Between Movement and Party: The Case of Podemos

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As Labour elects its new leader, we are launching a series of essays on political possibilities of the new decade. Read more here.

On 13 January 2020, one month after Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party was routed at the polls, left coalition party Unidas Podemos (UP) entered government in Spain as junior partner to the centre-left PSOE. What lessons can British socialists draw from its experience?

The differences between the two cases shouldn’t be underestimated. Labour is one of the UK’s traditional parties of government, with a century of accumulated history behind it; Podemos has gone from upstart challenger hybrid party to ministerial office holder in the space of just six years. But if there are any lessons for the left in Europe today, they must be looked for on the Continent’s western edge, in Dublin, Lisbon and, of course, Madrid. 

Podemos has achieved a historic first in post-Franco Spain: a true coalition government. Many thought this scenario would never materialise. After the inconclusive April 2019 general election, the PSOE (123 seats) and Podemos (42 seats) were unable to reach any sort of agreement. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez refused to consider making Iglesias vice-president and rejected Podemos’s demands for ministerial posts. Iglesias very publicly said he was prepared to rule himself out of contention for the vice-presidency, but refused to countenance any compact that didn’t give UP real power in the proposed government. With the menace of the far right increasing – the extreme-right Vox had entered Parliament with 24 seats – frustrated progressives demanded further concessions. But Iglesias stuck to his guns, arguing that entering government at any price was not the point of the party. 

After months of gridlock and mutual recriminations, a tired and frustrated electorate went back to the polls in November. Vox doubled its representation to 52 seats, while Podemos’s dropped to 35. The new parliament was strongly polarized, and the right was very close to regaining control of it. Progressive anger was quick to surface and targeted the PSOE for having precipitated another general election through its inability to negotiate a deal. 

This time, with the further increased threat of the right looming, Sanchez moved quickly to form a government with Podemos, making Iglesias one of his vice-presidents and integrating UP members into four ministerial posts: Labour, Equality, Consumer Affairs and Universities. An emotional Iglesias was delighted by the turn of events, and declared that his biggest fear was letting his supporters down with an overly modest programme negotiated with the PSOE. Yet the victory, if one can call it that, was ironically as much a result of the electoral success of the right as of the left. 

Despite being a marriage of convenience, the new coalition government rapidly moved forward with progressive policies (although internal differences over how best to address the fiscal implications of the coronavirus pandemic will test their resolve to maintain a united front). Podemos is now in a stronger position to continue the valuable work it has been doing ever since it first entered parliament in 2015. It brokered agreements with Sanchez’s minority PSOE government in 2018 to raise the minimum wage to 900 Euros, introduce legislation for non-transferable maternity and paternity leave, and increased funding for public housing. 

Today, as members of the government, the party is swiftly building on those earlier initiatives. On 30 January, the new coalition raised the minimum wage to 950 Euros. Since then, several Podemos legislative initiatives have moved through parliament, including revoking article 52d (which allowed employers to dismiss people on medical leave), raising pensions in line with inflation and declaring a climate emergency. Vice-president Iglesias and Ione Belarra, Secretary of State for Agenda 2030 (the UN’s sustainable-development programme), will also be pushing for increased investment in social services, including healthcare and education, changes in housing legislation, and a national anti-poverty plan.  

In one sense, the entry into government is a great success for Podemos, and for Iglesias, who kept his nerve in a difficult situation, but it is also a far cry from the hopes and dreams that propelled the party into existence in 2014. These opposing readings reflect the tensions inherent in hybrid ‘movement parties’ which maintain links to, and characteristics of, participatory social movements while at the same time trying to win state power through elections. 

The British Labour Party, in contrast to Podemos, has always been an essentially parliamentary vehicle, but has also faced important tensions in recent years between MPs and an enlarged pro-Corbyn activist base. Understanding the internal dynamics of movement-parties is important if we are to confront the challenges of contemporary democracy and increasing citizen dissatisfaction with ‘actually existing democracy’. 

I

Podemos was born in 2014 as a self-proclaimed citizens’ initiative, and only later  constituted itself as a political party – a process that has passed through two foundational congresses, Vistalegre I and II, with a third originally scheduled for the end of this month, but now postponed. It has always recognized its roots in the 15-M anti-austerity mobilisation that began in 2011. As Iglesias has written in New Left Review: ‘The principal social expression of the regime crisis was the 15-M movement. Its principal political expression has been Podemos.’ Despite the many obstacles the party has faced (including spurious legal challenges, false allegations and falsified documents attempting to discredit them, none of which have held up in court) Podemos’s gamble that it could channel widespread disaffection with established politics has paid off. 

Spain’s 15-M movement differed from previous waves of mobilizations in its ‘democratic turn’. Prefigurative democracy, or horizontal autonomous organizing, was no longer simply the structuring ideational framework through which other issues were confronted and developed – the modus operandi of movement groups addressing other issues, such as global justice, environmentalism, feminism and precarious labour. Instead, democracy became the central problematic into which all other issues were subsumed. Activists demanded real democracy, not just in their groups and subcultural milieux, but across the whole of society. 

Podemos had to convince them to put their energies into an electoral initiative. This involved sustained strategic discursive work, and was initially very successful. The party integrated core elements of 15-M’s political culture. While much of the early hype around Podemos concerned its digitally enabled democratic idealism, it is the feminist articulation of a politics of the commons – the result of sustained work by many feminist activists within the party and inspiration from feminist movements outside it – that has been the most significant contribution of the movement to the party. Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona, and Manuela Carmena, former Mayor of Madrid on the Podemos-supported coalition ticket ‘Ahora Madrid’, have been particularly influential in articulating this vision within and beyond the party.

Like Ada Colau, who also rose to power on the wave of the 15-M mobilization, and in keeping with its self-identification as a hybrid party, Podemos has always insisted on the need for continued street mobilization, through which citizens can make demands and apply pressure on the government, to help ensure that progressive parties actually pass progressive legislation. When Belarra took office as Secretary of State for Agenda 2030, she opened the door to civil-society organisations, arguing that Podemos needed a citizenry which ‘demands ever more from us, because that is the only way we can move from words to acts and from promises to reality.’

II

But while Podemos today is certainly the best party-political representative of 15-M’s demands, it can only minimally be understood as a movement party. Such has been its internal transformation that some critics have characterized it as the least internally democratic party in Spain. Iglesias is the last man standing of the party’s original founders, after a long process of internal defections or purges (depending on one’s point of view, or who tells the story). 

Following its breakthrough in the May 2014 European Parliament elections,  the party had managed to bring on board a wide range of social-movement actors, a remarkable achievement given the 15-M movements initial aversion to representative politics. However, cracks started to appear at its first foundational congress that autumn. There were deep factional differences over questions of party structure and decision-making processes, with some factions pushing strongly for greater internal democracy. 

Paradoxically, participatory digital tools in fact reinforced Iglesias’ leadership at the expense of grassroots activists. The combination of a voting process open to everyone who wanted to register, and a hyper-mediatized environment where most party voters’ only point of reference was likely to be what they saw of Iglesias on television, meant that those participants less involved in the party carried the day, not those who had taken part in preparatory circles and movement spaces ahead of the assembly. 

By Vistalegre II, differences between Iglesias and co-founder Íñigo Errejón had begun to surface, with Errejón’s somewhat more horizontal/participatory proposals losing out once again to Iglesias’ presidentialist approach. As Nuria Alabao put it, ‘The main tendencies within the party hoped for more decentralization, more power for the grassroots and a more proportional system, but the bases have voted for more Pablo.’

In the meantime, more and more people were leaving the party, and its electoral fortunes were declining. Podemos has lost votes and seats in every general election since the first one it contested in 2015 (it recorded a slight increase in seats in 2016, but this was an artefact of a joint party list). In 2018, Manuela Carmena, the popular Mayor of Madrid who had been elected on a Podemos coalition platform, announced that she would be running for re-election the following year on an independent basis, taking several councillors with her who were promptly suspended from the party. Worse followed when Errejón, the most recognisable face within the party after Iglesias, and Podemos’s presidential candidate for the Madrid regional elections, announced that he too would be running on Carmena’s Más Madrid ticket. 

Podemos faced a major image crisis. Iglesias immediately announced that Errejón had placed himself outside the party and moved quickly to replace him. Más Madrid won 20 seats in the regional election, Podemos only 7. In the municipal elections, meanwhile, Iglesias encouraged voters to support a rival candidate, Sánchez Mato, against Carmena. Carmena won the popular vote, but lost city hall to a right-wing coalition that included Vox. Sánchez Mato did not even get the 5 per cent needed to obtain representation. Madrid had passed once again into the hands of the right, following the most progressive government it has ever had. 

The repercussions of this catastrophe are still being felt, with every side blaming every other for the outcome. Errejón went on to create a new party, Más País, a few weeks before the November 2019 general election, attracting the support of former Podemos coalition parties Equo and Compromis, as well as members of various Podemos branches, further debilitating the party. While early polls predicted up to 19 seats for Más País, in the event, it won only three – still quite remarkable for a party formed such a short time before polling day. 

Although Unidas Podemos still has many excellent people working within it, the loss of human capital over the past six years has been enormous. While some of the internal differences were probably too strong to be resolved, many other losses could have been avoided within a more democratic and pluralistic internal culture. 

The latest loss is one of the party’s most charismatic and popular figures, Podemos’s Andalucían secretary general Teresa Rodríguez, of Anticapitalistas. Rodriguez announced that Anticapitalistas would not be attending Vistalegre III because Podemos had become a member of the political class it had been created to challenge, and that Vistalegre III would be nothing more than the ratification of the subalternization of Podemos to the PSOE.

Rodriguez and Iglesias disseminated a video where they stand side-by-side and announce the departure of Andalucía Adelante from Podemos, due to differences of opinion over the formation of the PSOE coalition. At the end of the broadcast they give each other a big hug and reiterate that they will both continue to fight for the same things that led them to create Podemos in the first place. For me, the bittersweet moment is also tinged with a sense of satisfaction in their explicit decision to use this small performative gesture to model a different form of parting ways (a hug) than the usual recriminations. 

As Podemos prepared for its third congress, Vistalegre III, no regional party group was planning to submit any proposals to the conference. There is no one left to challenge or even question Iglesias’s leadership. But there is little left of the promise offered by the original ‘citizen’s initiative’ movement-party either. The contrast with the intense participation and debate of Vistalegre I – the widespread excitement and sense of possibility and hope – could not be more stark. 

In a move that will accelerate Podemos’s transformation from challenger movement to classical party, Iglesias has introduced proposals to overturn three of the elements that differentiate it from the established parties: term limits, salary caps and free party membership. All three will be passed, as there is no longer any internal opposition or alternative current in the party. The first proposal extends term limits beyond the current 12 year maximum, subject to consultation with party members (inscritos), clearing the way for Iglesias’ continued leadership into the future. The second proposal delinks the cap on officeholder salaries from a ratio based on the minimum wage. 

The third proposal relates to party membership. In 2017 the party introduced a distinction between members and activists (militantes). Under the new proposal, and with the rationale that this will enable the party to maintain its financial independence from the banks, the party will introduce membership dues for militantes. Only they will be able to take part and vote in the primaries for municipal-level posts. This will end the ‘liquid’ membership introduced in 2014 that allowed anyone aged 14 or over to participate in party assemblies and circles. 

The sectoral ‘circles’ (nurses, teachers, etc.) also will disappear, leaving only territorial circles more similar to the regional associations of classical parties. With these changes, some of the hallmarks of the party’s hybrid identity disappear, and the transformation from a participatory grassroots to a presidentialist model is practically complete. 

The term ‘hybrid party’ embraces an internal contradiction between movementist  and party-political logics of collective action. Hybrid or movement parties need – initially at least – to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of their movement base. Podemos’s initial success stemmed in large part from its ability to win over grassroots support from Spain’s progressive social movements, in the wake of 15-M. Whether it will be able to thrive as a party in the absence of so many of its former supporters is an open question. But never say never.

Cristina Flesher Fominaya’s latest book is Democracy Reloaded: Inside Spain’s Political Laboratory from 15-M to Podemos (Oxford, 2020).

This essay is part of a series of excerpts from Futures of Socialism: Into the Post-Corbyn Era, edited by Grace Blakeley. Read all the essays, as they are published through March, here.