By JOHN McCLURE
The Long Campaign
For many progressive-minded Spaniards, the last couple of years have been a time of hope. Disgusted by the Socialist government’s capitulation to neoliberal strategies of recovery in response to the Crisis of 2008, by the Conservative government’s commitment to doubling down on these policies, and by rampant corruption in both parties, these Spaniards saw the emergence of the insurgent left party, Podemos, as a possible opening toward a better future. Their hopes were dampened in the December 20th 2015 general elections, when Podemos failed to break through and become the dominant party of the left, but heartened by its emergence as Spain’s third–largest party. They were disappointed again when, in the wake of the December elections, Podemos and the Socialists (PSOE), failed to make a pact, form a government, and oust the Conservatives (the Partido Popular) from power. Then, in the run-up to the second round of elections in June, hopes rose yet again. A week before those elections, polls suggested that Podemos, now running as Unidos Podemos at the head of a coalition with the communist-led Izquierda Unida, might actually achieve its audacious dream of “storming heaven”–taking power in Spain only a year after its founding–or at least its more likely dream of “sorpasso,” supplanting PSOE as the first party of the left.
When I attended a large Podemos rally in Jerez two days before the June election, the stage was set for victory. (See http://movieslite.xyz/video/view/dmpgorjIG0g/Unidos-Podemos-en-Jerez-de-la-Frontera-Cdiz.html). Pablo Iglesias, Podemos’ charismatic leader, was scheduled to speak, as were Alberto Garzón, the widely respected leader of Izquierda Unida, and Teresa Rodríguez, the leader of Podemos in Andalucia. The mood was ebullient, even festive. Colorful banners were everywhere, as were copies of an official campaign poster that featured Iglesias’s smiling face surrounded by the smiling images of other Podemos luminaries above the caption “The Smile of a Nation.” There was even a giant cut-out heart, based on another campaign poster in which the “o” in Podemos Unidos is printed as a heart, into which couples were busy stepping to have their photos taken. Podemos’ spring campaign, coming after the acrimonious jostlings and fierce interparty denunciations of the winter campaign, had indeed emphasized love: the two parties’ new-found love for each other and their love for Spain.
This emphasis on amiability, and the buoyant mood of the crowd, jarred a bit with the angry, fist-pumping performance of Iglesias and the uncanny mixture of heart-broken pain and furious indignation in the voice of Rodríguez, la Pasionaria of Podemos. Both speakers, in their manner, recalled the passion of the handsome and doomed figures who, in the old film clips from the Civil War, rally war-weary and resolute Republican crowds. But in the face of the speakers’ “public ecstasy of fury”—I borrow the phrase from Laurie Lee’s great book on the Spanish Civil War–the crowd seemed only mildly stirred. Well-fed and well-dressed, it belonged to a different world. The economic suffering its members had borne or witnessed during the Crisis was real—it had produced 15-M, the mass movement of the “Indignados”–but it was not of the same order as that borne and witnessed all those years ago, during the War and in the long aftermath of Francoist repression. And on this afternoon, this crowd was basking in the anticipation of electoral victory.
Of course that’s not what happened. Instead, in a stunning reversal of expectations, Unidos Podemos came third again, winning the same number of parliamentary seats that Podemos and Izquierda Unida, running separately, had won in December. Even worse, the coalition fell over a million votes short of December’s tally. Meanwhile the ruling Partido Popular, in spite of new corruption scandals and a very weak recovery, won 14 more seats than it had in December. And PSOE, losing 4 seats, still outperformed Podemos to remain the first party of the left. In the wake of the election, PSOE, internally divided, furious at Podemos, and convinced that its own appeal was slipping away, decided, after a fierce debate which led to the resignation of its secretary general, Pedro Sanchez, to support (by abstention) the formation of a minority government under the leadership of the Partido Popular’s Mariano Rajoy. This means that Spain will continue to be governed by a party dedicated to neoliberal policies and riddled with corruption. And it means that Podemos is very likely to be frozen out of any policymaking role in the new parliament. In response, and after its own fierce internal debates, the party has decided to pursue a two-pronged strategy. It will continue to fight for change in what the Spanish call “the institutions” but will dedicate much of its energy to rebuilding ties with its militant base and reinvigorating the popular movements in the street.
What went wrong? How are we to account not only for Unidos Podemos’ failure to attract new supporters but also for its dramatic loss of so many existing supporters? One factor, surely, was the party’s continuing support for Catalonia’s right to secede from Spain on the basis of a referendum restricted to the Catalans themselves. Many Spaniards simply will not vote for a party that offers one of the nation’s restive nationalities the right to begin dismantling Spain. But here at least the party’s position was clearly articulated and steadily affirmed. This has not been the case, over this last year, with efforts to represent itself as a party of real but moderate progressive reform.
One of the fiercest battles of the two general campaigns was the battle over Podemos’ identity. Was the party, as many Spaniards hoped at first, the honest and unencumbered instrument by which they could put an end to the corruption and betrayals of the country’s political elites? Or was it, as its adversaries insisted, a gang of duplicitous subversives using social democracy as a mask for a radical program that would, if pursued, destroy the county? The “campaign of fear” launched by the major parties linked Podemos to Hugo Chávez’ left populist revolution in Venezuela, to Syriza’s catastrophic defeat in Greece, to Spain’s never popular communist party, now embedded through Izquierda Unida in Unidos Podemos, and to the Brexit vote, which came days before the June election and dramatized, for many, the dangers of radical change. The party countered by proclaiming its allegiance to social democracy and by emphasizing, in its public self-representation, its commitment to inclusive love rather than rage.
Yet there was no denying some of the points of the campaign of fear. Several of Podemos’ founders were schooled in the “young communist” movements of the Spanish left. Several served as paid advisors to left-populist governments of Venezuela, Peru, and Ecuador. Iglesias and others were outspoken supporters of Syriza. In its first campaign, during the 2014 European Parliament elections, the party fiercely denounced not just the ruling Partido Popular but the entire political caste (“la casta”) and the democratic system in place since 1978, including the Spanish constitution. And in these same elections, it proposed the sweeping nationalization of many sectors of the economy, including the media and the banking industry.
By the fall of 2015, however, the party was taking a new, much less radical tack, both in its substantial proposals and in its public self-representations. It now cast itself in the mold of the most successful European social democracies and promoted itself as a party of “love” and “smiles” rather the indignation and rage. Iglesias distinguished its version of social democracy from that of PSOE by insisting that Podemos’ goal was to initiate a fourth moment in social democratic history, one that would restore the movement’s original commitments to a managed economy, stimulus instead of austerity, robust social supports, and economic justice, thus repairing the damage done by PSOE prime ministers such as Felipe González, who embraced neoliberal theory, and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who helped dismantle the labor laws that gave Spanish workers job security.
There is a long history in the European left of individuals and parties setting aside their youthful radicalism to embrace social democratic moderation. But Podemos was not able to make its new stance completely convincing, not even to its allies on the left. Alberto Garzón, for instance, wrote (just before signing a pact with Podemos) that for the party’s dominant faction the embrace of social democracy is “a tactic, something that permits you to conceal your real intentions and, once you have won, reveal your deepest thoughts” (“una táctica: algo que te permite ocultar tus verdaderas intenciones y, una vez que lo has ganado, sacas la realidad profunda de tus pensamientos”).
Podemos might have been able to put such criticisms to rest had its leaders been able to stick to the message of social democratic moderation. But instead they kept suggesting that in fact they did have long-term plans for a more radical transformation of Spain’s institutions. Here is Pablo Iglesias, for instance, in a May 2015 interview with the New Left Review:
Today, the option of a socialist strategy . . . poses immense problems in the practical, political sense—to articulate an actual opposition that could have even the option of countering the current state of affairs. So the strategy we have followed is to articulate a discourse on the recovery of sovereignty, on social rights, even human rights, in a European framework. . . . It’s true that this choice of the middle ground generates ambiguities, at least, till we reach control of the state and the institutions—because there are two moments: this moment, the strategic moment, so to speak, and then the moment of the state . . . . (italics added)
The broadly Leninist suggestion that the choice of the political “middle ground” is purely tactical and that a second, more radical program will be unveiled after the party reaches “control of the state,” emerges again in a comment cited in the Guardian, “In the short term,” Iglesias declares, “we are limited to using the state to redistribute a little more, have fairer taxes, boost the economy and start building a model that recovers industry and brings back sovereignty . . . .” Similar hints of a discrepancy between public posture and actual plans are to be found in the Spanish press as well. In a recent interview with El Pais, Iglesias defends Podemos’ embrace of social democracy by reminding the interviewer that, “If you say, ‘I’m running to put an end to capitalism,’ all you’re doing is making yourself look ridiculous.”
In other ways as well, Podemos’ leaders have been unable steadily to perform the moderation they profess. Iglesias, the party’s ubiquitous media star, has had more trouble than the rest of his “núcleo duro” in staying on message and in role. Partly, one guesses, this is because he has been trying to keep alive the party’s original emotional charge of indignation while appealing to more moderate voters. But what might be called psycho-political forces also seem to be in play here. At a book presentation back in 2014, Iglesias confessed that “The Pablo of the old days [before Podemos] liked being a sort of enfant terrible” and indicated that he could no longer afford this pleasure. No more acting out, was the implication, no more days of rage; as a leader of a political party seeking mass support from an unhappy but not revolutionary people, he would have to become a different person.
Unfortunately, over the last year, Iglesias’ inner enfant has broken out repeatedly in displays of scornful arrogance, sharp impatience, and fierce anger. He has seemed, too often, determined not just to out-argue his opponents but to humiliate them. Thus in one infamous interview, shortly after the regional elections of May, 2015, he lashed out furiously at Izquierda Unida, which was trying to draw him into a coalition:
Stop being so concerned with the things we are doing and the things we are proposing. Keep going on in your existential pessimism. Cook yourself in your sauce full of red stars and other things but don’t get near us, because you are precisely the ones who are responsible for the fact that nothing changes in this country. You bring bad luck. I don’t want jinxed politicians who in twenty-five years have been incapable of doing anything, I don’t want the leaders of Izquierda Unida . . . to come close to us. Keep to your own organization. Present yourselves at the elections, but leave us in peace. . . . Stay in your own place. You can sing the International, have your red stars . . . I’m not going to mess with that.
This dramatically immoderate proclamation, which was part of Iglesias’ campaign to distance his party from Spain’s radical left and occupy a more populist position as a representative of the 99%, backfired so badly that he felt compelled to make two public apologies. It left deep scars among many in Izquierda Unida, who found it “insulting and humiliating.” It made his pact with the IU this past spring look like an act of unprincipled flip-flopping, deep confusion, or desperation. But worst of all, its ranting, hysterically aversive tone undercut the very message of moderation Iglesias was trying to get across in the interview: what kind of person would lash out so fiercely against people with whom he had shared, and still did share, so much? How could anyone talk like this to people who were, after all, fellow leftists and old colleagues? What chance of building a parliamentary majority did such a person stand? There were, of course, good reasons for Iglesias’ impatience with the old left. But by lashing out as he did, he called into doubt his own qualifications as an agent of progressive reform. And this outburst has been remembered.
Iglesias’ inner enfant emerged again after the disappointing results of the Dec. 20th elections. As if unwilling to accept his failure to “storm heaven” and take power, he stepped brashly to the center of the pact-making process, knocking aside Pedro Sanchez, the leader of PSOE, who had been allotted the lead role in this process by Spain’s new king. This egregious breach of protocol infuriated the socialists and, one would guess, the king. It struck many Spaniards as disrespectful. And the fact that Iglesias demanded the vice presidency for himself and key ministries, including those that govern security services and the media, for his party, also alienated many Spaniards, who saw the move as a raw play for power (“Game of Thrones” is Iglesias’ favorite television drama) rather than a constructive effort to form a government that could improve the lot of ordinary citizens.
What happened when Podemos’ deputies took their seats in the Congress only deepened the impression that the party, whatever its professions of moderation, was at heart an engine of disruption and radical change. The performance was dramatically carnivalesque: Podemos deputies were escorted through Madrid to the Cortes by raucous marching bands; they came dressed in the fashions of the street; they breast-fed their babies in the august chamber, and they made impassioned speeches in the revolutionary style, with their fists pumping the air. In one famous photo, a dreadlocked and bearded young deputy in gangsta clothes passes scowling darkly before President Rajoy, who watches him with wry wonderment. In another, Pablo Iglesias and a fellow deputy, Xavier Domènech, embrace and kiss each other passionately on the lips before ranks of shocked and amused deputies. All this may have been, for those in touch with their own radical enfant terrible, an entertaining spectacle, but it may well have offended millions of more culturally conservative Spaniards.
For many, however, the most shockingly immoderate moment during the last parliament (a new Congress was elected in June) occurred on the occasion of Iglesias’ first address to the Congress. In the midst of an impassioned denunciation of PSOE’s betrayal of social democratic ideals, he lashed out fiercely at the party’s venerable leader, Felipe González, accusing him of having “quicklime on his hands”: that is, of being responsible for the assassinations of ETA members during the dirty war against the Basque separatist terrorists. “We’re here to speak the truth to your faces,” Iglesias insisted, defiantly, when enraged deputies tried to shout him down. His own second in command, Íñigo Errejón, sat wincing beside him as he spoke.
Once again, the damage done here, in terms of Podemos’ efforts to cast itself as a moderate social democratic party, goes beyond a provocative breach of protocol. One of the most effective charges laid against Podemos by the established parties has been that it is in league not only with Catalan secessionists but also with the most extreme faction of the Basque independence movement, ETA, which horrified Spaniards in the eighties and nineties by a campaign of bombings and assassinations. During the worst days of the terror campaign each killing would be marked, in our quiet town in the mountains, by silent vigils in the streets. Shopkeepers and artisans stepped out in front of their shops; passersby joined them, and the whole town would be silent for ten minutes. ETA’s insane campaign reawakened, for generations of Spaniards raised on tales of Civil War atrocities, the horror of extremism. Iglesias’ outburst must have seemed to many of them, both in its substance and its style, a telling act of profound immoderation.
In the wake of June’s disappointing results, Iglesias seems to have concluded that his tone, and perhaps his party’s, needs to change. “I believe,” he reflected in an interview, “that I have learned in these two years that tone is more important in politics than it’s possible to imagine. Tone defines everything.” And he claimed, once again, to have “left behind that style of the enfant terrible that I used to have, that guy who really liked provoking” people. That style shows its American face, I’d suggest, in the ubiquitous Guy Fawkes mask with its smirk of subversive knowledge and superiority. (What makes Fawkes smile is his plan, as part of a Catholic conspiracy, to blow up the English Parliament.) Iglesias is right of course: tone is important, his tone was often way off mark, and Podemos cannot hope to become the majority party in Spain unless its leaders find a way to enact an attractive progressive version of political maturity.
But of course both tone and actual practice have played a role in checking Podemos’ progress. Iglesias and other party leaders have taken concrete actions that undermine their messages of moderation and, in the spring campaign, “love.” Iglesias’ handling of differences and dissent within the party has often seemed anything but loving; he has made sure, time and again, that a “vertical” model of party structure reminiscent of Leninist centralism (and traditional Spanish practice) has triumphed over the “horizontalist” proclivities so evident in the 15-M movement and the grassroots organizations it spawned. Pablo Echenique, Podemos’ third in command, recently qualified his commitment to “love” in a manner consistent with Iglesias’ posture: “You already know, declared Echenique, “that I am very much for love and that sort of thing,”
but I can’t resist adding something necessary for this moment. Before any internal conflict, the Secretariat of Organization will seek first of all a measured loving, consensual and common sense solution. In case that the path of love and care turns out not to work, it will act in a strong, decided, concrete and deeply serious manner against those who do not understand . . . that internecine wars bleed, burn, and exasperate us. For love to grow, you need not only to water it but to extirpate the weeds of cancerous violence. I know this won’t be necessary, but it’s always good to have a plan B when love doesn’t win.
This is Podemos at its worst, blithely undermining its own rhetoric of moderation and justifying actions at odds with any progressive notion of democracy. It’s hard to imagine a more pitch-perfect rehearsal of traditional totalitarian rhetoric, the rhetoric of Spain’s fascists and communists, or a more chilling articulation of ruthless centralism.
This centralism has alienated many of those activists who once collaborated with Podemos and have since taken their distance. Among these one can count the radical mayors of Spain’s two great cities, Manuela Carmena of Madrid and Ada Colau of Barcelona, but also innumerable anonymous Podemos activists whose disillusionment is reflected in the dramatically shrinking numbers of participants in the party’s internal elections, its grassroots circulos, and its online discussion site, Plaza Podemos. How many such defections have there been? As many as a million? And how many more Spaniards have declined to support Podemos because of this sort rhetorical and organizational extremism?
Podemos at its Best
Yet there have also been moments of rhetorical and programmatic brilliance in Podemos’ public self-representation. Perhaps the best argument for the view that the party is what it says it is, a responsible insurgency committed to restoring fundamental social democratic ideals, comes in Podemos’ single most imaginative piece of campaign rhetoric, the platform for the June campaign. A brilliantly original and witty document, Podemos 26J (available online) takes the form of a glossy IKEA-like catalogue showing images of the party’s leaders in their modest homes with various points of the party’s platform superimposed. (“You can sing the International, have your red stars,” indeed!) The images are fetching and amusing, the prose direct and informative.
Like the best catalogues, Podemos26J displays a range of attractive items. The platform offers more powerful anti-corruption regulations; a new, diversified, high-tech industrial economy; a modernized bureaucracy that will not impede innovation; sustainable agriculture and environmental preservation. It offers more stable and well-paid employment for all, a guaranteed basic income, and public services ranging from free universal health care to more affordable university education. It promises to work toward convincing the EU to abandon the policies of austerity. And it wants to shift the emphasis in economic activity from financial transactions to productivity and from short-term profit taking to considerations of the long-range common good.
There is, of course, a striking difference between Podemos J26 and a traditional catalogue: Podemos J26 does not put price tags on the items it seeks to “sell.” What would it cost to rebuild and amplify public services, cut the workweek back to thirty-five hours, guarantee a social income to all? How stable can employment be made, in the current climate of global hyper-competition and sudden shifts of production and profitability, without crippling competitiveness? Indirectly, however, the catalogue does in fact begin to offer answers to these questions: it calls for redistributive shifts in the tax codes, a more vigorous pursuit of tax cheats, a renegotiation of loan repayments to the EU, increased productivity, etc. The party’s enemies, predictably, have branded these measures insufficient and the platform untenable. And even its friends may wonder whether it is possible, with globalization, to (re)build social democracy in one country. But a well-regarded group of progressive experts—Spain’s Economistas Frente a la Crisis–contends that Unidos Podemos has done its math and the reforms it proposes are economically viable.
In any event, Podemos 26J does lend substance to the party’s claim to stand for social democratic reform. The program proposed is detailed and consistent with social democratic ideals, and the suggestions for a general shift of economic attention in the direction of productivity and the common good are hardly Leninist. Rather, they seem consistent with Iglesias’ “fourth social democracy,” a version of the original purged of the betrayals of the last thirty-five years.
The short-term prospects for Podemos are cloudy. It looks, for instance, as though several of the regional parties with which it ran in December and June are going to break away and form their own coalitions. And it remains to be seen whether the party can in fact reconnect with its base and take its program to the streets. But it also seems likely that Podemos will attract a significant number of PSOE voters dismayed by that party’s decision to support a new conservative government. And economic developments may also benefit Podemos. Spain’s neoliberal-led recovery is faltering badly, and the EU may demand harsh new austerity measures next year. Podemos alone among Spain’s major parties has signaled its readiness to push back against such neoliberal assaults. In a moment when the will to such a challenge is growing ever more powerful across Europe, perhaps the party can shake off its residual Leninist and Chávist ideas, put its “enfantalism” behind it, and prove its readiness to lead the struggle in Spain.
John McClure spends 6 months of each year in Spain. This is his third article on Podemos and the Spanish elections.