and sentiments of many people, effectively taking on right wing and centre left pundits in the media, and unafraid to tackle issues of political corruption and hypocrisy head on.
He is highly intelligent and charismatic, as well as polite and calm under fire, traits that set him apart from the typical tertulia styles of intervention, which are characterized by shouting, interruptions and talking over each other.
Iglesias and the team behind Podemos are savvy and modern politicians, using web tools and participatory methods developed within the social movements in which they have been active for many years. He (and Monedero and Errejón, among others behind the initiative) have been avid longterm observers of political leaders within social movements and left political parties in Europe (notably Italy) and Latin America, both as political scientists and as activists.
Iglesias has carefully and thoughtfully developed a coherent and effective rhetorical and political strategy, drawing also on his observations and experience in social movement settings in which he is a long-term member (and it has to be said a natural leader, even within “horizontal assembly” movement formations).
He understands full well that the language of the old left fails to inspire, that a new political vocabulary needed to be found to reach a disillusioned public. In this he has indeed been very much in line with 15-M, whose participants took as a central challenge the need to develop a political language that transcended Spain’s deep long lasting political cleavages, and whose activists strategically and ideologically cast themselves as “ordinary people just like you”.
This is exactly the line taken by Iglesias and Podemos, populist in the purest sense of the term, and an extremely effective one it is.
His campaign letter combines 15-M’s “ordinary citizen” discourse with its anti-corruption and democratic regeneration stance. The letters were not mailed but hand delivered to mailboxes, and in the letter he writes, “This letter did not reach you by post, because mailing a letter like this all over the country costs over 2 million Euros. Ask the parties who sent you an election letter by post where they got the money to do so and in exchange for what. We don’t ask for favours from bankers or corrupt [politicans] and we publish all our accounts on the web. If you are reading this it is because someone who lives near you wants to change things for real.”
The letter opens with the feminine and then the masculine form of “citizen” (Ciudadana, Ciudadano), which if not reflecting fully the 15-M discursive mechanism of speaking in feminine plural as a feminist political position, does offer an important nod in that direction.
The other crucial “15-M style” mechanism of Podemos was the participatory method for developing the electoral programme, one that used web tools that permit the collective development of documents, with a team of “synthesizers” from Podemos pulling together the final programme. This open and participatory method, in which any citizen could take part, was an attractive and successful aspect of the new approach. Citizens do not need to be card carrying members of Podemos to participate in the party, a dynamic far removed from the traditions of party militancy of formations like IU, PSOE or even the PP.
If Iglesias and his team are modern politicians, who know how to use new media to good effect, they also campaigned “old school”: travelling thousands of kilometres to meet people all around Spain, relying on mailbox leafletting, volunteers, word of mouth and local campaigning.
For and against
Podemos can be considered a 15mayista party for all the reasons above, but it is also true that the very idea of a 15-M party is in many ways a contradiction in terms.
Within the 15-M related social movement networks activists are very divided about the rise of this new party. While there is generally positive feeling about Iglesias himself, and a sense that he is “one of us”, there is also considerable reticence about Podemos and other 15-M related political parties.
The lines of debate run roughly thus: for those against, or at least those who did not vote for Podemos, the arguments include the following:
- * Podemos co-opts a movement that, while not anti-political (as some claim) was autonomous or apartidista (non-aligned to any party and refusing to allow parties to co-opt or act in a representative capacity).
- * 15-M was about imagining a new form of direct democracy and people power from below, not entering into the political circus of party politics.
- * Podemos is actually just IU (or another leftist party, Izquierda Anticapitalista) in new clothing, since the main actors are in fact ex-IU affiliates or formerly close to IU (or Izquierda Anti-Capitalista). Podemos is therefore a populist party that fails to actually say anything new or different from existing formations.
- * Podemos reproduces a Spanish trait of party politics known as “personalismo”, which is all about a politics of charismatic leadership, generally with a retinue of acolytes, and which exalts the leader above the base of support.
- * When social movements invest their energy in political parties, the movements inevitably decline and activist leadership is coopted into party politics. This argument was reflected well in a tweet of a 15-M activist following the elections: “I wonder how long it will take for some people to stop doing things for themselves and start expecting Pablo Iglesias to do it for them.”
The main arguments for Podemos (or in response to the above) go something like this:
- * The 15-M movement was great but it is over, and it is necessary to channel some of that energy into party politics and institutions to make lasting change, rather than see it dissipate.
- * The 15-M movement is not over, but has evolved into a myriad of projects and outcomes, one of which is the creation of grassroots parties such as Podemos or Partido X. Podemos embodies the spirit of 15-M and is therefore “15mayista”.
- * Media demands leaders and it is unrealistic to expect a party to be successful without entering into that dynamic, (and besides)
- * Podemos is the most horizontal party in practice out there.
- * There is no reason to think there is only one line of resistance, there is no contradiction between strong social movements and a progressive political party (“one foot in the institutions and 100 in the streets” as the saying goes).
Knowledge of the relation between Spanish autonomous movements, progressive movements and the state help make sense of both sides of the debate.
Unsurprisingly, many activists in a horizontal leaderless movement based on direct rather than representational participation do not support Podemos.
As a heterogeneous movement, 15-M included anarchists/libertarians (who tend to reject party politics out of hand): these activists are unlikely to support any party, however great its political agenda’s proximity to the movement’s demands or principles.
Active abstention characterizes the voting behavior of many activists. Beyond those who reject party politics out of hand, however, there are many who understood 15-M to have been a radical rupture with old school politics, a creation of autonomous grassroots alternatives from below to the system of representation that defines modern institutional democracy. For them, “using” that movement or interpreting it in political party terms betrays the essential spirit of the movement.
Furthermore, Spain has a strong history of leftist parties simultaneously attempting to coopt and derail grassroots movements, which is one key reason autonomous social movements refuse to allow political party representatives to participate in assemblies in anything other than an individual capacity (that is, not representing the party).
After the transition, when the PSOE came to power, social movements were indeed demobilized, as many people felt the “good guys” had won and would take care of things from the institutions.
Many movement leaders were also recruited to political positions (a process known as “beheading” the movements).
The close ties of some Podemos members to IU are also well known, so in addition to a strong political affinity in the programme, there is some basis for the argument that Podemos represents a similar line to IU (but also to Izquierda Anticapitalista).
It is also true that Podemos has relied heavily on Pablo Iglesias as a strong leader figure and symbol, and his face was used as the party symbol for most of the campaign. For 15-M activists, this runs strongly counter to the principles and practices of 15-M and its emphasis on the collective over the individual.
On the other hand, many people who participated in 15-M, whether as committed activists or more peripheral supporters, felt strongly that the movement needed to articulate an effective institutional alternative to the existing political parties.
The imposition of austerity measures comes through parliament, after all, and is unlikely to be stopped purely by people power (the argument goes). After countless mass demonstrations in which millions of people’s rejection of the governments’ policies have fallen on deaf ears, even some of those who might initially have had more faith in the power of protest alone have undoubtedly felt that an institutional option was necessary. Spaniards in their millions have been asking for the defense of public services and rights, the elimination of corrupt politicians (amidst high profile corruption scandals), a greater distribution of wealth and opportunities, and a rejection of austerity policies as dictated by the Troika and financial elites.
Podemos has campaigned on precisely these issues. For those who were already voting in protest, rather than enthusiastically for other leftist parties, Podemos, and other options such as Partido X, represented an alternative that offered some hope for change.
In fact, many activists have long been multi-militants, with one foot in the social movements and the other in political parties, and supporting Podemos is a continuation of this long-term practice.
Iglesias and the rest of the Podemos team were around long before 15-M and have spent decades now developing their political expertise. The question is how long they will be around after 15-M. As one young voter told me, “I did not vote for Podemos because first I need to see what they actually do”.
Another outstanding question is the extent to which people voted for Podemos or voted for Pablo Iglesias. As Weber pointed out in relation to charismatic leadership, its key flaw is that without the leader, the political project fails.
As the new party looks ahead to municipal and national elections they will likely need to recall Iglesias from the European Parliament to head the list if they want to reproduce their success. Now, the test to maintain the ties to the 15-M grassroots and represent the ordinary citizens, amidst the intense scrutiny of those who are willing them to succeed and those who are willing them to fail, really begins.
This article was originally published in Open Democracy: http://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/cristina-flesher-fominaya/%E2%80%9Cspain-is-different%E2%80%9D-podemos-and-15m#_ftn6
 See Flesher Fominaya (2007) “Autonomous Movement and the Institutional Left: Two Approaches in Tension in Madrid’s Anti-globalization Network”, South European Society & Politics, Vol 12, 3, 2007, pp.335-358..
 “El voto a Podemos en cuatro gráficos”
 In Spanish the word is “ilusión” which is a combination of hope, excitement and pleasure and connotes looking forward, or eager anticipation.
 Zapata (2014) “El 15-M y el ciclo electoral” El Diario.es,
 Originally on local channel 33, then crowdfunded and now available on Público TV, and YouTube.
 See Flesher Fominaya (forthcoming) Debunking Spontaneity: 15-M/Indignados as Autonomous Movement, Social Movement Studies