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Harnessing Spain’s “communist moment”

Where did Podemos come from and where is it taking Spain? José Ignacio Torreblanca, author of a book on the political force, analyzes the party’s origins in the 15-M protest movement

Protestors from the 15-M movement occupy Madrid’s Puerta del Sol in 2011.
Protestors from the 15-M movement occupy Madrid’s Puerta del Sol in 2011.SAMUEL SÁNCHEZ

If one thing convinced the founders of Podemos of the need to enter politics, it was the mass protests on the streets of Madrid in 2011, when disparate civic associations and single-issue activist groups, along with huge numbers of people with no previous involvement in politics, identifying themselves simply as “indignant,” coalesced into what has become known as the 15-M movement.

There were two important things about those protests. The first is that they weren’t led or coordinated by the organizations that should have been able to do so, which were labor unions such as the UGT and the CCOO, or the Communist Party-led United Left grouping. True, the previous fall, the unions had called a general strike against labor market reforms and changes to the pension system introduced by the Socialist Party government, but the event was low key, passing off without incident. There was an air of resignation about the whole thing, as though the unions already knew there no was realistic chance of stopping the measures from going through.

15-M showed Podemos’s founders that most Spaniards’ demands are not left-wing, but conservative

The 15-M movement emerged out of the occupation of Madrid’s central Puerta del Sol square, which was started by a few members of an organization called Juventud sin Futuro (Youth without a future), and would quickly mesh with many other organizations such as the Mortgage Victims Platform (PAH). But it was the decision of thousands of people in May 2011 to join the sit-in in Sol, capturing the attention of the international media – in part because of the seeming parallel with the changes then taking place in Tunisia and Egypt, which had begun with mass street protests, as well as with the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States – even making the cover of The New York Times.

Despite the domestic and international media’s portrayal of the 15-M movement as little more than a bunch of anarchists, the creators of Podemos were aware throughout the summer of 2011, and would point this out later, that 15-M, despite its success, provided two important lessons: “It wasn’t us who organized this,” and that not everybody in the movement was “left wing.”

Together, these two key factors had a profound impact on Podemos, and without them it is not possible to understand its political premises nor its campaign strategy. The 15-M movement’s main complaint that “they don’t represent us,” expressed in the demand for “real democracy now,” revealed a number of things to the founders of Podemos.

For Iglesias, the lessons were clear: in Spain, as had happened in Latin America, the regime’s weakness provided the possibility of bringing it down

In first place, that most Spaniards’ demands are neither based on left-wing ideas, and much less are they revolutionary, but instead, at heart, they are conservative and politically centrist. In the same way that the PAH had earned the backing of 90 percent of the population with its demands for humane and fair treatment of families unable to pay their mortgages, the 15-M movement also earned widespread support, with 81 percent of people surveyed in a nationwide poll in 2011 saying the indignant, as the movement’s members called themselves, were right, and 71 percent agreeing about the need to reboot the country’s democracy. Only 17 percent of people considered 15-M a radical organization that was a threat to the system and, thus, something to be feared.

Behind the 15-M movement’s slogans and the myriad reasons huge numbers of people had joined the protests, it was clear that rather than being about politics, the protestors reflected widespread discontent with all the country’s political parties. Carolina Bescansa, who had been studying 15-M for the Center for Sociological Research, noticed during the street protests that the traditional right-left divide no longer made any sense when trying to understand people’s voting intentions.

In second place, 15-M showed that the United Left, which should have been able to connect with people’s demands and capitalize on it politically, was unable to do so. The movement, said Pablo Iglesias, the man who now leads Podemos, “instead of showing the power of the left, showed our weakness.” Aware that 15-M was not left wing, but made up of a cross-section of society that was sick and tired of the current political system, one dominated by two large parties that were increasingly seen as out of touch with the people, the founders of Podemos and the groups related to it joined in the protests enthusiastically, trying to lead them and to channel their energy, but at no time trying to appropriate them. For Iglesias and the Podemos leadership, the lessons were clear: in Spain, as had happened in Latin America, the weakness of the regime provided the possibility of bringing it down by anybody able to connect with the people properly. Iñigo Errejón, who organized Podemos’s European elections campaign, who had returned from Ecuador just before 15-M kicked off, describes the party as: “the expression and precipitant of the rupture of certain consensuses, which made us see the possibility of a populist approach.”

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The 15-M movement helped forge the idea of political change emerging from a bankrupt two-party system, an ambition to build a political force that could actually win elections, along with a method to articulate change that would reframe politics in terms of a struggle between the majority (the people, the citizenry) and the few (the elite, the political and business castes), in other words, as Pablo Iglesias would later describe it: “occupying the center of the political chessboard.”

This hypothesis was put to the test in the general elections of November of 2011, the first attempt by Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejón to convince the United Left with their ideas about the possibility of political change in Spain and to reconfigure the campaign message in such a way as to allow the party to escape the narrow stretch of ground to the left of the Socialist Party.

But to Iglesias and Errejón’s frustration, the United Left’s leadership not only refused to follow the pair’s campaign strategy, but after the Popular Party was swept to power, celebrated the fact that it had increased its seats in Congress from two to 11. For Iglesias, there was little to celebrate in having almost doubled its vote from 969,000 in the 2008 elections to 1.7 million in 2011, and instead the party’s celebration of its achievement was further proof of just how out of touch it was with reality. Amid the worst economic crisis in more than four decades, what was so great about garnering seven percent of the vote, when the Socialists had seen their share fall from 43 to 28 percent?

The communists will never win elections under normal circumstances; they can only do so at exceptional moments” Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias

As far as Iglesias and his colleagues were concerned, the United Left had thrown away a unique historic opportunity. As Iglesias would later say, Spain was living through its “communist moment,” but as he pointed out: “The communists will never win elections under normal circumstances; they can only do so at exceptional moments. By undermining the foundations on which the reigning ideas are built to collapse, the crisis sweeps away the existing consensus.”

But the leaders of the Communist Party, argued Iglesias, “have become a regime, people who are happy to be awarded a bronze medal, and never think in terms of actually winning elections because all they are interested in really is being seen to be on the left, to be authentic, and to not win.” In short, the communists had become conservative, argued Iglesias, because they had failed to see that the only way to win was by changing the rules.

“The feeling that Pablo and I were left with after working with the United Left during the 2011 election campaign,” said Iñigo Errejón later, was “frustration, because we could have achieved so much more if we had been able to transcend the limits that were being set by the type of actors we were working with. We were absolutely certain that we could have gone much further, because the conditions were right: the only way to validate opinions is by putting them to the test, and so we decided to do so.”

José Ignacio Torreblanca is a lecturer in political science at the UNED distance learning university and director of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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