Spain: Is Podemos in crisis?

Left and social movements in a state of flux, as key elections loom

“Moderation could disarm Podemos”, read one of El Pais newspaper’s main front page headlines, on 14th May. Though reminiscent of the repeated warnings which Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in Spain) gave about the Podemos’ leaders’ programmatic turn and more “moderate” approach, it was not we who were quoted. The line was taken from an interview with Juan Carlos Monedero, one of Podemos’ leading founders and a right hand man of Pablo Iglesias’ – the leader of Podemos – following Monedero’s resignation from the leadership of the formation last week.

Monedero’s resignation represents a dramatic turnaround in the perception of the party, which 6 months ago seemed an unstoppable force, with a leadership immune from criticism. As Podemos ("We can") battles with the prospect of stagnation, and a certain retreat in the polls, others are drawing similar conclusions to Monedero, and a period of questioning and debate has opened up. Though the debate has been provoked by the rough patch which Podemos is passing through, it offers a positive opportunity for those on the left in Spain and internationally to reflect on how things have developed and where we can go from here.

Limits of move towards “centre ground”

March’s regional elections in Andalusia (Spain’s biggest region – in the south), saw Podemos win 14% of the vote and elected 15 MPs. Though on the surface, a phenomenal result for a one-year old party, the result was generally seen as disappointing. Podemos, as a project and an idea in society, is very much based on the perspective of winning, being the only force capable of displacing the two-party austerity system. This reflected the confidence which existed in the movements, and also the desperation to effect change, and break with the perception that radical and left political forces can never aspire to more than 10-15%.

It’s slogan of “tick tock, tick tock…”, chanted by tens of thousands at a mass national Podemos rally in January, represented the perspective which drew millions towards it – that of an unstoppable countdown to victory at the next general elections, putting an end to the two party austerity monopoly. Its explosive growth sent the capitalist parties – especially the ex-social democratic PSOE – into a daze, there seemed to be no limit to their plummeting in the polls. Podemos was consistently leader of many national opinion polls for a period of months.

On the basis of such a perspective, 14% is indeed a disappointing result. Since then, various general and regional polls have put Podemos behind the two main parties, usually in third place. The public tensions and debates over its strategy and future take place in this context.

In part, the extent of the dissapointment at Podemos’ Andalucia result and current poll position, represents an over-reaction – going from zero to and overall majority is not straightforward and rarely proceeds in a straight line. However, in our opinion, it also represents a legitimate and correct reaction against the turn which the party leadership has taken, epitomised by their claim to aim at occupying the “centre ground” rather than the Left, and the programmatic adaptations made consequently.


A key factor which indicates this, and has complicated things for Podemos, has been the equally quick and explosive emergence and growth of the ’Ciudadanos’ (Citizens) party, which is almost neck and neck with Podemos in many polls, often scoring over 15%. Ciudadanos has its origins in Catalonia, where it bases itself on a strong anti Catalan independence position, as well as on its defence of “clean” politics, against corruption etc.

It launched itself on the all-Spain stage this year, tapping into the mood for a regeneration of politics, championing the need for transparency, democratic open primary elections in all parties, and a need for new young faces – banners which until then were almost exclusively associated with Podemos. Though officially “neither left nor right”, Ciudadanos is a right-wing party, with a subtle but clearly visible anti-worker, anti-union and anti-immigrant discourse. It provides a platform which disillusioned PP voters can be attracted to, with its Spanish nationalism and right-wing agenda. But it has also done some damage to Podemos, the reality being that its rhetoric for a “new politics”, against corruption and for a break with the old order seems to many to coincide with Pablo Iglesias’ rhetoric.

As the May editorial in SR’s paper, La Brecha, argued: “ For us, this development is an example of the danger of the political approach of Podemos’ leaders, centred on being “transversal”, and occupying the “centre ground” of the political scene, instead of putting forward an audacious perspective of radical left change, in line with Podemos’ initial programme. It seems that on its journey towards the “centre”, Pablo Iglesias et al, have crashed into Albert Rivera (Ciudadanos leader), who competes with them in the struggle to simply “renovate” politics, aloof from both the left and the right.”

The only way to overcome this potential problem is to make clear that the break with the “regime of 78” (post-Franco regime) that Podemos and the left defends, goes beyond corruption and transparency and open primaries. A break with the regime means a break with the politics of austerity and dictatorship of big capital which is the Spanish “democracy’s” main basis.

It cannot be ruled out that Podemos’ leaders understand this danger and take a new turn to the left. Indeed, Pablo Iglesias has given some small indications in this direction since Monedero’s resignation. He published an article which – while maintaining the idea that Podemos needed to occupy the political space and reformist programme abandoned by the ex-social democracy – emphasised the difference between being “central” to the political spectrum and being in the political “centre” itself! However, it seems that even following this, there are different points of view represented in Podemos’ leading circle. Monedero reportedly clashed with Inigo Errejon, Podemos organisational secretary, who reportedly wants to take the party even closer to the “centre ground”. This debate must be taken far beyond the leading circles of the party, and the media. It must be a debate initiated and led by the membership and supporters of Podemos, through mass rank and file assemblies.

From “rupturist” to Social Democratic

As we have explained before, the rise of Podemos reflected a vaccuum essentially on the left of Spanish politics. Still today, in opinion polls, voters situate Podemos to the left of all other parties (including United Left in many cases!), despite its leaders claim to be neither left nor right. Its rise was inverse to the fall in support for the United Left (IU) which was previously growing. However, its initial “rupturist” political programme has given way to an admittedly “social democratic” one, with key policies such as non-payment of the debt, and a universal basic income for all, scrapped. It still defends important reforms, such as paralysing evictions and guaranteeing water and energy to those in need, and promises to end austerity.

However, as Greece has shown, even these limited reforms in the context of the current crisis, are anathema to capitalism and the Troika. The payment of the odious public debt – €100 million a day on interest alone – also effectively rules out the necessary massive spending on public works and a humanitarian programme to end austerity and recuperate living standards.

The problem with modern Social Democratic programmes, is that capitalism is not in the same position as it was when these programmes were successfully executed, such as when the welfare state was implemented following World War II in may Northern European countries. Even in those countries where an advanced welfare state existed, such as Sweden and Denmark, they are currently being dismantled through austerity as capitalism demands austerity.

The implementation of Podemos’ programme in its entirety can only be viable on the basis of supplementing it with a programme to repudiate the debt, and nationalise the banks and key industries under democratic control. These measures would allow a working people’s government to determine its own future and destinate resources where democratically deemed necessary. It would, of course, also mean a break with the Troika, capitalist eurozone and European Union, linked to a fight to join with the workers of Greece, Ireland, Portugal Italy and beyond to build a new voluntary working people’s European federation of Socialist states in which all peoples would have the full right to self-determination including separation.

SR (CWI) is building its forces in order to be able to inject this message into the current debates and popularise it throughout the movement and the Left.

Local and regional elections augur instability and further crisis

Local elections and regional elections (in 13 of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions) take place on 24 May. Podemos is not standing, as such, in local elections in which it generally backs “popular unity” lists, based on a coming together of activists from different backgrounds, including Podemos, IU, trade unionists, anti-evictions, and left-nationalists in many places. In many places, such as Barcelona where Ada Colao, famed leader of the anti-evictions platform, PAH, is standing as the lead candidate, they have a good chance of winning.

However, in both the local and regional elections, the new fragmentation of the political map – with the PP, PSOE, Podemos and Ciudadanos as major forces, alongside the IU and different regional and national formations – there will almost certainly be no majority governments of one party. This is a recipe for serious instability, and the formation of governments could be difficult, as is currently the case in Andalucia, where over one month after the elections a government has still not been voted through parliament.

United Left close to definitive split

The United Left (IU) – in which SR members work, as well as Podemos – is in a deep crisis, with its membership split in the elections in the majority of important cities. The left "critical sectors" are generally incorporated in unity lists, with the right wing bureaucracy clinging to official lists. The official IU lists which are running against the “popular unity” candidatures are set to be wiped out in the majority of places, which will deeply undermine IU. This situation reflects the depth of the polarisation in the party, with two opposing sectors unlikely to co-exist for much longer under the same banner. There has already been a wide range of expulsions and splits.

The critical sectors – in which SR members participate – still have the potential to unite, under the leadership of Alberto Garzon, IU’s new national electoral leader, but urgent audacious action is necessary. A well-organised critical sector, with a political programme for a turn to the left and unity from below with other forces in the movement, must be launched and declare war on those determined to drag the formation into the dustbin of history. A new force is desperately needed, whether within IU or without, which can develop a programme capable of unifying the left and social movements in a struggle to end the regime of 78 and establish a socialist democracy from the ruins of post-Franco Spain.

Unite the left and social movements to fight for 100% anti-austerity governments

For these elections, SR calls for the formation of a united front of the left and social movements – including Podemos and IU activists, together with fighting trade unionists and fighters against evictions, racism and the countless anti-austerity movements – on a local, regional and all-Spain level. While not only confined to elections, such candidatures could put the alternative left in a much stronger electoral position, especially given Spanish electoral law, which awards greater numbers of seats to single candidatures than to separate ones with the same number of votes . This could put the prospect of displacing the PP and PSOE as the leading electoral force, back on agenda.

Winning mayorships, or regional government positions would put the left in an infinitely stronger position from which to mobilise the active resistance of workers and youth against austerity and fight for an alternative. A 100% anti-austerity programme, disobeying the budget limitations handed down from central government and refusing to implement cuts, could be implemented based on the mobilisation of working people to defend it.

SR is fighting to develop as a pole of attraction for those willing to fight for such a programme throughout the left, workers’ organisations and social movements.

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