The rise and decline of Podemos

Pablo Iglesias, one of the founders of Podemos and its most prominent representative, announced his resignation from politics earlier this year – the tenth anniversary of the movement of the indignados which gave birth to the new party. ROSS SAUNDERS looks back at the formation of Podemos, its development, and the mistakes of its leaders which have put its future in jeopardy.

Ten years ago the revolt of the indignados (the ‘outraged’) erupted in Spain as a protest against brutal austerity. The government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and the misnamed Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), loyal to the interests of the capitalists who backed him, demanded that ordinary working class people pay the bill for the economic crisis which convulsed the Spanish state and the rest of the world in 2007-08. 

While Spanish banks received huge no-strings-attached bailouts, Zapatero held wages down and savagely cut back public services, pensions and welfare. Jobs were slaughtered and new attacks were launched on trade union rights in order to obstruct the efforts of workers to fight back.

Determined, organised resistance by the working class could have stopped these attacks in their tracks, but only token resistance to austerity was offered by the conservative leaders of the major trade union federations. The Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) and the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) called a handful of annual one-day general strikes under pressure but refused to organise a serious campaign that could have halted the cuts. Militant sections, like the Asturian miners, were left to fight alone. By the beginning of 2011, five million people were out of work in the Spanish state, including half of all young workers, and evictions were taking place on a mass scale.

Anger in the face of such attacks inevitably finds a way to the surface and it erupted into spontaneous protests on the 15th of May 2011 (thereby giving the movement its other name – 15M) and raged throughout the summer of that year.

Tens of thousands marched to public squares like the Puerta del Sol in Madrid and occupied them. Tent cities grew up and were sustained for weeks in a score of cities. In protest assemblies voice after voice was raised against the corrupt capitalist establishment, especially the banks and the existing political parties which submitted to them.

But the anger on display was not focussed by organisation. Disgust at the role played by former workers’ parties like PSOE and the Communist Party (PCE), together with the failure of the tops of the trade unions to give a lead, had led to the growth in the decades before of a deep distrust of political parties and even suspicion at the idea of organisation in general. As a result, the movement was slow to build a political vehicle that could have generalised the struggles that were developing and challenged the capitalist parties, including in elections.

The revolt of the indignados arose from the same conditions as the revolutions of the Arab Spring at the start of the year. In turn, they inspired the Occupy movement which took the revolt to the heart of US capitalism in autumn 2011. In Spain it had a profound effect on the ideas and confidence of the masses. It demonstrated that it is possible to fight back on a national and international scale. The revolt it represented would soon put an end to the stable two-party system which had ensured that big business could be assured of getting its way in the state of Spain for decades.

The end of two-party stability

These positive effects, however, were at first hidden under the surface. In the short term, it was the right wing which advanced: the People’s Party (PP), a conservative capitalist party to the right of PSOE, won the council elections held in the midst of the protests and would go on to win the general election in November 2011 in elections which saw record numbers spoiling their ballot papers.

There was no political party capable of channelling the rage, which had to burst onto the electoral plane. The United Left (IU), which was dominated by the PCE, had increased its support – polling 1.68 million votes (6.9%), up by 716,000 on the 2008 contest – but it was too rigid and bureaucratised to capture much of the enthusiasm of the tempestuous movements which were developing. Powerful campaigns arose in this period, including against evictions and for housing rights, the ‘green tide’ against education cuts, the ‘white tide’ against attacks on healthcare, and many more.

This was the context in which Podemos, which means ‘We can’, was created. With no lead from the tops of the workers’ movement, the organisation was brought together by a group of left academics in January 2014 and grew meteorically. The situation was ripe for a left alternative: less than a year old, Podemos gained 8% of the vote in the European elections in May 2014. Pablo Iglesias, one of its founders and its most popular member, was addressing crowds of 150,000 at rallies in Puerta del Sol as the year closed. In the general election held in 2015 Podemos came third, gaining over five million votes – 20.7% of the total. That election announced the end of stability for the capitalist class in the Spanish state: four general elections were held in the four years from 2011 and none of them resulted in a stable government or a majority for any party or coalition.

The most important factor in the growth of Podemos was the radical break with the capitalist policies of all the main parties that its ideas appeared to represent. It pledged to ensure everyone had a decent income and the right to housing; it promised to raise wages, lower the retirement age and nationalise key sectors of the economy, saying it would defy the European Union (EU) and refuse to pay Spain’s enormous debts.

But equally key to its rapid rise was the sharp line it drew between itself and the capitalist-dominated establishment in its first years. The party promised to end the grip that big business had on politics, railing against the lobbying industry and, at a time when many were disgusted by the austerity that PSOE had initiated, it gained popularity with a combative approach, proclaiming its intention to replace PSOE as the main opposition party.

Early promise

Workers in Spain, however, were accustomed to big promises from politicians, only to see them binned in horse-trading talks after elections. But Podemos appeared to be different. It declared its hostility to the careerism and ambition which infected other parties. Iglesias, known as ‘el coletas’ (‘the ponytail’), rejected the usual manicured image and was famous for using public transport. The party committed to publishing all its expenses online. No-one who worked for it earned more than €1,900.

Podemos also presented their innovative online methods as a way of giving ordinary people control of the organisation. This seemed like a real breath of fresh air in contrast to the bureaucratic obstacles experienced by members of PSOE and PCE, let alone the memory of rule under the dictatorship. At its height, the party’s ‘Plaza Podemos’ site attracted 20,000 individual participants. Its election manifestos and its election candidates were also selected online in primaries and it offered to link up with IU in a united front.

But the reality of Podemos’s structures, or rather lack of them, did not measure up to the rhetoric. Podemos policies were attractive to a broad range of working and middle-class people but its ‘open’ structure was especially popular with the middle classes who, because they were used to wielding some authority, better trained to communicate, and had more time to participate in it, soon dominated the leadership of the organisation. It was difficult for workers with limited time to participate meaningfully in unfocussed discussions that could continue indefinitely in Podemos ‘circles’ (branches) and there were no moves to give workers’ representatives and organisations like trade unions power in the party.

As in all supposedly ‘horizontal’ organisations, in reality power was very centralised in Podemos, with few democratic controls that members could exercise over the leadership. At its foundation, for example, Iglesias argued for and successfully obtained the right for the general secretary (himself) to appoint the whole of the party’s executive, rather than have the body elected by the membership. Prominent figures had enormous influence over policy and could not be effectively held to account by the online plebiscites that Podemos favoured.

The weaknesses of the Podemos programme became more obvious, too, as workers came to test whether it offered a viable alternative to the misery of capitalism. Podemos’s left populism made strident proclamations supporting individual reforms but as a programme it was unsystematic and incomplete. Crucially, it failed to explain how the resistance of the capitalists to the introduction of those reforms could be countered.

Many of the Podemos leaders justified these mistakes using the so-called ‘post-Marxist’ ideas of Ernesto Laclau, an Argentinian academic based in England, who also counted Greek former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis as a disciple. Laclau was influenced by the ‘pink wave’ of revolt against neoliberal capitalism in Latin America which had swept several left leaders to power in Bolivia, Venezuela and elsewhere from the 1990s.

He argued for a strategy based not on the working class but on whoever was thrown into opposition to the establishment at the time – cross-class feminist movements, the LGBT community, environmentalists, the unemployed, etc. He defiantly embraced the label ‘populism’ and saw its unsystematic vagueness and lack of a coherent programme as a strength, enabling many different groups in society to be included in the movement. Unfortunately, theories such as these did not point the way forward for Podemos.

2016 setback

A setback in the second general election fought by Podemos in June 2016 provoked a crisis in the party, now in an electoral alliance with IU as Unidas Podemos (‘United We Can’, or UP). The dominant idea in the leadership of the party at the time was that, having won the support of those who wanted radical change, it would be necessary to create a more ‘respectable’ image in order to broaden its appeal. Radical policies adopted in 2014 to, for example, “recover public control in key sectors of the economy” were side-lined and the party began describing its politics as “social democratic”. Podemos appeared to separate itself from the movements out of which it had been created, ostensibly in order to make more gains in elections. The result was that UP lost a million votes in 2016.

Following the losses, at Podemos’s second national conference in 2017, known as ‘Vistalegre II’, co-founder Íñigo Errejón argued that Podemos should turn even further to the right. At that time, Iglesias opposed such a strategy, berating the party for having failed to call for strike action against further austerity and for having attempted to “look like our enemies”.

Errejón was decisively defeated at the conference, but the fundamental mistakes had not been corrected. Podemos had built no stable base of support in the working class, had no strong democratic structures, and had neither the method nor the ideas to assist it to weather the storms ahead.

As workers came to test the ideas of the organisation, only a full socialist programme would have satisfied them. Alongside concrete immediate demands to improve conditions for working class people it is necessary to defy the limits set by the profit-dominated capitalist system in order to win what workers need. The domination of profit-making private companies over the economy must be broken and workers must take control of the sharing out of society’s wealth.

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) said Podemos must orientate to the enormous potential power that workers hold. We said that an approach should be made to challenge the influence that other parties have in the trade unions, and that structures should be set up that enabled working-class people – including those who worked long or unpredictable hours – to participate in the party and determine its direction. A serious and determined campaign should have been mounted to build a ‘circle’ (branch) in every working class community. At its height, Podemos had 900 circles, but coverage was patchy and circles were never decision-making bodies. We said discussions should be focussed around resolutions about the way forward for the party, and argued that circles should be gathered into district, city and regional circles whose members were elected democratically, with the input of workers’ organisations.

This would have meant that any member could make a proposal, win the support of their circle/branch, and take it through the structures of the organisations to the highest level to be adopted as policy. All responsible positions should have been subject to election.

Without a solid base in the working class, Podemos’ leadership was not sensitive to the moods and ideas of the masses, so less able to correctly judge tactical questions such as the attitude it should take to other political forces, especially PSOE, and more susceptible to the pressure that capitalism puts on its political opponents.

Podemos and PSOE

The political terrain on which Podemos was operating changed radically in 2018, when PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez successfully ousted PP leader Mariano Rajoy and replaced him as prime minister.

PSOE had been plunged into crisis by the rapid rise of Podemos. This former social-democratic party had been conquered by capitalism in the 1990s as part of the shift to the right in ex-workers’ parties which the CWI had been the first to analyse. This powerful wing dominated the party for decades and after the 2016 general election, in the name of the ‘stability’ which capitalism so desperately desired, deposed Sánchez in order to enable Rajoy and the PP, with their hands bloody from wielding the axe of austerity, to keep control of the government.

But others in PSOE understood that it was necessary to lean left in order to avoid the annihilation which ex-social democratic parties in Greece, France and elsewhere had suffered. Eight months after the coup Sánchez went on to win back his position, in June 2017. Having defeated the right in his own party, and then having brought down the PP government a year later by tabling a motion of no confidence in Rajoy, certain illusions developed in Sánchez in this period as a result of the lack of a real fighting lead for the working class from other quarters.

In the context of those illusions and the powerful desire of workers to be rid of Rajoy, it was correct for Podemos to enable Sánchez to form a government and help to end the reign of the PP administration, while always working to expose the real character of PSOE’s programme. But Podemos went much further than this – offering Sánchez, even at times pleading with him, to let Podemos join PSOE in government, even as Sánchez was exposing himself more each day as a reliable tool for capitalism against the workers. 

Despite vague promises to serve workers’ interests and some minimal reforms in their favour, Sánchez’s government has clearly ruled in the interests of big business. Public sector pay, for example, has risen by just 2.5%. Sánchez kept in place the cuts budget he inherited from the PP and obediently carried out more austerity demanded by the EU. During the period of the coronavirus pandemic, it has been profits which have been prioritised over the safety and interests of workers. Many aspects of the anti-union laws are still on the books, as are the anti-democratic gag laws. 

In 2019, after two elections in a year failed to give him a majority, Sánchez gave Podemos what they asked for, and in January 2020 Iglesias and several other leaders of Podemos and IU joined the government and were given ministerial portfolios. 

This absorbing of the Podemos leaders into the capitalist establishment struck at the heart of what made Podemos popular. It is impossible to claim to strike at the capitalist establishment while shaking hands with the king of Spain at the Zarzuela palace. This mistaken approach to the establishment lay behind the further electoral losses in 2019, which left the party with fewer than half its peak of MPs and votes. It bolstered the intense scepticism which existed in broad layers that the representatives of all political parties are the same, that they are only interested in gaining power for themselves. Such suspicions were strengthened by reports of Iglesias and his partner paying €600,000 for a mansion complete with swimming pool in the north of Madrid.

If Podemos had maintained its independence, it could have declared that it would support or oppose each proposal from Sánchez’ minority government depending on whether they advanced the interests of the working class. It could have put the key demands in its programme to parliament and dared PSOE’s deputies to vote them down, while organising protests in the streets and calling for a campaign of strike action to win the demands. At a time favourable to it, when illusions in Sánchez and PSOE had been dispelled, it could have forced new elections and advanced.

The national question test

The entry into the Spanish establishment has particularly damaged Podemos where the relation between a powerful local national consciousness and the Spanish state has not been resolved. The powerful upsurge in the Catalonian independence movement from 2017 was an important test for the party, which it utterly failed. Podemos was a party which arose out of tempestuous movements against capitalism. Confronting it was a movement which had some of the features of a revolution. Over a million marched on the streets in several protests. The road to France was blockaded at one point and Prat airport occupied. When the pro-independence Catalan government was pushed into going through with the referendum for independence in 2017, Spanish state forces were deployed which brutally repressed those who tried to take part and organisations to defend the ballot boxes began to emerge which could have developed into a rival state power.

But Podemos failed even to support this movement, let alone struggle to win the leadership of it. The party merely bleated that there should be a referendum “mutually agreed” by both sides and denounced violence in general. The damage was done not just in Catalonia itself, where it was pushed from having won the election in 2016 to sixth place. It was also virtually wiped out in Galicia and lost half its positions in the Basque region.

No left force will be able to build support in Catalonia in this period unless it respects the right of self-determination of nations. Pro-Independence parties, for the first time ever, were in the majority in the Catalonian parliament following elections held in February this year. And the issue continues to spill over into the streets too, as it did when the Spanish courts used anti-democracy laws to jail rapper Pablo Hasél (see Catalonia Ferment Undimmed, in Socialism Today No.247, April 2021).

Support for independence has not waned, but at the same time there is no prospect of the Spanish state permitting industry-rich Catalonia to obtain independence on a capitalist basis. This is a stark example of why Podemos has failed. Only a party which supported independence but also argued for a socialist Catalonia, which guaranteed all language and cultural rights for all in the state, could have built support. A socialist Catalonia could act as a beacon to the working class and youth throughout the Spanish state in a united struggle to overthrow capitalism and establish a socialist federation throughout the Spanish state and beyond.

The rise and fall of Podemos is full of lessons for the global movement of the masses against austerity. Its formation with, initially, a radical programme, was a step forward from the capitulation of the former workers’ parties because it offered a political resistance to capitalism.

But its failures to adopt or orientate to the methods of the workers’ movement meant that it succumbed, in a similar way to the social democratic parties, to the pressures of the capitalist political system.

The meteoric rise of Podemos demonstrated the appetite that the Spanish masses have for a new mass workers party, which, with a clear socialist programme and a leadership democratically accountable to a mass membership, could provide a real alternative to the capitalist parties.