YES THEY CAN: The Meaning of Podemos


Sanjiv Sachdev reports for Philosophy Football on a recent seminar about the meaning and significance of Podemos

In December’s Spanish General Election, Podemos (‘We Can’ in English), led by the charismatic Pablo Iglesias, emerged as the only clear cut winner. It did much better than the polls had predicted, securing 69 of the 350 seats in parliament (the Conservative Partido Popular won 123, the Socialist PSOE 90). Its share of the vote was just below that of the Socialists (21 per cent versus 22) - a remarkable achievement for a party that only formed in January 2014. Sociologist Carlos Delclos is based in Barcelona, at the seminar he explained Podemos has gone, in two years, from fifty people protesting in a plaza to 69 seats in parliament.  

Like Syriza, Podemos has given organisational form to a new European left-wing populism (what it calls ‘la nueva politica’). The PSOE has been seriously damaged by its role in implementing cuts and by corruption scandals. There has been a dramatic reconfiguration of Spanish politics, which remains in a state of febrile flux.

Podemos defines itself as a party, an electoral machine and a movement. Paul Kennedy, an academic specialising in modern Spanish politics joined the discussion to identify the roots of Podemos. Agreeing with Carlos he located these in the huge 2011 Indignados protests against Spain’s political system in the wake of financial crisis of 2008. The crisis left a quarter of Spanish families living below the poverty line; 400,000 families were evicted over the next few years while three million home lay empty.  Unemployment rose above 26 per cent and above 60 per cent for the young. Deep cuts have been made to public spending and public sector jobs and it has been made much easier to sack workers. Moreover, corruption scandals have scarred political debate (even the Monarchy has fallen foul of this in the courts).  Podemos emerged to challenge what it calls ‘la casta’ – the political and business elites (political recall is key demand of the party).     

Key actors of Podemos came from a group of politics lecturers at Madrid’s Complutense University – including Iglesias - who sought to channel the energy of the Indignados, devising a strategy based on people versus ‘la casta’. Starting with an amateur TV discussion programme, ‘La Tuerka’ (and later ‘Fort Apache’), it built up a substantial on line presence, seeking to challenge and change conventional political debate and reach new audiences. Podemos sought to go beyond class to wider appeals embodied in the slogan: ‘We are neither left nor right. We are the people of the bottom going for people at the top’. The desire to win elections – and the realpolitik required to this end, has also been a key component of its approach.

Strategic alliances with Basque, Catalan and Galician nationalists also contributed to its success, going into the election as four groups (a outstanding issue is whether they will remain as four groups in the new parliament) but the issue of Catalan independence is potentially difficult one for Podemos (it supports a referendum on independence but opposes independence) and a potential stumbling block to forming a non-PP government.

Developing Gramsican concepts, the writings of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe are hugely influential in Podemos thinking. The ideas of hegemony, sovereignty, multitude, radical democracy (the desire for ‘real democracy’ was a key component of the Indignados critique) and populism are widely used. The notion that identities are constructed and not an objective reality is a cornerstone of their thought.  

It is a politics of emancipation, with a focus on a broader, more inclusive category of ‘people’ rather than ‘class’ as a category of emancipation.  New concepts such as ‘revolving door’, the ‘Berlusconisation' of politics, the 'Bunker' (to describe the two main parties), have been deftly deployed by Podemos to shift the terms of political debate.

‘Radical democracy’ includes challenging supra-national notions of power that do not benefit democracy. Spanish sovereignty is seen as having been usurped by the forces of global capital (represented by the Troika) with cooperation of the country’s elites. Sirio Canos from Podemos GB and recent speaker at Philosophy Football’s ‘Scroogeonomics’ event cited at the seminar as an example the constitutional change enacted in 2011 by the PSOE and PP that made it a legal requirement for Spain’s governing party to designate balancing the budget a priority over public spending and investment. Reclaiming sovereignty is now a key objective for Podemos.

Spanish politics has a history of institutional experiment. Podemos began as an innovative blend of social media and grassroots politics. Internal democracy has been one of the key innovations of Podemos – although its scope and success is both debated and contested. The party has set up assembly-style ‘circulos’ or circles, a network of groups convened online or in person, defined either by geography or by area of interest or identity (science, sport, LBGT etc) to inform debate and policy development – one of the panel contended that most of the circles have become zeros, being mostly discarded in day-to-day practice (some prominent exceptions – such as sectional and international circles - were also identified).

Digital technology has also been enthusiastically embraced and adroitly used as a means of campaigning and internal democracy, but so have conventional media such as television (one critic dubbed Podemos as ‘A Leninist media project’). An App has been devised to enable voting.

The political discourse in Spain has traditionally been very pro-European (this included the once influential Communist party). The economic and political benefits of EU membership are widely accepted. The actions of the Troika in Greece has tempered this enthusiasm, but Podemos remains broadly pro-European, arguing for a different type of Europe, not underpinned by neo-liberal norms. Moreover, Spain’s economic situation is different to that of Greece, in that its economic plight is not as grave and it is more central to the European economy than Greece.

The key conclusion of the seminar was that Podemos has opened a new political space, changing the political terms of debate in key areas – in the words of one of their slogans: ‘making what appears impossible, possible’. And the relevance outside Spain was startlingly obvious for the British Left too,  issues such as the challenges represented by the bond market, winning amid a hostile media, maintaining and enhancing internal democracy, accommodating regional calls for greater autonomy or independence are salient for the UK as well as Spain.

Further reading: Pablo Iglesias  Politics in a Time of Crisis: Podemos and the Future of Democracy in Europe, published by Verso