Spain: Podemos on road to sweeping away two-party system

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By Julian Coppens, Extremadura, western Spain

November 7, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- About 8000 members of the new organisation Podemos packed the Palacio Vistalegre in Madrid on October 18 and 19, 2014, for the final stages of the Citizens' Assembly “Si se puede” (Yes we can). The assembly, with 150,000 taking part online, discussed draft documents for the foundation of the Spanish state’s newest and fastest growing political force.

In the two weeks since the assembly membership has grown from 150,000 to 215,000. The latest opinion polls shows Podemos rising from third in direct voting intention to first, displacing both the governing right-wing People’s Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) ― Spain's main social-democratic party with more than 100 years of history.

In one of the greatest examples of spontaneous organisation anywhere in recent decades, more than 900 Podemos circles (local branches) have been formed throughout Spain.

Social resistance

Behind this phenomenon lies resistance to draconian cuts to the public sector, devastating unemployment and a seemingly unending series of corruption scandals. These are the results of the economic and political crisis that has gripped Spain since 2008.

This resistance achieved international attention when people occupied public squares in hundreds of Spanish cities in the lead-up to the 2011 general elections ― the so-called indignado or 15M movement.

It also includes other social movements, such as the campaign for a minimum income for the nearly 2 million jobless who are ineligible for any kind of benefit. Other movements include the Camps and Marches for Dignity, the campaign to stop evictions carried out by the banks and the white and green “tides” defending public health and education against severe cutbacks.

Since 2008, more than 500,000 people have been forced out of their homes amid an official national jobless rate of around 25% (over 50% for the under 25s). Big banks, meanwhile, have been bailed out with billions of euros of public money with no strings attached.

In this context of ongoing social and economic crisis, corruption scandals keep erupting. These include the theft of public funds by members of the royal family through dummy foundations; inflated public contracts for friends and family of the PP, as well as the payment of monthly bonuses in undeclared cash to the upper echelons of the PP for more than 20 years -- paid for by illegal cash party contributions from large corporations, many of which received lucrative government contracts; and the theft of hundreds of millions of euros worth of funds destined for redundant workers by members of the PSOE and major trade unions.

Two corruption scandals have blown up in what has now become known as “Black October” – the month when 141 politicians were charged with corruption.

The first is the use of “black” credit cards by members of the board of Caja Madrid, a publicly operated Madrid building society, which was bailed out with billions of euros in public money. These credit cards allowed representatives of political parties and unions nominated to various positions in the bank to spend unlimited amounts of money ― unaccounted for and undeclared to the tax office. All up, 83 politically appointed directors spent more than €15 million on “black” credit cards.

Jose Antonio Moral Santin, former leading member of the United Left (IU) in Madrid, spent €465,000 on his card on top of his €500,000 annual salary. An IU regional MP for eight years, Moral Santin became a director as a result of a political deal between the United Left and the PP.

Since Podemos’s October 18 assembly, the uncovering of another network of corruption in Operation “Púnica” has led to 140 politicians at various levels of government being charged with corruption related to bribes and tender fixing for €250 million worth of government contracts. Those charged are directly connected to and were appointed by the governing PP leadership and encompass all levels of government. However, politicians from the PSOE are also implicated, indicating bipartisan contamination.

These are only the most well-known cases; every town and every village has its own corruption story, and most people believe the cases they know of, or suspect, are only the tip of the iceberg.

It should be noted that the recent polls that place Podemos leading all other political parties were undertaken before this most recent corruption scandal, but after the “black credit cards” case.

Assembly organisation

Podemos was initially formed by academics from the Complutense University in Madrid in discussions with the Anticapitalist Left, the far-left organisation in the Spanish state aligned with the Fourth International. It grew rapidly through a campaign via social networks to run in the European elections.

The key Podemos spokesperson is Pablo Iglesias, an academic from the Complutense. He is a media figure, who started by presenting political chat shows on obscure online or cable TV channels and then moving to frequent appearances on national networks.

Since the European elections, in which it won 1.2 million votes and had five Members of the European Parliament elected (including Iglesias), and especially since its founding assembly and the latest cases of corruption, Podemos has featured daily in mainstream news, current affairs and printed media. Podemos spokespeople are called to appear or comment by all local and national radio and TV networks.

Apart from the effective use of the mass media, Podemos employs web-based technology to maximise democratic participation. Facebook has been a key tool for building support and communicating with members. The national Podemos Facebook page has 880,000 likes and all circles and many key leaders have their own Facebook pages. Pablo Iglesias alone has 117,000 likes. This was especially evident in the organisation of the Citizen’s Assembly.

The chief aim of the Citizens’ Assembly was to establish internal organisational structures for Podemos. The organisation’s founding process assembly began on September 15 with pre-draft discussions and proposals conducted through an online platform. This was followed by a presentation of draft documents on ethical principles, political organisation and political strategy on September 28.

Nearly 100 teams presented more than 300 documents and 100 resolutions to the assembly. This was followed by a negotiations process until final drafts, totaling more than 2500 pages, were presented over October 18 and 19.

The resolutions were voted on online. The five which won most votes were then passed and spoken to at the Madrid assembly by the teams that presented them. Each team had equal time to argue the case for their proposals. The assembly was streamed live and all teams faced questions.

Voting on the documents was online and closed on October 26. Anyone who registered online could vote. Around 130,000 registered before the assembly and 20,000 more during it.

Recently Podemos launched a smartphone application that combines all the applications and platforms used to participate in discussions and vote on proposals, resolutions and candidates. Crowdfunding was used to pay for the cost of the Citizen’s Assembly as well as by local circles to raise money for particular projects.

The principal areas of agreement at the assembly were over the ethical accountability of all publicly elected and internal positions, as well as on salary limits and limits on the length of time anyone could hold a position.

As a result, salaries for all Podemos officials will be limited to the average salary of a skilled worker. Podemos officials may only be employed in politics for up to eight years, after which they are expected to return to their previous employment with no special privileges such as pensions. They also may not occupy a position on a board of directors or work as consultants for 10 years after stepping down.

During their time in any political position, officials agree not to receive special privileges such as official cars or claim expenses apart from the minimum required to fulfill their responsibilities.

Structure and strategy debates

The principal areas of difference in pre-assembly discussion and at the assembly itself concerned organisation.

The Claro Que Podemos (CQP) team, led by Iglesias and his closest collaborators, proposed a quite centralised model of one general secretary and a Citizens’ Council of 81 elected directly by members. The general secretary would also choose an advisory council of 15 to be ratified by the Citizens’ Council. In addition the CQP proposal didn’t allow members in positions of responsibility to belong to any other national political party than Podemos. This was seen by many as being directed against the Anticapitalist Left.

Sumando Podemos (SP), the opposing team with the highest level of support, was led by MEPs Pablo Echenique, Teresa Rodriguez (Anticapitalist Left) and Lola Sanchez, along with Victor Garcia and Diego Pacheco. They proposed a team of three general secretaries, a larger Citizen’s Council of 99, including 20 members chosen randomly, and an advisory council elected by the Citizen’s Council rather than chosen by the general secretary. They also called for a lower threshold for recall procedures and the calling of extraordinary Citizens’ Assemblies.

However, both CQP and SP proposals were based on open voting for candidate lists rather than for closed lists presented by the leadership. General secretary positions would be directly elected by all registered members. All political alliances and electoral programs would be ratified by Citizens’Assemblies ― local, regional or national—and all elected positions would be recallable with procedures based on either a percentage of individual members or of local circles.

The debate over political strategy revolved around whether to run in next May’s local government elections under the name of Podemos or form electoral coalitions based on the same open assembly organising model as Podemos’s. Such campaigns, involving broad left and social movement forces, are already under way in Barcelona (where the idea of such citizens’ tickets originated), Madrid and more than 20 major cities.

There are more than 8000 municipal governments in Spain and Podemos is still too undeveloped to make sure appropriate controls are in place everywhere; therefore CQP proposed that Podemos not run under its own name in the municipal elections but do so in the regional elections in July and national elections in November 2015.

The assembly was also marked by various statements of orientation by Pablo Iglesias. He said that if an opposing set of documents were to win, he would step aside and that he expected the opposing teams to do the same if his perspective were carried.

In response to calls for a consensus position between the two teams with the highest support, and given the unwillingness of CQP to meet with SP, Iglesias explained that he disagreed with SP's position and that Podemos was not a party in which deals were done and the result presented for symbolic ratification. Rather, the members would decide.

Both sides maintained that their proposals achieved the right balance between efficiency and democracy. But CQP said its organisational structure was one that could win elections in a hostile environment while SP's could not.

CQP presented proposals in each of the three areas for decision ― ethics, organisation and strategy ― whereas SP presented only an organisational proposal. Each team had the choice of deciding how their proposals were to be voted on, as a package or separately. CQP presented its proposals as a take-it-or-leave-it package, meaning members could not vote for a mixture of CQP and other proposals.

The CQP proposals won the vote by a large majority—80.71% of the 112,000 people who voted. The next stage, currently underway, is the election of candidates for the 63 positions on the Citizen’s Council directly elected by the membership, of the general secretary as well as the 10 positions in the Commission for Democratic Guaranteescharged with ensuring Podemos’s ethical principles are upheld.

Podemos populism?

Podemos has been labelled as “populist” by many commentators from across the political spectrum. However, the editorials in El País, a national newspaper with a certain prestige as a “quality” journal, provide the most coherent critique. The first was an editorial on May 30 after the European election entitled, “Recently arrived”, another appeared on September 19 titled, “Welcome to the system”, and the day after the October assembly in Madrid the El País comment was entitled “Podemos organises”. El País is politically aligned to the PSOE, which is currently hemorrhaging support to Podemos.

El País immediately recognised the threat posed by the surprise 1.2 million votes received by Podemos in the European election and labelled the new formation “populist” for its attack on politicians of all stripes – often simply known as la casta (caste or establishment). It was also among the first to raise the spectre of the “Venezuelan connection” because a few of the academics from the Complutense in the leadership had served as advisors to former Venezuela president Hugo Chavez and various South American governments.

The second editorial, “Welcome to the system”, further developed the critique coming from the ranks of the PSOE, primarily that Podemos is an urban middle-class phenomenon, and criticised the Iglesias CQP team as just as hierarchical and centralised as other political forces, and therefore representing nothing new. It also urged Podemos to stick to the “rules of the game” without “hidden agendas”.

Finally, after the assembly, El País labelled the “neither left nor right” discourse of Podemos as populist and claimed it was an irresponsible move because it aimed at mobilising people against legitimate democratic institutions without offering a coherent vision of an alternative model for overcoming the political and economic crisis.

While the primary objective of El País is to prevent PSOE members and voters jumping ship to Podemos and it employs relatively sophisticated arguments to achieve this, labelling the “neither right nor left” but “the people versus la casta” discourse by Podemos as populist has also been echoed from within United Left (IU).[i] Cayo Lara, the national coordinator of IU claims that “corruption is the ante-chamber of populism and fascism”.[ii]

These arguments are vacuous and represent the increasingly desperate attempts of both the PSOE and IU to salvage what is left of their support base. This is especially the case for IU, which faces the very real prospect of being electorally wiped off the map in many parts of the country.

The pillars of the political program behind Podemos extend way beyond a simple characterisation of all politicians as the corrupt casta. They are based on the demands of the massive campaigns of resistance that have developed over the last few years in response to cuts in public spending and the profound social crisis produced by economic collapse – summarised in the slogan pan, techo y trabajo (bread, a roof and a job).

The foundations of this program are: a minimum income for the millions of unemployed who currently receive no income support; an end to evictions and public control of the enormous stock of empty housing currently in the hands of private banks as well as guaranteed basic services for all; an audit of the public debt and restructuring of payment in order to allow the state to implement an expansionary economic policy; and nationalisation where needed to ensure the program is implemented. Corruption is to be addressed through thorough investigation and wide ranging reforms to the legal system – perhaps the prospect that produces the greatest fear among current politicians.

The term “the Left” in Spain is automatically associated with the PSOE and IU, unlike the situation in many English speaking countries where the main social-democratic parties abandoned the term while embracing neoliberalism. The political discourse of Podemos is best summarised with the words of Pablo Iglesias at the assembly in Madrid: “Neither Right nor Left – but everyone knows where I come from.” Podemos has established a new paradigm for politics in Spain: la casta versus the people, old politics versus new.

Support base

Two weeks after the Madrid assembly Podemos is polling ahead of both the PP and PSOE and first in direct intention to vote. After eight months of existence Podemos now has 27.7% support versus 26.2% for PSOE, 20.7% for the ruling PP and 3.8% for IU. Support for Podemos comes from all major political parties, most of all from PSOE and IU, but also from a change in the composition of those who intend to abstain.

In the past the right-wing PP was more likely to win from the higher the abstention rate – left wing voters tended to abstain whereas PP supporters always went to the polls. The collapse in support for the PP is partly explained by a significant increase in the abstention rate in their support base. Twenty per cent of PP voters say they will not vote at all. However, many voters who previously abstained say they will now vote for Podemos. Thus, although the overall abstention rate has increased slightly, its political composition has changed.

These polling results have important consequences for the strategies pursued by each party, and the role big business will play in Spanish politics, in the 12 months until the general election. The PP has already marked out its strategy, which is to get PP voters to the polls. Prime Minster Rajoy recently apologised in the parliament for the corruption rife in the ranks of the PP – two years after the first serious case broke. Other leading members of the PP have finally decided to condemn corruption and distance themselves from those involved. The PP will introduce a new anti-corruption law in the coming weeks. They, like the PSOE and IU, claim that corruption is not endemic to the system but a case of “a few rotten apples”.

The second prong is to whip up fear of Podemos among PP supporters, beginning with claims made on national television by a prominent journalist from the right-wing newspaper El Mundo, that if Podemos wins it will fill the jails with dissidents and end freedom of the press. In addition, many mass media outlets routinely report Podemos’ electoral program as impossible to implement or as likely to bring about economic chaos.

The PSOE has elected a new, young leader in order to promote the idea of generational renewal. In some areas it has also adopted a limited form of open voting for candidates through US-style primary elections among party members, as has the IU, in order to banish the image of parties in which all decisions are made between faction leaders behind closed doors or at restaurant tables.

Meanwhile, big business is increasingly concerned. The Council for Business Competiveness (CBC), a peak body representing the largest corporations in Spain, has been particularly active. In its last meeting, held at the headquarters of telecommunications giant Telefónica a few weeks ago, it expressed its concern at the rise of Podemos and called for the PP and the PSOE to form a grand coalition to prevent the newcomer from governing.

José Manuel Soria, the minister for industry, assured the CBC that should it be necessary the PP would find a way to arrive at an agreement with the PSOE but that the CBC should not get involved at this stage. Any wind of a pact between the PP and PSOE would further undermine their vote, especially among PSOE voters, and reinforce the image of la casta.

In a sign of increasing frustration with the do-nothing attitude employed by the Rajoy government in relation to the economy, this week the CBC issued a report claiming 2.3 million jobs could be created in four years and recommended a series of measures that should be taken to achieve that. At the same time, Barclays bank issued a report warning of the destabilising effect of Podemos and the threat posed to investors. Business media in the US has warned investors to worry less about Catalan independence and pay more attention to the rise of Podemos.

Tasks ahead

Although Podemos’ organisational structure has been decided, and elections will soon open for the national leadership positions, local and regional structures are still not in place. Municipal structures will be organised and candidates elected to leadership positions before the end of the year and regional structures will follow in the new year. This has led to the paradoxical situation of a political party that is polling huge support in regional governments but that has yet no official spokespeople.

In the case of my local branch in Extremadura, there are not enough chairs for a meeting of a working group in the branch office, leading for call to members to individually “sponsor” a chair for the office! There are nearly 300 Podemos members in a town of 60,000, which means the monthly assemblies of all members need to be held in the local civic centre.

In Extremadura, the ruling PP president José Antonio Monago has already stated publicly he is ready to reach an agreement with Podemos, as he did with IU in the last regional elections, despite the fact that Podemos Extremadura – currently polling 13.5% and facing headlines claiming it will decide who will form government next year – still has no regional leader or leadership bodies and effectively won’t exist until February 2015. All Monago’s statements have demonstrated is his desperation to cling to power and that he hasn’t been listening.

Podemos is a force with millions of supporters and 215,000 registered members more than the PSOEand growing. It is present across the whole Spanish state and is capable of producing a founding assembly in which tens of thousands directly take part.

It is a force that is not looking for pacts or coalitions, is not seeking to do deals behind closed doors and is the most democratic mass working-class party in Spanish history.

The economic and political crisis in Spain has produced a new way to fight backa form of resistance with deep roots across the country and a real chance of winning power. And just as with the birth of other forms of resistance, whether they be trade unions, rallies, boycotts, strikes, sit-ins or forms of democratic political organising, it is not something applicable only to Spain. Podemos represents a new tool, a new experience, another way for a new century to carry on with a struggle that is centuries old.

If we want to find a way back from decades of defeat, we need to be able to recognise it when we see it. Spain’s rulers do and they are scared: the rest of the European ruling class ought to be too.

[Julian Coppens lives in the western Spanish region of Extremadura. He is active in his local Podemos circle.]