Podemos Must Become an Anti-Establishment Force Again

Manolo Monereo

Pablo Iglesias has entered into talks with Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Party. But if Podemos is to survive, it can’t just be a junior partner to the establishment center-left: it needs to revive its promise to transform Spanish democracy.

Pablo Iglesias acknowledges his supporters after learning the final general elections results on April 28, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. Juan Naharro Gimenez / Getty

Interview by
Eoghan Gilmartin
Tommy Greene

A month on from Spain’s general election, the slate of local, regional, and European polls on May 26 has changed the complexion of the government formation process. The effect on the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) and left-wing Unidas Podemos was especially spectacular: while the former swept to victory at all levels of the Spanish state, the latter saw its vote share depleted considerably. In April’s general election, Unidas Podemos had exceeded expectations, even though it lost over a third of its MPs. But this time around, Pablo Iglesias’s party suffered heavy losses across the board.

Arguably a yet bigger blow for the Spanish left came with the loss of several major municipal administrations — the so-called fearless cities. Splinter and affiliate groups of Podemos, along with other forces, missed out on reelection in such cities as Madrid, Santiago de Compostela, and Zaragoza. One of the few crumbs of consolation was the result obtained by the Anticapitalista mayor “Kichi” in Cádiz, who secured another term in office. As for Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau, she faces complicated talks with independentist and unionist center-left groups, having been beaten by just 5,000 votes following an impressive term in office and a strong campaign.

This also matters for national politics. Indeed, Podemos’s poor results in the regional and European contests are generally seen to have weakened its negotiating position in coalition talks with the ruling PSOE. As a clear picture of the numbers began to emerge on May 26, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s party declared it was time for the liberal-rightist Ciudadanos to “raise the cordon sanitaire” it had set down against the PSOE during the general election, while establishment pressure for such a centrist pact has continued to mount. Disgraced Popular Party (PP) stalwart and former regional president of Madrid, Esperanza Aguirre, even called on her party to abstain in a confidence vote, in order to free Sánchez of needing to make a deal with Podemos or Catalan or Basque nationalists. The PSOE itself took such an abstentionist line in 2016, allowing the PP’s Mariano Rajoy to lead a minority government.

To discuss the challenges Podemos now faces, Eoghan Gilmartin and Tommy Greene sat down with Manolo Monereo, the former MP and intellectual who Pablo Iglesias credits with having taught him “how to think politically.” Monereo has voiced concerns about Podemos’s engagement with the PSOE ever since it facilitated the latter’s provisional government through a motion of no confidence last summer. Having then decided not to stand again in April’s election, he is now arguing that the anti-austerity party should let Sánchez govern alone so as to be able to both exploit his weaknesses from opposition while also prioritizing the task of rebuilding the organization from the bottom up.

Eoghan Gilmartin

In 2015 there was a surge of radical local coalitions that took control of city halls across the country, at the same time as Podemos threatened the PSOE’s hegemony at a national level. Coming after Podemos had already suffered losses in the general election, the fall of most of Spain’s radical city councils in May seemed to confirm the end of the post-Indignados moment in Spanish politics. How would you explain the retreat of this movement?

Manolo Monereo

To explain this we have to trace the development of two different movements. The first involves a longer cycle tying the democratic reaction in Spanish society to the breakdown of the social contract after the 2008 crisis. The Indignados movement had similar demands to Occupy Wall Street but it managed to mobilize millions of people — a true mass movement propelled by an alliance between the precaritized youth and the older generation politicized during Spain’s 1970s transition to democracy. The generation in between was less active.

Thanks largely to the intelligence and audacity of Pablo Iglesias, as well as others such as Ada Colau, this indignation managed to gain organized political expression. Yet Podemos’s breakthrough during 2014 led, in turn, to the opening of a second shorter cycle as elites sought to neutralize the threat to the existing regime.

This countermovement had three initial elements. First was a sustained smear campaign against Podemos that involved illegal political espionage and collusion between high-level politicians, corrupt police, and the corporate media. Second, you had the emergence of the new center-right party Ciudadanos. Previously a small regional party from Catalonia, it was heavily backed by the major economic powers as a means to counter Podemos’s rise from the center. Third was the resignation of the king [Juan Carlos de Bourbon] the month after Podemos’s breakthrough [after nearly forty years as monarch] and an attempted renewal of the institution around his son Felipe.

Other elements clearly came into play after this initial containment campaign. These included a partial recovery of economic growth and — probably most decisively — the Catalan independence crisis in 2017. These various elements together produced a new scenario with different coordinates to those of 2014–16 – a scenario to which Podemos has been unable to adapt. The party thus began to make mistakes, the most important of which was its inability to manage internal differences within the leadership. The party’s core leadership was not able to unite around a political proposal, not primarily because of fundamental strategic differences but because of an internal power struggle.

The momentum of this democratic impulse was then finally contained with the fall of the Popular Party government last year as the system stabilized around the figure of Pedro Sánchez. When the PSOE subsequently took office [with the support of Pablo Iglesias’s party in the decisive confidence vote] Podemos finally lost control of the process in a definitive manner. From this point we can talk about the end of the cycle opened up by the Indignados revolt.

Eoghan Gilmartin

But was there any alternative to supporting the motion of no confidence in Mariano Rajoy’s government that, in turn, brought Sánchez to power? How could Podemos have approached its relationship with him and the Socialists differently?

Manolo Monereo

No, you are right they had no real alternative but to support Sánchez last year. But this then required a fundamental rethinking of our tactics. And we have failed to do this. In entering into a relationship of conflictual cooperation with the PSOE government, it was essential that we strengthened the autonomy of Podemos’s own political project and identity. We could not continue as before with a weak party organization and ignoring the need to build extra-institutional structures.

In contrast Pedro Sánchez’s tactic for the PSOE, upon taking office, was clear. It was what the Socialist Party has always done — neutralize those to its left so as to then be able to turn to the center and seek a majority. From the beginning, he wanted to reduce Podemos’s electoral support as far as possible. Only this would then leave the PSOE free to pursue its own agenda.

But what I could never have imagined is that confronted with these contradictions, Podemos’s leadership would take up the promise of governing with the PSOE as their own electoral slogan. This is why I did not stand again — I was unwilling to govern with the Socialists. This is not because I am sectarian. I would love if we had a social-democratic ally like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, but the PSOE is wedded to the existing system and incapable of breaking with Spain’s neoliberal regime.

Also, as we have seen from the electoral results, moving closer to the PSOE with the aim of governing is ultimately counterproductive. Your project loses its independence while the tactical vote ends up going to the larger party in the potential coalition. This is part of what I call the “IU problematic” i.e., the trap which Izquierda Unida has always been confronted with: that every time it moved closer to the Socialists in the hope of governing, it ended up losing more votes and so lacking the sufficient weight to actually influence or enter government.

This is Podemos’s dilemma today, as the expectation that it could rival the PSOE for political hegemony has receded. Given the current balance of forces, it seems difficult to imagine that we can reach a substantive agreement for a program of government. If the Socialists were unwilling to accept a coalition when we and they were equally balanced, why would they accept it now that they have regained the advantage? Why would Sánchez accept a coalition with a weakened Podemos?

Eoghan Gilmartin

You mentioned earlier that Podemos has struggled to come to terms with the question of organization. This was evident in its poor results in the regional elections in May, which were considerably down on the numbers secured in the general elections only a month earlier. The national poll showed that a campaign fought around the figure of Iglesias can still mobilize a substantial proportion of the electorate, whereas the regional elections exposed the party’s lack of territorial reach. To what degree do you see this as down to the actions of the Podemos leadership? And is it also fair to say that this failure is a more generalized one experienced by all new formations that have emerged post-2008? I am thinking of France Insoumise or even Barcelona en Comú, which while having a healthier internal culture is not a mass organization.

Manolo Monereo

The Irish political scientist Peter Mair has explained that in contrast to the age of mass party democracy, in contemporary Europe there is currently a void between society and political parties. There are not the same type of intermediary bodies that can organize and mediate between everyday life and formal political institutions. This context clearly lends itself to the type of party structure we have seen with Podemos and France Inoumise, in which so much hinges on the relationship between a charismatic leader and voters.

But for me Podemos’s leadership has taken this vice and turned it into a virtue: as it is presumed that people will not commit themselves to party activism, they have just concentrated on organizing a small cadre that could intervene in the institutions. They have never really been interested in the difficult work of rebuilding a mass party from the bottom up. The result has been that in only a couple of years Podemos has become what Mair calls a “cartel party” — a centralized, professionalized body that depends on the state’s resources to fund itself and which lacks internal democracy in any substantial sense.

Pablo Iglesias gains his legitimacy from his direct, unmediated relationship with the party’s base. It votes periodically on proposals he puts forward, but this nearly always takes place without challenge or serious debate within the organs of the party. The base does not have the means to conduct internal deliberation within party structures. In the vote for candidates in the general election, for example, Iglesias put forward his list without being challenged and so members were only voting yes or no to his list.

But at the moment of truth, they have come to realize the greater territorial reach of the traditional parties. The PSOE continues to have an organized activist base which, though aging, also stretches across Spain to every last village and town. And having now returned to power, that party is also attracting new members again. This is what counts in the local and regional elections.

Without the alliance with the [Communist-backed] Izquierda Unida, Podemos would have been in even more trouble. The reason why we performed much better in Andalusia in the general elections is that we could harness the Communist Party’s activists and organization in the region. I was an MP for Córdoba and in the whole province Podemos has only about 120 activists but the Communists had enough people on the ground to secure the local council in fifteen municipalities. This is not only the responsibility of Pablo but also of the regional leadership in Andalusia.

Tommy Greene

The fall of the majority of Spain’s radical city councils — known as the fearless cities — was another blow for the Left. In the largest cities, where there was more to play for, the municipal administrations came under a great deal of pressure and struggled to advance. Madrid is the clearest example of the elites trying to sabotage the council’s agenda but is it also fair to say that ultimately mayor Manuela Carmena chose not to confront the city’s major economic powers?

Manolo Monereo

Yes, you can say that of Carmena, but also of Ada Colau in Barcelona — as well as of the administrations in Santiago de Compostela, La Coruña, Cádiz, etc. The core problem is that, as a consequence of the financial crash, the capacity to govern and manage effectively at the municipal level in Spain has been greatly reduced. Only in the last year or year and a half have these administrations had money to spend. The city hall in Madrid had a massive budget surplus throughout its term but the state’s budgetary laws prohibited it from spending it. That money had to go towards paying off its enormous debts (which had been incurred by previous Partido Popular governments).

This criticism you mention — one that is made by many sectors of Podemos and certain sectors of Izquierda Unida — is certainly true, in my opinion. However, it’s very difficult to govern a city when the internal conflicts of political parties are brought to bear on the municipal administration. I think in the Madrid city hall there has been too much partisanship and not enough coherence in its management. This has generated divisions, leading to a position whereby you find yourself presented with a binary choice: either you side completely with Carmena, or you are against her.

Carmena’s coalition was very diverse, involving multiple parties and social movement groups. The various actors involved did not try to find compromises, never mind develop mechanisms to resolve these divisions. The only thing they have sought is essentially a redistribution of power within the organization. This was so foolish, so short-sighted. For example, Pablo Iglesias didn’t fight with Carmena over her U-turn on [granting planning for a massive new financial district in the north of Madrid known as] Operation Chamartin — he fought with her over control of the electoral lists! If there’s a political problem, you raise it as such and argue it out. But what you can’t do is let everyone else fight between each other and then come along five minutes before the elections and say, “By the way, I want these five candidates first (in the list).”

There’s such a thing as the science of conflict management and Pablo has not handled the conflict within Podemos well, since he always tries to make concessions to his own supporters.

Tommy Greene

Podemos’s former deputy leader Iñigo Errejón chose to set up a new electoral platform, Más Madrid, with Carmena in February. He ran for the regional presidency in the capital and she for the city hall. Having secured a strong result, what is his next move?

Manolo Monereo

I think he has left Podemos for good. The split is final, and he and his people are going to create a new party at the national level. There are no elections on the horizon, so they will take their time and calmly construct this new organization more along the lines of a federation with the aim of attracting some of the other regional groups that have broken away from Podemos.

Tommy Greene

And what should Podemos’s next steps be?

Manolo Monereo

There is a lot to be done! In historic terms for the radical left in Spain, we still have more MPs than traditionally we’ve ever had — forty-two. But there are a lot of issues between Izquierda Unida (IU) and us, and a lot of people have left. What we need to do is accumulate forces. This means letting the PSOE govern alone and going into opposition and rebuilding the project from below.

In this respect I have proposed two things: one is to create an “estates general” for the Spanish left — not simply a Podemos or IU party congress — so as to return to a mass politics that puts the people at the center again and that refocuses debate around the need for an alternative national project. Then second, we have to deepen the project by creating joint assemblies and committees that are open to the public. Over the last few years, the IU has lost members and activists. Now, it is weaker than it was when it just stood alone without Podemos and the remaining activists are becoming increasingly restless about the relationship.

But look, we should not be too pessimistic. The PSOE is still weaker than it’s ever been — its strength right now is almost entirely virtual. The party is being heralded as the new leading force in European social democracy and clearly compared to 2015–16 it has regained strength. But you have to remember, it has just obtained the third-worst result in its history! The ongoing restoration project of the Spanish establishment owes more to our weaknesses and shortcomings than it does to their strengths. And because of this it’s possible for us to move forward.

Eoghan Gilmartin

This moment of “stability” is not going to last — just look at Europe …

Manolo Monereo

Yes, a minor economic crisis, or an act of international aggression in the Middle East could open things up again. In Spain, the establishment might be stabilizing itself once more, but the world is heading towards an almost permanent state of chaos. That’s the key thing for me. Pablo taught geopolitics but he doesn’t seem to understand it, what’s happening in the world. The world is heading towards chaos, towards a great new transition that has already begun. We’re about to enter a period similar to the one Europe witnessed between 1875 and 1914 — which saw the failure of the first wave of globalization. Now we’re about to enter the period of failure for the second wave of globalization. This is something Podemos still doesn’t understand.

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Manolo Monereo is a former MP for Podemos. A key voice in the Spanish left for over thirty years, he is an author, activist, and labor lawyer. He was imprisoned numerous times by the Franco regime for his role in the Communist Youth.

Eoghan Gilmartin is a writer, translator and Jacobin contributor based in Madrid.

Tommy Greene is a freelance journalist and translator based in Madrid.

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