The Rise of Podemos In Spain’s Election Shows How Much Trouble the Establishment Is In

From Spain’s “Nueva Política” to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, outsider candidates and parties are catching fire, creating new spaces for political revolution.

Erica Sagrans

Pablo Ilgesias, the leader of Podemos, celebrates his party's third place finish in Sunday's national elections. (Photo by David Ramos, Getty Images.)

Sunday night, Spain’s insurgent left party Podemos (“We can”) made history, breaking the country’s two-party control for the first time since the fall of the Franco dictatorship by winning 20.7 percent of the seats in the Spanish parliament. Though Podemos finished third behind Spain’s two establishment parties, Sunday’s results are a victory for an anti-austerity party that less than two years ago was only an idea in the minds of a handful of activists and academics. Podemos supporters and its leader Pablo Iglesias were energized by the outcome. In the plaza outside of Madrid’s Reina Sofia art museum, Iglesias was greeted by thousands of excited Podemos supporters, who waved balloons in the party’s signature purple shade and chanted Si se puede!”

What can the side of Sanders and Podemos do to harness the momentum behind this new political revolution?

Podemos has re-shaped Spanish politics, and the election results solidify the party’s role as a real force in the country’s democracy, despite uncertainty about what the new government will look like (no party won enough seats for an absolute majority). Yet beyond its importance for progressives, Sunday’s election cemented 2015 as the year of the political outsider: Spain’s insurgent centrist party Ciudadanos (“Citizens”) won 13.9 percent of parliamentary seats, meaning that two new parties with leaders under the age of 40 now control over one-third of Spain’s national assembly. The results represent a huge drop in support for Spain’s two establishment parties that have controlled the country for decades — the conservative Popular Party received a third less support than it had in the 2011 elections, and the Socialist Party experienced its worst election in the party’s history. It’s news that should make the political establishment from Europe to the United States tremble in fear.

The outraged

How did such a huge earthquake come to shake up Spanish politics? The backdrop to Sunday’s election and Podemos’ meteoric rise is Spain’s 15M, or Indignados (“Outraged”) movement that occupied city squares across Spain in May of 2011, four months before the Occupy Wall Street movement exploded in the U.S. In Spain, the protests targeted corruption of the political and the financial elite, with chants like They don’t represent us!” and Real democracy now!” Following the burst of its massive real estate bubble, Spain was hit particularly hard by the global financial crisis, with the highest unemployment rate in Europe and youth unemployment climbing above 50 percent. The depth of its crisis, combined with Spain’s smaller size, meant that 15M changed the fabric of the country’s politics in a much deeper way than Occupy Wall Street did in the United States. After a month of occupying Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, the country’s first and largest occupation, activists decided to leave the square and continue the fight through neighborhood assemblies, immigrants rights groups, public health defense and anti-foreclosure activism like the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages (PAH). 15M also re-energized Spain’s many autonomous social centers — occupied or rented spaces that serve as organizing hubs and meeting places for many of the Indignados efforts.

Into this post-15M moment stepped Pablo Iglesias, the ponytailed 37-year-old political science professor at Madrid’s Complutense University. In 2011, Iglesias and his collaborators were working on their DIY political talk show La Tuerka (“The Screw”). The aim of the television program was to supply people with a new language to reclaim democracy, political ammunition for public use,” as Iglesias calls it in his book Politics in a Time of Crisis: Podemos and the Future of Democracy in Europe. While Iglesias began his show before the Indignados burst onto the scene, the country’s new political consciousness translated into a new hunger for the programming he was creating. What started as an obscure program broadcast on TV and the internet soon acquired a huge following. Iglesias became a viral media sensation across Spain, often appearing as a guest on television talk shows where he crossed enemy lines to go head-to-head with conservative hosts and pundits.

In January of 2014, Iglesias and several others convened a gathering in a small Madrid theater to present the idea of Podemos with a manifesto called Making a Move: Turning Indignation Into Political Change.” Iglesias told the overflowing crowd that he would run in the European Union elections that spring if he could get 50,000 signatures of support. He got them in less than 24 hours, and Podemos caught fire. Hundreds of Podemos Circulos sprung up across the country, opening spaces for supporters to debate issues or propose policies for Podemos to consider, an example of the party’s focus on bottom-up decision-making. In the May 2014 EU elections, Podemos won five of Spain’s 50 seats in the European Parliament. By November of that year, a poll published in El País showed Podemos with the highest approval rating of any party in Spain. The momentum kept building in 2015 when local coalitions affiliated with Podemos scored big wins in city-wide elections, including housing activist Ada Colau’s election as Barcelona’s new mayor, and the left-wing judge Manuela Carmena’s election as mayor of Madrid.

Vote for us, and we’ll look after everything” 

Pablo Iglesias has never been shy about his focus on winning and strategy — he’s obsessed with Game of Thrones and The Wire for their depictions of how power works. When Podemos members gathered for two days in September of 2014 at Madrid’s Palacio Vistalegre theater for the party’s founding conference, Iglesias’ bloc was challenged by a rival slate of candidates that proposed giving more decision-making power to the circulos and having three party leaders instead of one. You don’t defeat [Partido Popular leader Mariano] Rajoy or [Socialist Party leader] Pedro Sanchez with three general secretaries,” Iglesias responded. Only one.” Of the several hundred thousand Podemos supporters who voted online, Iglesias’ slate won with 86 percent of the vote, making him the official party leader. The vote also made it clear that, while Podemos’ creation may have been fueled by a social movement, its future was as a political party.

But as Podemos has become more successful — and more determined to win elections — activists have criticized the party for leaving the spirit of bottom-up democracy by the wayside, focusing more on its inner-circle than the circles of grassroots supporters.

Alberto Garzon, the 30-year-old leader of the left-wing party Izquierda Unida, which was founded by the Communist Party as a coalition party in 1986, thinks Iglesias is too focused on winning at the expense of all else, a strategy that threatens to drain energy from social movements. Podemos’s problem is that they are giving a signal that consists of telling people: Stop taking to the streets, vote for us, and we’ll look after everything,” says Garzon. For the Left, that’s an enormous problem. If you exclusively base yourself on elections, then you demobilize citizens. So the mareas [anti-austerity movements in Spain] disappear, and there is no more trade unions or social activism. And that’s very dangerous.” Garzon also says that Podemos has tempered its policy proposals to move toward the center, retreating from their former plans on basic income and auditing Spain’s debt.

In response to the critique that it has become too much like a traditional party, Podemos says that its goal has always been to move beyond activists and appeal to regular Spaniards who don’t necessarily consider themselves part of the left,” but do share the left’s anger at the political establishment. Podemos speechwriter Jorge Moruno said in an interview with Open Democracy that the party wants to expand narratives and practices to include the part of the population that is still missing”:

People who do not come from the social movements, who have never been to a protest, who voted for the Popular Party or have never voted at all. People who think politics is something politicians do. That is where victories are forged, where great changes come from.

La Nueva Política

In Spain, people call Podemos La Nueva Política, or New Politics.” But Podemos isn’t the only party capturing Spaniards’ new political consciousness and anger at the establishment. Ciudadanos, which began as a Catalonian regional party in 2006 centered on opposition to Catalan independence, began running in national elections for the first time this year as well. The media dubbed them The Podemos of the right,” and like Podemos they have a young, charismatic leader (at 36, Ciudadanos head Albert Rivera is a year younger than Iglesias). Depending on your perspective, Ciudadanos can be seen as neoliberal, center-right” or simply old-school conservatives dressed up to look like something new. Barcelona writer and activist Kate Shea Baird points out that some Ciudadanos leaders are former members of Spain’s right-wing Partido Popular, and that some Ciudadanos leaders have tried to deny healthcare to undocumented immigrants, ban burkas, and curtail abortion rights. From the right, Partido Popular leaders criticize Ciudadanos as a left-wing party that supports abortion rights and has been willing to govern in coalition, as it does with the Socialist Party in the regional government of Andalusia, in southern Spain.

In the months leading up to Sunday’s election, Ciudadanos successfully drew away some of the energy that had been building behind Podemos, and in many ways replaced Podemos as the new darling of the Spanish media. Support for Ciudadanos grew to 23 percent in one late November poll while Podemos fell to 16.2 percent in the same survey. For those looking for change, Ciudadanos may have seemed like a safer option: the new brand of politics popularized by Podemos, but without the risky proposals, ponytails, and radical friends in Greece and Latin America. Carlos Delclós, the Barcelona-based author of the book Hope is a Promise: From the Indignados to the Rise of Podemos in Spain, says that Ciudadanos stepped into the gap that Podemos opened up,” and prevented Podemos from growing as much as it could have among voters in the center. It’s an important lesson, and one that’s playing out right now in the U.S. — populist outrage can flow in both directions.

Lessons of Podemos 

Despite different contexts and political systems, there’s a lot that activists in the United States can learn from the rise of Podemos — and now may be exactly the moment to do it. The 2016 presidential race has shown that voters are rallying behind candidates who, though still part of the two-party system, are far outside the traditional establishment” of both the Democratic and Republican parties. Earlier this year, Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders was polling in first place in both the Iowa and New Hampshire Democratic primaries, while Donald Trump has led the Republican field virtually all year long. Disillusionment with the old way of doing things and the hunger for something new is palpable. So what can Podemos teach progressives in the United States?

You can shape political reality through language — but only if people are listening. Pablo Iglesias calls television the great medium of our time,” and Podemos has used TV brilliantly to hone a clear and easily-understandable populist message that drew millions of people to tune in. 

It was a great effort of political translation,” says Podemos speechwriter Moruno, who told me he would spend hours with Iglesias thinking about how to communicate ideas in a way that would make sense to people, be concise, and not too heavy. We understood that the codes of the left, the symbols, the left tradition itself — we come from that tradition, after all — weren’t enough to construct an alternative political instrument for democratic change in this country. The left was limited to a closed, tired field, which is exactly where our opponent wants us to be. Our opponent was very happy to say, ‘ You’re the left,’ and to tell people Don’t be deceived, they’re just like they always are.’ But we were saying there is a shared pain, a shared indignation, across all of society that includes many more people than the traditional left.” Building on the shift that began with 15M, Podemos has re-shaped Spain’s political language. Iglesias has done away with talking about left versus right in favor of juxtaposing the people against La casta (“The caste” or Establishment”).

Move beyond the intellectual circles and language of the traditional left. Iglesias has been an outspoken critic of the traditional European left, which he believes has been too insular, too cloistered in academies, and too unconcerned with achieving real change or appealing to people in the real world. Moruno says, We understood that the codes of the left, the symbols, weren’t enough to construct an alternative political instrument to change this country. The left was very limited in this sense, and that’s exactly where our adversary wants us. Our adversary was very content to say, You’re the left,’ and to tell people Don’t engage, they’re just like always.’ But we were saying there were shared pains, shared indignations across all of society, that includes many more people [than just the traditional left.]”

Look at the movement that gave rise to Podemos. When I asked Barcelona sociologist Delclós, who grew up in Texas, about lessons U.S. activists can learn from Podemos, he said that instead of looking to Podemos, we should look to the Indignados movement that created the conditions for the rise of the new party. I think that set the pre-conditions for a Podemos or even a Ciudadanos, but especially a Podemos to swoop in and take a shot at the Troika [the European Commission, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank] take a shot at the status quo,” says Delclós. What made the Indignados work? Leave behind your acronyms, leave behind your flags, leave behind your old way of understanding things, and make the method that you use horizontal, direct democratic, and use that to create a new discourse.”

And what about Podemos’ failures or missed opportunities?

The strength of a populist political party is its people-power. Consequently, it’s dangerous for a party to think it can disengage from its grassroots activists and supporters. Delclós worries that some Podemos leaders took the support of social movement activists for granted: “[Podemos has] a sensation they can shake [activists] off. I think it would be a problem if all of them view it that way. That reading would misunderstand the degree to which — that’s not just 8 percent that you can discount, but those people have a multiplying force.”

Don’t assume the left will always maintain today’s advantages. Spain’s landscape shows us that progressives in the United States can’t be complacent and assume that our side will always have the advantages we do today. When we’re successful, smart conservatives will take notice, and grab the tactics that work. Ciudadanos saw what Podemos was doing with television, and had their own telegenic young leader replicate what Iglesias successfully did on Spain’s TV circuit. Like Podemos, they made Hope” a central campaign theme, and presented themselves as a new option in contrast to the corrupt establishment. In the United States, we’ve seen Tea Partiers borrowing from the left as well — young Republican activist Zach Werrell recently said that while Saul Alinsky’s ideology was rotten to its core … he was a brilliant tactician, and I will use what works for my ends.”

The People vs. the Party of Wall Street

In the words of Bernie Sanders, what we’re seeing right now is a political revolution — or at the very least, the potential for one. From the U.S. to Spain, people are losing faith in the leaders, parties, and establishment powers that have long controlled our politics. They’re turning to new forces and new faces, whether that’s Trump or Sanders in the U.S., Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, or Podemos in Spain.

This new energy and frustration doesn’t always break down along traditional left versus right political divides either. Instead, it’s Occupy Wall Street’s 99% versus the 1%, it’s Podemos’ people versus. La casta, and even nativism versus multiculturalism. Sunday’s Spanish elections and the rise of Podemos should be an encouraging sign for those searching for new solutions to this waning faith in the establishment. There’s a new space opening for expanded possibilities to create new solutions and new alternatives to traditional party power. The question in the year to come is: What can the side of Sanders and Podemos do to harness the momentum behind this new political revolution? Whatever the answer, the good news is that if you’re outraged, hopeful, and ready to take up that challenge — you’re not alone.

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Erica Sagrans is a writer, activist and a member of In These Times’ Board of Directors. She perviously worked as the campaign manager of Ready for Warren, a grassroots effort to draft Elizabeth Warren to run for president in 2016. You can follow Erica on Twitter at @EricaS.
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