Explaining the fading fortunes of Podemos

July 7, 2016

Tom Lewis, co-author with Oscar Olivera of ¡Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia, takes stock of the disappointing electoral showing for the radical party Podemos.

THE GENERAL election held June 26 in Spain disappointed the Spanish and international left insofar as Unidos Podemos--the most progressive among the main electoral alternatives--failed to meet expectations of a strong second-place finish.

While a SYRIZA-style victory over the ruling Popular Party was viewed as a stretch, the likelihood of Unidos Podemos surpassing the Socialist Workers Party as Spain's main opposition party seemed real.

All together, the four leading parties in Spain--the conservative Popular Party (PP); the neo-conservative Citizens party (known as the C's); the center-left Socialist Workers Party (PSOE); and Unidos Podemos (or UP, a coalition of the Eurocommunist United Left (IU) and Podemos, an electoral formation born in 2013 amid the ebb of the 2011-12 social movements)--took 76.79 percent of the total vote.

The PP won 137 congressional seats (with 33.03 percent); the PSOE won 85 seats (22.66 percent); UP won 71 seats (21.1 percent); and C's received 32 seats (13.05 percent). Regional parties in the Basque Country and Cataluña received a total of 25 seats.

Podemos Unidos supporters on the night of the election
Podemos Unidos supporters on the night of the election (Adolfo Lujan)

Handwringing over these results has quickened among the left. Yet the discouraging outcome for Unidos Podemos might have been chronicled and foretold. Podemos' letdown at the ballot box--the break in its streak of sensational advances since the 2014 European Parliament elections--was only a matter of time. If it hadn't occurred on 26-J, then it loomed as an asignatura pendiente since October 2014.

Brexit Blowback?

Analysts have alleged several causes for UP's failure to surpass the PSOE, ranging from Brexit blowback to electoral fraud.

Fraud is always a possibility anywhere, as Florida and Ohio recently showed in the U.S., but solid evidence for fraud in the 26-J election so far remains lacking and seems unlikely to appear.

Brexit blowback offers a more plausible explanation. The argument is that voters in the Spanish state had witnessed, only three days earlier, the drubbing that the British economy suffered from global finance cartels following the vote to leave the European Union in the UK referendum. Thus, according to the argument, Spanish voters turned away from casting their ballots for a party (UP) that they perceived as "extreme."

The problem with this reasoning consists of two stubborn facts. First, back at the time of Alexis Tsipras's and SYRIZA's betrayal of Greek voters who rejected the austerity demands of the European Union, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias made his support of Tsipras clear and indicated his opposition to Spain ever leaving the eurozone.

Second, among all of the four major Spanish parties, Podemos was the only group to actually to send a delegation to Britain for the purpose of participating in the campaign to keep the UK in the EU. In other words, Podemos supported the Remain option. So if dread over leaving the EU was in any way an election concern of Spanish citizens, they had nothing to fear from UP.

The "Brexit blowback" explanation might better be factored into an account of the PP's survival as Spain's number one party rather than into UP's lack of success in displacing the PSOE as number two.

Even the PP's undeserved reprieve from punishment at the ballot box, however, as well as its marginal improvement over its performance in the December 2015 general election, should be seen more as the consequence of the specific political trajectories and blunders of the PSOE, UP and C's.

Back to the Future

Here it is useful to recall that 26-J was the second go-around at electing a government in Spain following a December 2015 general election that failed to return a majority. The splintered vote led to an inability to form even a coalition government over the next six months and reflected deep divisions among citizens of the Spanish state. The same situation basically applies after 26-J.

How things play out over the coming weeks and months in terms of cobbling together a government remains to be seen. Several scenarios, some more likely than others, are possible.

The formation of a right-wing coalition led by the PP is a definite possibility.

A center-left coalition might be possible if one of the major left parties (the PSOE or UP) changed its stance on holding a Catalan referendum. Indeed, on June 21--five days before the 26-J election--Podemos appeared to retreat from its insistence on the referendum as one of its conditions for entering a hypothetical coalition government with the PSOE.

In negotiations held July 6 between the PSOE, UP and C's, however, UP reasserted the Catalan referendum as one of its conditions for forming a government. It remains unclear how seriously this reaffirmation is to be taken. UP's renewed support for the referendum figured in a list of 20 proposals offered to the PSOE--some of these will surely end up as bargaining chips. UP leader Iglesias was quoted the same day in El País as stating that "we will be available to listen to any proposal [from the PSOE], not only after [PP leader and Spanish President Rajoy] fails, but also before."

In any case, leading advocates of a separatist position in Cataluña, including members of the party which currently dominates the Catalan Generalitat, are following their own timetable and pursuing a path toward independence which they believe will allow them to circumvent the Madrid government altogether.

Persistence of the situation of the gridlock that has characterized the past six months is also a possibility.

As for the vote itself, December's election percentages mostly mirror those of 26-J. The PP won then, with 123 seats and 28.7 percent of the vote. The PSOE came in second with 90 seats and 22 percent. Podemos finished third, receiving 69 seats and 20.7 percent, and C's took fourth place with 40 seats and 13.9 percent. Izquierda Unida (IU)--the "Unidos" and "U" in the 26-J Unidos Podemos (UP) electoral coalition--won two seats with 3.7 percent.

Thus, between December 2015 and June 2016, the PP increased its congressional representation by 14 seats and won about 5 percent more of the vote. The PSOE lost five seats and less than 1 percent.

Podemos, by itself in 2015 and partnered with IU as UP in 2016, gained only two seats. When added together, Podemos' and IU's individual tallies in December--5,212,711 votes for Podemos and 926,783 votes for IU--totaled 6,139,494 supporters. Yet in June, when they joined together to form UP, the electoral alliance received only 5,049,734 votes. This meant that upwards of 1.1 million votes were lost between December and June.

For its part, C's dropped eight seats and lost roughly 1 percent of the vote.

Some commentators have attempted to soften the perceived slap in the face to UP by touting the significance of the 26-J abstention rate. Participation in June (69.8 percent) was 4 percent less than in December (73.2 percent).

But any implication that 3 or 4 percent added to UP's June total would have allowed it to surpass the PSOE masks an improbable assumption--that all of those who didn't vote on 26-J were UP backers.

Though it is possible to consider that abstention might signal disillusionment or even a passive form of protest, focusing on abstentions as the cause of UP's disappointing performance seems too easy. It effectively blames individual citizens who chose not to vote and insinuates that they would have flocked to the ballot box had they only understood the dismal consequences of their indolence. If one is going to play the blame game, one might do better to assign responsibility elsewhere.

A few days after the vote, El País reported that the Podemos leadership announced two initiatives.

The first was a plan to distribute a survey to members seeking their opinions on the causes of UP's electoral shortfall. The survey suggested possible explanations, including Podemos' electoral pact with IU; the "politics of fear" directed against Podemos by UP's right-wing political competitors; fallout from Brexit; and the past involvement of Podemos leaders with the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, whose government they once served as advisers.

The second reported initiative was a call for the leaderships of Podemos, IU and their regional allies to meet to analyze the results of 26-J. The regional partners pressed hard for such a meeting. Of the 71 congressional seats won by UP on 26-J, 30 can be credited to its regional allies and IU. The regionals in particular seek higher visibility and want a stronger voice within Podemos.

Meanwhile, tensions within Podemos and IU over the political strategy guiding UP have surfaced more publicly than before. Podemos' best-known leader Pablo Iglesias--who along with IU's Alberto García designed and pushed for the UP electoral pact--is now contending with a faction of critics associated by many with Íñigo Errejón, another top Podemos leader who had earlier expressed reservations about the Podemos-IU alliance.

The post-election finger-pointing has led Iglesias to call for "calm" and Errejón to ask for organizational self-reflection. IU's García, too, is grappling with internal criticism of the IU-Podemos pact.

Despite such tensions, the Podemos leadership remains united in apportioning blame to Brexit and to the right-wing's "campaign of fear." The Podemos leadership's reluctance to assume responsibility for 26-J is, frankly, astonishing. It is a symptom of the depth of Podemos's bureaucratization.

On June 29, Iglesias and another Podemos official, Pablo Echenique, went so far as to announce that "the Podemos leadership will silence and punish any of its officials who say anything to encourage internal tensions." Behind the scenes, Echenique sent out a private e-mail, in which he menacingly stated: "For love to grow, it's not only necessary to nurture it with water but also to pull out the weeds."

If Not Brexit Nor Demonization, What Explains 26-J?

There are three principle causes to what happened to UP on 26-J--why Podemos in the garb of UP conked out.

First, Podemos's overall trajectory since its Citizens' Congress of October 2014 has been increasingly to betray the ethos and tactics of the 15-M--the mass demonstrations of the "Indignados" that began on May 15, 2011, helping to inspire, among other things, the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S. (For more on Podemos' evolution from a social movement rooted in the idea of "radical democracy" into a traditional political party, see Jaime Pastor's "Despotismo oligárquico, Grecia y Podemos" and my article in the International Socialist Review "Podemos and the left in Spain".)

In mutating from its origin in the 15-M social movement and the mareas--as subsequent sectionally organized anti-austerity protests were called--Podemos has bureaucratically transformed itself into a standard political party. It operates with top-down control and subordinates direct action to beefing up its electoral machinery.

Podemos has furthermore diluted its economic demands on the EU and its repudiation of the Troika--the three-member EU hit squad consisting of the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Simultaneously, Podemos has manacled authentic anti-capitalists within its ranks. And although Podemos leaders continue to pontificate against neoliberalism, it would have joined a governing coalition in February 2016 with one of the main architects and enforcers of neoliberalism--the PSOE--if only the PSOE had shown itself willing to compromise its opposition to a Catalan referendum on independence.

Sadly, Podemos' defense of Catalan self-determination--after more than two years of hemming and hawing--contained little of principle and a heap of cynicism and real politik. Podemos had had limited success in winning voters in Cataluña because of its lack of a clear-cut commitment in the past to a Catalan referendum. And now, it has opportunistically reversed itself and declared support for a referendum after one of the municipal coalitions in which it ran (Sí que es pot) succeeded in electing Ada Collau as mayor of Barcelona.

The second cause concerns Podemos' opportunism and flip-flopping on key issues. In addition to its vacillation on Cataluña and softening toward the EU, Podemos leaders such as Pablo Iglesias and Íñigo Errejón are well known to have stigmatized and dismissed words such as "socialism," "revolution" and "Marxist" from discussion in the party.

This prejudice results from their desire to project a media image of Podemos that is "neither of the left nor of the right." Theirs in fact constitutes--at best--a rhetoric of left-wing, nationalism-populism that is codified in the retrograde "post-Marxist" theories of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (Errejón recently co-authored a a book with Mouffe called Construir pueblo: Hegemonía y radicalización de la democracia. (For more on this topic, see Omar Hassan's "Podemos and Left Populism" in the Summer 2016 issue of Marxist Left Review.)

Jaime Pastor, a member of the Anticapitalistas in the Spanish state, accurately described the consequences of Podemos' chameleon behavior between December 2015 and June 2016:

After a "national-populist" discourse [during a substantial period of vacillation on Cataluña] which had shown its limitations in the Catalan elections of September 27, 2015, a more "pluri-national" approach was adopted before finally returning to a new idea of "homeland," which, as we see it, was counter-productive. Simultaneously, from December 20, 2015, we have gone from the discourse of the "people against the caste" [the Spanish equivalent of talking about the 99 Percent against the 1 Percent] to a more conventional "left" discourse, including classifying the PSOE as part of the left. This is to respond to the aspirations of IU, which wanted to regain the space of the so-called left of rupture and were finally taken [in] by the somewhat chaotic discourse of Pablo Iglesias, whose erosion as a charismatic leader is now palpable.

In keeping with Laclau and Mouffe's academic foolishness, Iglesias and Errejón have chosen to "discursively resignify" terms like "fatherland," rather than "socialism."--a disappointing development considering that, in a far more anti-communist country, Bernie Sanders' Democratic Party presidential campaign promoted and popularized the word "socialism."

Instead of putting forward a vision of genuine socialism based on a critique of Stalinism and Maoism, the Podemos leaders prefer instead to buy into anti-Marxist stereotypes, and so they coddle up to political language sullied by questionable ideologies of "homeland." At the same time, they condescendingly scorn the effectiveness of militant organization and conscious class struggle.

The third cause is incontrovertible and nowhere better explained than in a timely analysis of 26-J offered by Manuel Garí, also a member of Anticapitalistas:

The social movement has been the great absent factor. Its most conscious sectors have placed all of their [hopes for change] in the electoral realm, which, although of fundamental importance, is incapable on its own of unblocking the [present] situation. Unfortunately a new PP government, disguised more or less in the form of a coalition, is a [real] possibility.

All of this--along with the welcome significance of the Bernie Sanders campaign in the U.S., in spite of its totally predictable of funneling of people open to socialism into the graveyard of the Democratic Party--reminds me of something Arnold Scharzenegger's character says in the movie Terminator Genisys (2015): "I am old, but not obsolete." Ironically, I imagine Lenin speaking these lines today.

In the context of both Spain and the U.S., the necessity--not only of working in principled coalitions and united fronts, but also of building an independent revolutionary socialist organization--has never been more relevant.

Thanks to Lance Selfa for his comments on an earlier draft of this article.

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