Podemos and the Paradigm Shift

Podemos emerged in resistance to Spain’s political establishment. But what are the limits to its populist strategy?

Arturo R Montesinos / Flickr

Towards the end of 2013, popular protest in Spain was in an anti-climactic state. The economic crisis had unleashed a legitimacy crisis of the so-called “Regime of ’78” instituted after the transition to democracy. The political class was generally disaffected, and corruption scandals spread to almost all political agents: the monarchy, the parties, the employers’ associations, and even the unions.

The movement of the indignados (outraged), which emerged on May 15, 2011, gave this general malaise a transformative and progressive, though not particularly coherent, voice. The common-sense criticism of the economic “austericide” gave way to mass skepticism of the accords that had guaranteed the hegemony of Spain’s economic and political elites for more than thirty years.

However, neither the political parties nor the social movements seemed able to transform this indignation into a tool for institutional change. Mass demonstrations in defense of public health or education did not reach their goals and left a bittersweet aftertaste. The unions, which had lost a great deal of their legitimacy, seemed to be more interested in currying favor with the government than in joining the wave of protest. The danger that loomed at the end of 2013 was that this impasse would end with a resolution of the crisis from the top down, preserving the status quo.

But the eruption of Podemos has completely altered the scene.

Podemos was launched on the morning of January 17, 2014, in a small theater in downtown Madrid, a new grassroots initiative with the aim of launching a new candidacy to the European Parliament. Its most recognizable leader was Pablo Iglesias, a thirty-six-year-old professor of political science well known in Madrid social movements, and who in the latest months had gained certain renown thanks to his appearances on widely watched TV programs. Iglesias did not present a party, or a coalition in the traditional sense, but what he defined as “a participatory method open to all citizens.”

The project did not seem particularly solid. Its manifesto’s main points covered traditional arguments of the Spanish radical left. However, that January morning an unusual atmosphere of expectation was palpable. The theater was packed with media and supporters, so that hundreds of people had to wait in the street. Iglesias announced that the future of the initiative depended on the collection of fifty thousand endorsements of support. They reached that amount in twenty-four hours. Podemos (“We Can”) was born.

Podemos’s communication strategy has been simple but effective. It has embraced the discourse of “de-ideologization” — the idea that the left-right axis has been overcome — and presented itself as an alternative to the main political parties, based not on ideology but on “common sense.”

Podemos offers a program that includes classic progressive proposals — defense of public services, intervention in the economy, social redistribution — as well as demands, pivotal in the last cycle of protests, related to a deepening of democracy: more transparency, primary elections for candidates, auditing of public officers.

The growth of Podemos is unparalleled in Spanish history. Immediately after its inception, “circles” (groups in support of the initiative) started to proliferate, and mass rallies took place. More than thirty thousand people participated in the election of its candidates through open primary elections, and in the elaboration of its electoral program. It was an explosive process that was met with a clamoring silence by the media.

On May 25, five months after its public presentation, Podemos unexpectedly won five seats and 8% of the vote in the European elections. Still, Iglesias said at a press conference after the election that he did not deem the results satisfactory: “We have advanced much, but we have not reached our goal. We were born to win, and we will go all out.” This was not mere boasting. In November 2014, according to the official polls, Podemos ranked first for direct voter intention.

The emergence of Podemos has shaken Spanish politics. Soon after the European elections, King Juan Carlos abdicated in favor of his heir, and the leader of the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) announced his resignation. It would be an exaggeration to claim that Podemos was the direct cause of these events, but undoubtedly this formation has accelerated the crisis of the Spanish political regime, and is generating major unrest in the financial sphere.

The crisis of 2008 expanded an Overton window that seemed about to close in 2013. Podemos has kicked it open again. For the first time in more than thirty years, the possibility of a constituent process is not merely science fiction. Podemos has not only transformed the Spanish political landscape; it has also brought to light opportunities, dilemmas, and dangers that affect the entire European left.

In the best possible scenario, it could herald — along with Syriza — the construction of a pole of resistance to the neoliberal European Union from the countries of the South of Europe.

An Economic and Political Crisis

The Spanish political labyrinth can only be understood in light of the deep economic crisis that the country has experienced since 2008. The burst of the subprime mortgage crisis had a violent impact on the Spanish economy, which had experienced a massive real-estate bubble during the previous decade. The breakdown of the construction industry increased unemployment, decreased internal demand, reduced public income, and precipitated the insolvency of banks. In just a year the GDP fell by 3.8% and unemployment doubled, reaching 20%.

The delusion that this was a temporary rough patch soon vanished. In the last four years, the average unemployment rate has been 24%: 5.5 million people, more than half of whom are long-term unemployed. Around 2 million people live in households in which all members are unemployed.

Public debt is close to 100% of GDP, and inequality has grown more than in any other European country. The overall poverty rate is around 20%, and eclipses 30% for children. Almost one hundred thousand evictions have taken place yearly, at some points over five hundred a day. As the real-estate boom ruined the natural landscape, so the crisis has devastated the social landscape.

Figure 1. Evolution of economic indicators. Source: Instituto Nacional de Estadística (INE).

The economic crisis soon affected the political sphere. The inability of the PSOE’s José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (2004–2011) and the current prime minister, Mariano Rajoy of the center-right People’s Party (PP), to sort out the economic imbalance broke the dynamics of bipartisan alternation that characterized Spanish politics.

Traditionally, punishment of one of the two main parties has taken the form of supporting the other one in the elections. However, from 2008 onwards, citizens have started to challenge not so much one electoral option or the other, but rather all political agents and institutions, the democratic flaws of which have been accentuated by the crisis and the continuing corruption scandals.

For the last four years, Spaniards have ranked “politicians, political parties, and politics” as the third most important problem in the country, following only unemployment and the economy. The crisis has spread a diffused anti-political feeling that cuts across ideologies.

Figure 2. Evolution of attitudes towards political agents and institutions. Source: Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (CIS).

This deep malaise reflects the crisis of the Regime of ’78 (the year in which the Spanish Constitution was approved). The regime was a set of political, economic, and cultural accords that came into being with the transition to democracy in Spain, and which for three decades allowed the economic and political elites to manage labor, territorial, and cultural conflicts with relative success.

Between 1975, when the dictator Francisco Franco died, and 1982, when the PSOE won its first electoral victory, a power structure was consolidated that defined what was considered politically feasible, limited the process of democratization of Spanish political institutions, and prevented a more egalitarian development.

The weight of the Francoist dictatorship in recent Spanish history — and in the establishment of the Regime of ’78 — is hard to overstate. The main goal of Franco’s coup against the Second Republic (1931–1936) was to stall the process of redistribution of power and wealth in favor of the popular classes that the Second Republic had set in motion. The fascist side won the Civil War (1936–1939) and established a culture of fear — aimed at extirpating “the virus of Bolshevism” — that almost completely destroyed the labor movement.

Franco himself summarized perfectly the dominant political culture: “Follow my lead, and do not get involved in politics.” The fascist victory was, thus, “the victory of landowners and capitalists,” who did not have to accept any kind of capital-labor pact such as the one that shaped postwar Europe.

In the following decades, a model of growth based on the economic and political subordination of labor (low wages and lack of freedom) prevailed. This model generated a reversal of the Keynesian program prevailing in the rest of Europe in those years: a resurgence of the “rentier.” For all its political authoritarianism and its bureaucratic interventionism, the Francoist state was rather rickety, socioeconomically speaking, and confined itself to zealously fulfilling the role of “night watchman of property.”

After Franco’s death in 1975, the transition process to democracy led Spain to a situation comparable to that of the rest of Western Europe. In those years, the mobilization of anti-Francoist opposition and the urgent need to reinvent the political game opened up a window of opportunity for social change. However, Francoist elites managed to run the process in such a manner that many continuities were maintained.

In the political sphere neither a cleansing of the state apparatus nor recognition of the victims occurred. In the economic sphere, the model characterized by a weak structure of production embedded in a milieu of clientelism was left unreformed, maintaining “an economy of bad companies and good business” in which “a friendship was worth more than a thousand cost accountings.”

The Left was the victim of its own inferiority in the configuration of forces, of the influence of NATO powers interested in neutralizing the processes of social change, and last but not least, of its own strategic ineptitude. The opportunity for a more democratic and egalitarian development (which neighboring Portugal managed to get closer to) was wasted. Workers, as well as labor organizations, became, according to a phrase that caught on, “the poor relatives of the democracy.”

The Regime of ’78 unfolded in two distinct stages. Up until 1995 the PSOE governed in a context of crisis, suffering the last throes of the labor troubles. From 1995 onwards the PP governed amid an economic boom and social peace.

The Social-Democratic Path to Neoliberalism

The governments of the PSOE (1982–1996) consolidated the transition model and eliminated any possible alternative. It was a long political hegemony that ended up shaping the country and can be considered a pioneering example of the social-democratic path to neoliberalism.

From almost the first day, the government of Felipe González locked its Keynesian program in a drawer and handed economic policies over to two ministers linked to the banking elites: Miguel Boyer and Carlos Solchaga. The result was the application of orthodox prescriptions to adjust and reduce inflation in a much more determined way than in the rest of southern Europe. With the unemployment rate above 20%, Spain became a neoliberal laboratory.

The price for Spain’s celebrated entry into the European Community in 1985 was the dismantling of the industrial tissue, which devastated entire regions and eroded the working class. But the most negative aspect of the PSOE’s economic policies was undoubtedly the deregulation of the labor market. A few years after the labor reform of 1984, promoted by the then–minister of labor and later European Union commissary, Joaquín Almunia, a third of workers held temporary contracts and unions had lost an important share of their influence.

At the same time, housing rentals were deregulated, dramatically heating up the real-estate market and paving the way for the future real-estate speculation bubble. These policies were certainly accompanied by some progressive achievements, such as the universalization of public health care and the extension of a public education system.

But even these advances were surprisingly timid: public spending grew more in the seven years of center-right governments (1975–1982, from 11.7% to 17.7% of GDP) than in the fourteen years of socialist governments (from 17.7% to 21.5%), thus consolidating what has been dubbed Spain’s “social underdevelopment.”

These policies had not only material effects, but symbolic ones. The statements that made Solchaga famous — “Spain is the country in the world in which it is easiest to become rich quickly” or “the best industrial policy is the one that does not exist” — summarize the spirit of celebration of wealth and distrust towards the state in what would later be known as the Third Way. (Giddens himself acknowledged that the PSOE was an avant la lettre example of it, and its leaders proudly claimed this kinship.)

PSOE governments decisively contributed to the tilting of debate to the right, thus reducing what was considered politically feasible. In Spain, workers’ participation in enterprises, political commitment to full employment, and progressive taxation were all left off the public agenda.

The PSOE was able to make this political swerve due to the lack of internal and external opposition. Internally, the party — which had been reconstituted in the ’70s with the support of, and under the tutelage of, the German Social-Democratic Party — took the shape of a heavily hierarchical electoral machine based on the charismatic leadership of Felipe González, but with a scanty and obedient social base that allowed its leaders to maneuver almost without checks.

To the left of the PSOE a process of desertification took place. On the one hand, the Communist Party, which had led the anti-Francoist fight, plummeted electorally and fell into a deep crisis, out of which it only emerged, temporarily, after its reconstitution as United Left (IU) in 1986.

On the other hand, a huge portion of the political activists of social movements and extra-parliamentary forces ended up being absorbed by the PSOE, which had the effect of demobilizing the Left. Spain’s entry into NATO after a 1986 referendum completed the defeat of the alternative left, a defeat that still looms today.

The most serious opposition came from the unions. Initially, they accepted a policy of wage moderation. However, they did not receive in return the employment or social policy measures typical of social democracies, and they finally broke with the government. They called for three general strikes (in 1988, 1992, and 1994) to stop the labor deregulation and settle the so-called “social debt” that the government had incurred with the popular classes after the adjustment policies.

By then it was likely already too late. The unions were demonized as being “old fashioned” and were accused of being an interest-group lobby. With a reduced base of cardholding members (around 15%), punished by deindustrialization and precariousness, they ended up losing their challenge to the government. Starting in 1995, the unions renewed their leadership and turned toward a stance favorable to social peace that has lasted until today.

The Spanish “Miracle”

The ascendance of the PP to government, eased by the corruption scandals that hounded the PSOE and its confrontation with the unions, inaugurated the second stage of the Regime of ’78. This stage was characterized by a continuity of the general policies in a very different context.

The PP encountered a very favorable international economic situation — especially with regards to cheap credit — that allowed it to maintain a productive model based almost exclusively on tourism and construction. The new government barely altered the main lines of the economic policy of the PSOE, as policy-makers from both parties have acknowledged. The result was a gigantic real-estate bubble that fueled the image of a Spanish economic miracle.

In Spain, more jobs were generated than in all the rest of Europe, and annual GDP growth was 4%. The president, José María Aznar, insistently repeated the slogan “Spain is doing well.” In truth, many Spaniards were not doing that well.

Between 1995 and 2007, real wages stalled downward, and their participation in national income fell by several points. The key to the wealth effect perceived by the population can be found in what has been termed “asset-price Keynesianism.” The overvaluation of real estate in a country in which 85% of the population owns their housing, and the possibility of going into debt, thanks to cheap credit, created the collective delusion of a popular capitalism in which scarcity had given way to abundance. However, among youngsters below the age of thirty, unemployment and temporary employment rates were still around 20% and 50%, respectively.

Even the unions went along with this financial potlatch. Instead of being a cumbersome burden from the past, they embraced modernity from their chairs as boards of directors of several institutions. The neoliberal cocktail of precarization, deindustrialization, and financialization completed the dissolution of class as a fundamental cleavage of political mobilization.

Spain had finally become a “country of proprietors, not proletarians,” as was the wish of the Francoist minister who in the ’50s pined for a housing policy that anticipated that of Margaret Thatcher by several decades. With an anemic civil society, family networks were the only defense left against individualism, social atomization, and poverty.

The rise to power of Zapatero in 2004, provoked mostly by the arrogant militarism of the PP in Iraq and its manipulative management of the Islamist attacks of 11-M (March 11, 2004), constituted the peak of this belle époque.

Spain was not only an economic giant, but also a civic role model: in an Italy weary of Berlusconi a film entitled Viva Zapatero! premiered, and the renowned academic Philip Pettit gave a praiseful philosophic audit of his policies. Zapatero had real achievements in matters of civil rights that must be recognized, but in economic, social, and labor policies any change was superficial.

In any case, the burst of the bubble in 2008 brought these illusions to an abrupt end. But it would be necessary to wait three years, until May 15, 2011, for a spark to light the prairie of social malaise and give it a specific political form.

From the Indignados to Podemos

The emergence of Podemos is inextricably linked to 15M (May 15), the movement of the indignados. There is no organic relation between both phenomena, but 15M opened political opportunities that Podemos has known how to interpret and make the most of. Many of Podemos’s leaders and activists were active in these mobilizations, and they claim the legacy of 15M as a fundamental part of the party’s political identity.

On Sunday May 15, 2011, one week before the municipal and regional elections, a series of rallies were called for in more than fifty Spanish towns under the motto, “We are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers.”

The initiative stemmed from Democracia Real Ya (Real Democracy Now), a small association only a few months old that was very critical of institutional politics yet distant from left-wing activism. It was supported by Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without Future), a brand new, very active university student association with an ideological line closer to traditional antagonism.

The rally in Madrid was the largest, and it brought together tens of thousands of people. At its end, the police charged on demonstrators in several locations, and in protest some forty people decided to camp overnight at Puerta del Sol, an important square in downtown Madrid.

The occupation had a spectacular snowball effect. A few hours later, thousands of people settled in Puerta del Sol, and the occupation was replicated in more than seventy towns and villages throughout Spain. Citizen assemblies were constituted, and numerous committees and work groups were created. The shared principles were a deep rejection of bipartidism, the demand for direct political participation, the condemnation of austerity measures, and the criticism of financial speculation.

The movement was organized in horizontal assemblies, and despite its intense presence in the media, did not produce any recognizable leading figures. Two features of its social composition stood out: the role of young, middle-class college students with frustrated expectations, and the absolute absence of non-European immigrants. The indignados awoke intense sympathy among the majority of citizens: 70% of citizenry viewed 15M positively, and 80% thought that the indignados were right in their demands.

Just like the eruption of Podemos, the rise of 15M was surprising. Despite the recent memory of the Arab Spring and the citizen movements in Iceland, nobody expected such an outburst of political passion in Spain. As a matter of fact, the previous year the main unions had called without much enthusiasm for a general strike. Moreover, 15M was fueled by the vestiges of other non-conventional mobilizations, including the 2003 rallies against the war in Iraq and the 2007 housing rights movement.

But a sector of the traditional left observed 15M with skepticism. Instead of the conventional axes of left and right, the movement emphasized democracy over class antagonism, direct participation and consensus over bipartidism, and an enhanced notion of citizenship.

However, 15M also prompted many disenchanted activists to re-engage politically. Their presence provided 15M with stability, and allowed for the mass discussion of global financial power, taxation, and labor — the very discourses elaborated by the alternative left throughout the past decades. The success of Podemos is surely related to the way in which 15M deeply changed the political common sense, shifting what the social majority considers to be necessary, desirable, or, at the very least, possible.

The popularity of 15M peaked with the rallies on June 19 that gathered nearly a million people in several Spanish cities. The movement lost steam over the rest of the summer. 15M succeeded in publicly challenging the accords that had dominated Spanish politics over the last thirty years, but failed to become a movement able to produce actual institutional changes. The widespread diagnosis was that 15M had managed to initiate the crisis of the Regime of ’78, yet had been unable to overcome the institutional blockage.

Assault on the Ballot Boxes

In those days, the Left and the networks stemming from 15M were strongly impressed by the rise of Syriza, an electoral power with aspirations to become a majority and a program that openly included the non-payment of the illegitimate debt.

The idea of a “Spanish Syriza,” that would combine the anti-troika vote, unifying the organized left and bringing in the grassroots movements, started to circulate as a desirable horizon for the next electoral cycle: the European elections of May 2014, the municipal and regional elections of May 2015, and the general elections of Fall 2015.

However, the institutional conditions were very disadvantageous. The Spanish electoral system has a strong majoritarian bias that over-represents big parties and obstructs the entry of new parties. From 1982 to 2011, the PSOE and the PP have obtained, on average, 86% of deputies with just 75% of the vote, whereas the IU — and similarly, from the Right, the Union, Progress, and Democracy party (UPyD) — have only obtained 3% of the deputies, with 7% of the vote.

But the greatest bias of the electoral system occurs prior to the vote count: half of the deputies are chosen in tiny circumscriptions (between one and eight deputies) in which small parties have no possibility of obtaining representation. Thus, the so-called “useful vote” is massively addressed to the two main parties.

In this sense, the European elections offered a key opportunity. This would be the first appointment with the ballot boxes, and proportionality would be guaranteed by the single circumscription that Spain employs in European elections.

From the Left, the best-positioned party to capitalize on the social malaise seemed to be the IU, but its situation was very ambiguous. On the one hand, it was a well-organized force that was alien to bipartidism, had remained close to social movements, had been only marginally affected by corruption, and whose electoral share had improved considerably (3.7% of the vote in 2008, 7% in 2011). On the other hand, IU had not managed to latch on completely with 15M, was partly perceived as being part of the old political system of 1978, and was experiencing strong internal turmoil.

Two trends coexisted within the IU. The more conservative trend preferred to ensure a moderate electoral growth, with a view to future coalitions of government with PSOE. The opposite trend, more akin to the spirit of 15M — represented by the young economist Alberto Garzón — sought a wide convergence with other forces and with society as a whole, with a view to initiating a constituent process to challenge the Regime of ’78. The conservative trend prevailed, and the candidate of IU to the European elections was an old apparatchik who was ending his second term in Brussels.

There were also alternatives from the Right, in particular, UPyD — a peculiar party that had been borne in response to peripheral nationalisms and remained in a calculated ideological ambiguity. But its attempts to capitalize on anti-political feelings stumbled upon the aged image of its leader, Rosa Díez, an ex-leader of the PSOE with thirty-five years as a professional politician under her belt.

There was, in addition, the Catalonian problem. As a result of the economic and political crisis, support of Catalonian independence has grown from 20% in 2010 to 49% today.

This situation has opened another fissure in the Regime of ’78, but it also carries with it the risk that the territorial conflict (Spain vs. Catalonia) will silence the social struggles and the class conflict in both places. The independentist movement has been ambivalent in this respect: it contains both progressive sectors — which, as in Scotland, link independence to the possibility of greater social justice — and conservative sectors with a discourse similar to that of the Italian Lega Nord: Espanya ens roba (Spain steals from us).

For the moment, the big popular protests in favor of “the right to decide” have produced the paradoxical result of strengthening the conservative party that holds the regional Catalonian government (Convergencia i Unió), whose neoliberal policies and corruption scandals are comparable to those of its “adversary” in Madrid, the PP.

These were the circumstances in which a young professor, a regular on TV talk shows, decided to take a step forward.

From TV to Left-Wing Populism

The project of Podemos started to come together in the fall of 2013 among members of Izquierda Anticapitalista and a group of political science professors at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid.

Izquierda Anticapitalista was a small Trotskyist party with six hundred activists who had splintered from the IU in 2008 to try to follow in the footsteps of France’s New Anticapitalist Party. It provided the organizational muscle that allowed Podemos to take its first steps, but the group of professors sidelined it immediately. Many of them — including Pablo Iglesias himself — were ex-members or collaborators of the IU, which they continued to keep one eye on.

During the last decade, these professors had acted as consultants to several Latin American governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. The lessons drawn from this experience have constituted their main source of political inspiration. As Iñigo Errejón wrote a few years ago, they want to translate the Latin American populist ruptures into the Spanish and European context.

Podemos started out with an enormous asset. During 2013, Iglesias had become a very popular TV figure. Since the beginning of the crisis, political talk shows had experienced a certain boom on Spanish television. Iglesias managed to carve out a place for himself on TV; audience rates rocketed when he appeared on screen. His secret was a critical discourse, not too original, but direct, empathic, and simple — perfect for intervening in heated discussions, and very far from academic argumentation.

Nothing is left to improvisation in this strategy. It is a long-term project on which the circle of Iglesias has been working for years against the grain of dominant communication theories. The prevailing idea among the Spanish left was that conventional media was either inaccessible or technologically obsolete, and therefore the most favorable battlefield was that of social networks. Iglesias disagreed.

In Spain, political consensus is built via traditional media: about 60% of the population favors television as their source of political information. So in 2010 Iglesias, along with a group of students, created a counter-hegemonic television project, of explicit Gramscian inspiration: La Tuerka (The Screw). In this program they spread the ideas of the Left in a language geared toward the common sense of the social majority. While La Tuerka was only broadcast by a small community TV station, it provided a school for Iglesias to learn some of the communicational strategies that turned him into a celebrity.

But this merger of Latin American populism and media-oriented leadership have limited and presented challenges for Podemos.

For starters, the centrality of Iglesias to the project has been controversial and difficult to manage. In the European elections, for example, Podemos chose to print Iglesias’s face in the voting ballot where normally the logo of the party would go. The rationale was simple: according to the studies undertaken by Podemos, only 5% of voters recognized the name of the formation, whereas more than 50% knew who Iglesias was. The decision ultimately proved to be successful, but many ridiculed it as a sign of narcissism.

What’s more, while the term “populism” unavoidably carries derogatory connotations, it is a central element of the party’s conceptual and theoretical grounding. Podemos employs the populist logic of dividing the political space into two opposing fields: the people versus an elite that has taken over the institutions. The general impeachment of the establishment opens up the possibility of articulating a wide and inclusive popular front, overcoming any preexistent allegiances. But this can be done from very different perspectives, depending on the content that fills in this discursive form.

Podemos’s populism is definitely of the left-wing variety. Its proposals, from restructuring external debt to tax reform to progressive state intervention in the economy, are part of the heritage of the leftist populist tradition. Nevertheless, its strategy has been precisely to appear not left wing. Its objective has been not to occupy the left flank of the political scene, but to clean the space and play according to new rules: not referring to Left and Right, but to above and below.

In the Spanish political context, the public image of “the Left” was often associated with the establishment of the old regime (PSOE, the unions, and even a part of IU), and in any case it lacked mobilizing ability. Closely following the theses of Ernesto Laclau, the promoters of Podemos have tried to articulate the widest possible political subject out of amorphous social malaise; to that effect, they have resorted to empty signifiers, with few connotations, avoiding preexisting, divisive allegiances and cutting across them to permit the mobilization of a social majority.

The People and the Caste

Despite the enormous discontent and the lack of political legitimacy brought on by the crisis, it was not easy to create a new “us” in the Spanish context. The creation of an inclusive national popular identity could not resort to the memory of anti-fascist republicanism, which evoked defeat and division.

The patria (“homeland”) was not a fitting candidate either, since it retained the reactionary flavor of the dictatorship, not to mention the consensual spirit of the transition to democracy, which was precisely what was being contested. In addition, there is the delicate pluri-national Spanish reality, with disputed identities and territorial conflicts in places like Catalonia and the Basque Country.

In these circumstances, the signifiers chosen by Podemos were “the people” and “the caste.” The caste is a collective made up of politicians, big corporations, the media, speculators, and other privileged groups. It is a diffuse category — a floating signifier — at the disposal of anyone, from those who have a certain class-consciousness to those who embrace anti-politics in order to express their outrage toward the establishment. The caste has been incredibly successful for Podemos, becoming part of everyday language. It names the enemy against which Podemos’s supporters define themselves.

At the same time, Podemos has made a systematic effort to dodge any left-wing references that might spontaneously slip into its discourse, and to avoid taking a clear stance on issues with strong ideological charge, such as the question of monarchy-republic, the regulation of abortion, or the Catalonian question. Podemos’s aim was to circumvent elements that could divide the social bloc that it wanted to create out of the general discontent.

Yet as much as the aim of Podemos is to take the “central spot” of the political scene, breaking away from the limits of the left-right dividing line, its constituency remains basically leftist. That is, Podemos has not received the heterogeneous electoral support obtained by a party such as 5 Stelle in Italy. Its electoral growth pattern reproduces the profile of the PSOE in the last three decades: on the spectrum of ideological self-identification (from one to ten, one being very leftist and 9 very right-wing), 25% locate themselves around 1-2, 48% in 3-4, and 18% in 5-6.

However, despite the fact that its supporters are not as “transversal” as its discourse suggests, Podemos has managed to position itself at the center of the Left, and to scrape off votes from non-ideological sectors.

This squaring of the circle has been possible thanks to a carefully measured discourse that, on the one hand, rejects positioning itself on the Left, yet on the other hand, avoids falling into the “we are neither right nor left” trap (a slogan that, in Spain, still evokes the fascism of the 1930s) or into anti-politics. An optimal way of expressing this is the phrase, often repeated by Iglesias: “Power is not afraid of the Left, but rather of the people.”

Up until now, the outcome has been extraordinarily effective. Podemos has experienced a spectacular growth in the electoral polls that puts it in the lead for direct voter intention, above the PP and the PSOE, although the most conservative vote estimates still relegate it to third place (the Center for Sociological Research foresees 22.5% for Podemos, compared to 27.5% for PP and 23.9% for PSOE). Its electoral support completely cuts across social classes, which is not surprising since the class vote in Spain is less salient than in other places, and has declined in relevance over the last decades.

Movement Party or Electoral War Machine?

From early on, Podemos combined a horizontal, assembly-based discourse that appeals to people with a clear aspiration to promote political change from the top down, to create an “electoral war machinery” able to take on the ballot boxes. This contradiction illustrates another ambiguous aspect of Podemos’s strategy.

One of the reasons why Podemos managed to connect with the social malaise mobilized by 15M was its insistence on grassroots participation as a central element of the reconstruction of a political space that had been hijacked by the markets and the establishment.

It is true that Podemos has generated a great social effervescence: more than nine hundred circles have been created, an intense public scrutiny of the different programs and projects of the organization has taken place, and tens of thousands have participated in votes through the internet. But at the same time, its success in the European elections cannot be understood without noting that, under the rhetoric of the “open method” and “participation,” there was a small cohesive group with very clear ideas. Without this Leninist centralism, such results would have been impossible.

The electoral schedule of 2015 — municipal, regional, and general elections will all take place — has accelerated this central contradiction. Podemos has had to build at a high speed an organization and a program able to seize the immense, but fleeting, electoral opportunity that is opening up.

This has damaged the project of creating a popular counterpower, the construction “from below” of a socio-political tissue able to empower the people. Errejón himself explained in an interview that it is delusional to delegate a major role to social movements and that the priority now is the “political-electoral battle” and “to put up a fight in the state.”

Between September 15 and November 15, Podemos convened a massive Citizens Assembly in which its ethical, political, and organizational principles were established and its leaders were chosen. Certainly the circumstances for the creation of a party from scratch were far from ideal. Podemos had no experienced cadres, its territorial articulation was scanty, and its activists lacked a common culture, not to mention the continued harassment it suffered from most media outlets.

The organizational debate, in which thousands of people participated, in person or online, was intense and transparent. But the party model finally approved was very conventional — a secretary general, an executive, and a central committee; additionally, it employed a majority system with open rolls in which the winner takes all.

In the Citizens Assembly, the proposals held by Iglesias’ sector were overwhelmingly imposed over more experimental and horizontal alternatives, which included allocating some of the positions of responsibility by draw and giving more of a leading role to grassroots activist circles. The legitimacy of Iglesias’ victory was not contested, but an interesting debate opened up about which model was more democratic.

Voters who made the decisions in the assembly were not only the activists who participated in the circles, but any supporter who had a few minutes to spare to register online. Tens of thousands did. In the election of the organizational model, 102,070 voters participated, out of which 80.71% favored the party line (the next most popular option obtained 12.37% of the vote). On November 15, Iglesias was chosen secretary general of Podemos, with 88.6% of the 107,000 votes cast, from a total of around 250,000 people registered to vote.

The lack of symmetry between the intense activism of the members of the circles — relatively few in number — and the great mass of sympathizers — not very committed on a day-to-day basis — posed an uncomfortable dilemma.

One of the signatories of the foundational manifesto of Podemos suggested that privileging the interventions of grassroots party activists over the wishes of the party’s mass support could result in a “democratic elitism” aiming to “turn every citizen in[to] a permanent activist and privilege minoritarian activism as a source of sovereign decisions.” In this manner, a social majority devoid of the resources at the disposal of activists (time, symbolic capital, interest, etc.) would be marginalized from decision-making.

However, it is not at all clear that the power that is being removed from the most active members is in fact being handed over to a wider layer of sympathizers rather than to the party’s leadership. The experience of party politics over the last two decades suggests that the latter is more likely: the emptying of the party structure, facilitated by the use of open votes, can often feign democracy while concentrating power in the formal party leadership.

Podemos’ intensive use of new technologies (such as the applications Appgree or Reddit) is a promising innovation, but it does not preclude such a plebiscitary outcome. On the contrary, there is a risk of it being clouded under cyber-fetishism, and reproducing politically the digital gap: voting from your cellphone or making a comment online does not mean that you have any real decision-making power.

Future Prospects

Not even their harshest critics would deny that Iglesias and Podemos have understood extremely well the crisis of legitimacy of the institutions, as well as the new forms of political intervention that came to light during 15M.

In only a year, they have crafted an effective political tool, capable of coexisting with apathy towards political parties, the overcoming of the left/right dividing line, and the merging of old activists and newcomers to politics. Podemos has taken advantage of an Overton window that has broken the discourse of the right, but that has also transcended the traditional dynamics of the Left.

At the same time, Podemos has inherited a good share of the weaknesses of 15M and, more generally, of Spanish democracy. Spain is a country with an anemic civil society, and with a public sphere on which class conflicts have had very little bearing. Accordingly, the social base of Podemos is joined together very flimsily, unsupported by organizational or identity allegiances. From these circumstances stem the party’s lack of ideological definition, and the tension between organizational efficiency and the dynamics of assembly participation.

The political schedule has not allowed Podemos much time to overcome these tensions. The municipal and regional elections this spring and, above all, the general elections scheduled for the fall constitute a pressing electoral horizon.

Despite its spectacular growth, it is unlikely that Podemos will reach the government. The PP is much eroded by the economic crisis and corruption, but it still concentrates the vote of the Right (which explains the lack of emergence in Spain of anything comparable to France’s National Front or Britain’s UK Independence Party).

The PP’s fortunes will depend on the extent to which its constituency abstains. A likely scenario is that, as was the case with Syriza, Podemos will have to spend some time in the opposition, maybe overtaking PSOE as the main alternative to PP, and maybe even pushing these last two into a grand coalition.

Podemos is an explosive organization that has changed constantly since its inception. It is a kind of party-in-progress with its main features evolving at great speed. However, it seems clear that Podemos will have to face some hardships that, thanks to its very fast ascent, have had a relatively minor impact as yet.

First, it is difficult to imagine that the organization could survive in the middle term without a body of activists organized territorially, identified with the project, able to defend the party from the increasing attacks by the media, and with the capacity to keep up a high level of mobilization. The strategy of change from the top down that Podemos has followed up until now, as well as the exclusion of critical voices from within, may not be enough or may even be counterproductive in this regard.

Second, Podemos will surely have to reassess its strategy of alliances with other forces on the Left: the IU and other grassroots initiatives linked to social movements. These organizations are less powerful than Podemos, but assemble a good number of experienced activists. Podemos also will have to face the territorial conflict and take a stance regarding the independentist Catalonian movement.

Finally, it is not clear to what extent the populist discourse and the negative self-definition (against the “caste”) is compatible with constructive institutional participation.

But maybe the greatest challenge facing Podemos is the weakness of the labor movement, as well as the centrality of middle-class discourses in Spanish politics. The idea that the middle classes are the most affected by the crisis has spread, despite the empirical reality debunking this belief. As an example, between 2008 and 2012 the wages of the bottom three deciles decreased by an average of 10%, whereas the wages of the next three deciles only dropped by 3%.

The social movements themselves have been swept away by such “middle class” dynamics. Neither 15M nor the great protests in its wake have managed to penetrate into the world of labor; in addition, despite the visibility of some strikes, the number of hours not worked hasn’t increased in these years. They have also failed to appeal to the migrant workers (more than 10% of the Spanish population), probably the group most afflicted by the economic crisis and the cuts in social spending.

By contrast, the critical discourses that have most resonated have been those denouncing the situation of young middle-class college graduates who found their expectations frustrated and had to emigrate to other European countries. For the moment, Podemos has adjusted to this situation. Its speakers never refer to social class and, on the contrary, they often flirt with self-employed and small entrepreneurs. It is surely a clever electoral strategy, but it is hard to imagine that a project of social transformation could permanently dodge class conflicts.

The prospect of an electoral victory for Podemos in the future also raised questions regarding the kind of change that one could expect. Up until now, Podemos has been fueled by the frustration brought about by the economic crisis and the lack of legitimacy of the inherited political framework.

In recent months, countless corruption scandals affecting the highest realms, such as the Royal House and the leadership of the governing party, have come to light, and two conservative regional presidents — whose office is higher than that of a minister — were jailed in 2014. In this context of decay, a discourse that appeals to “decency” against the misappropriation of the public space by a spurious coalition of political and financial interests is a winning horse. But this is undoubtedly a very modest — indeed minimalist — agenda.

The idea of a “constituent process” is promising but rather vague. Generally speaking, a reasonable horizon in the short term is a post-neoliberal scenario with public policies focused on the redistribution of wealth and the regeneration of institutions. Undoubtedly, such a program will not fulfill the expectations of the revolutionary left, but it does open up a real possibility of putting an end to the plundering to which the country has been subject under the Regime of ’78.

All these contradictions and challenges should not obscure that Podemos has opened up a window of unexpected political opportunity with unpredictable effects. Podemos has not only increased its electoral support month by month; it has also set the agenda of the rest of the political agents. All political players in Spain must now take a stance on Podemos and speak its language.

Moreover, Podemos and Syriza could be the seed of a change in hegemony at the continental level, sparking an electoral paradigm shift in Europe analogous to Latin America’s “pink tide.” Using the non-payment of debt as leverage, the austerity-abused nations of southern Europe could accelerate a democratizing chain reaction that snatches control of the European Union from the economic and political elites. For the first time in decades, a left brought up in defeat sees itself within reach of leading a social majority capable of creating a deep, significant change.