A New Sorpasso?

Over the last decade, many left-wing activists have been heartened by events in Spain. While progressive projects ran aground elsewhere in Europe, Podemos rapidly rose to prominence before entering government as a junior coalition partner in early 2020. Yet, since then, its experience of state power has served as a cautionary tale. Podemos’s initial radicalism has been stifled by the strictures of government and the compromises of coalition politics. It has failed to pass significant political reforms or fix the structural problems in the Spanish economy. As a result, its base is atomized and its popularity is trending downwards. If the left is to remain relevant, it must learn how to revive its insurgent energy without forfeiting its influence.  

How did Podemos enter an electoral sphere dominated by two longstanding centrist parties, the Popular Party (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE)? Thanks to the so-called ‘economic miracle’ that started in the 1980s, Spain became one of the best-performing countries in the European Union, experiencing sustained growth rates and an unprecedented real estate boom. House prices rose by 8% per year from the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, while neoliberal labour and welfare reforms were applauded by the ‘modernizers’ in Brussels. Yet, when the 2008 financial crisis hit, it became clear that the Iberian Tiger had feet of clay. Its economic model – which was heavily reliant on tourism, construction and cheap, casualised labour – proved unsustainable once the large financial institutions that fuelled the construction bubble found themselves on the brink of collapse. The government bailed them out at a hefty price, and the Spanish people were forced to foot the bill.

The PP and PSOE were held equally responsible for this disaster. In 2011, the Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero rolled out a series of brutal austerity programmes that slashed public spending and caused the unemployment rate to rise above 25%. In doing so, he ignited a popular uprising. More than three million people staged demonstrations and occupied public squares across the country, in what became known as the Indignados Movement. Protests camps were set up – foreshadowing Occupy Wall Street – and activists held sit-ins at major banks. Polls showed that 70% of the public supported their demands for more democratic participation, employment, housing, public services and an end to the corruption of the political class.

Podemos was founded in 2014 to give this nascent struggle institutional form. It claimed to represent a new left, capable of channelling the anti-austerity movement while avoiding the minoritarian politics of older radical parties like Izquierda Unida. Its Laclauian approach involved speaking to broad social sectors – in the style of the Latin American Pink Tide – rather than the usual band of true believers. Podemos’s leader, Pablo Iglesias – a young political science professor from Complutense University who had already demonstrated his charisma as a regular guest on TV talk shows – came to embody this strategy. Instead of opposing ‘the right’, he focussed his attacks on la casta: a term borrowed from the Italian Five Star Movement, which presented the PP and PSOE as part of the same elite set.

From the outset, Podemos expressed the democratizing spirit of the Indignados Movement. Its first manifesto sought to frame diverse policy issues – economic, environmental, social, international – in terms of democratic rights. Proposals included the establishment of regular referendums, popular law initiatives and recall votes, as well as radical measures to combat corruption and increase transparency. Its economic platform, designed with the help of Thomas Piketty, had a strong eco-socialist current, setting out a series of green transition initiatives that have since gained mainstream acceptance. The party pledged to restore public investment and outlined a ‘new model of production’, which would combine green reindustrialization with investment in technology and the ‘knowledge economy’.  

Unlike Italy’s Five Star Movement and La France Insoumise, Podemos never entertained the prospect of exiting the euro, let alone the European Union. But it promised to break with Troika fiscal policy and restructure the country’s public debt, calling for a rescate ciudadano (citizens’ bailout) to repair the social devastation wrought by elites. It also advocated a guaranteed income, between €600 and €1,300 per month for poorer households, to be funded by new taxes on high incomes and financial entities. When the media attacked Podemos as communist or ‘Bolivarian’, Iglesias pointed out that, just a few decades ago, its manifesto would have been seen as a traditional social-democratic programme.  

Iglesias’s pitch was seductive. Just a few months after Podemos was established, it won 8% in the European elections, before picking up 20% in the national ballot the next year. Its ambition was to enact a sorpasso in which it would leapfrog the PSOE and become the official opposition, while the centre-left Pasokified itself and faded into obscurity. As part of this strategy, Iglesias decided to ally with other left parties including Izquierda Unida and rebrand as Unidas Podemos before the snap elections of 2016. This move was intended to consolidate the left’s gains by establishing a unified electoral bloc. Yet its effect was to sow division among the leadership. The mastermind of Podemos’s populist strategy, Iñigo Errejón, saw it as a betrayal of the party’s original purpose: to transcend the radical left tradition and court disenfranchised voters on the basis of their shared interests. By joining with Izquierda Unida, he claimed, Podemos would lose the political novelty on which its entire appeal was based. From this point on, Podemos was increasingly beset by internecine conflict. Having made no headway in the 2016 election – which returned a PP minority government under Mariano Rajoy – it entered a period of secular decline.

Although Podemos continued to act as a vocal opposition to the PP, it now occupied a different place in the Spanish public sphere. Having initially captured the sense of solidarity generated by the Indignados, it had since succumbed to a familiar sectarianism. Several bruising local election defeats indicated its waning organizational capacity and the weakness of its cadres. In the Madrilenian regional elections of 2019, Errejón dropped the Podemos brand and ran as part of an alliance with other small parties and civil society groups, mimicking the mayoral campaigns of Ada Colau in Barcelona and Manuela Carmena in Madrid. This precipitated a final rupture with Iglesias, in which Errejón jumped ship to found his own political party, Más País. Other leading figures such as Carolina Bescansa and Luis Alegre departed soon thereafter, citing a lack of internal pluralism.

By this time, however, the PP had been forced out of office amid multiple corruption scandals, and the PSOE, led by Pedro Sánchez, was struggling to keep its minority administration afloat. When the April 2019 snap elections returned an inconclusive result, Sánchez was forced to enter coalition talks with Unidas Podemos. These initially went nowhere, as the Socialists refused to make meaningful policy concessions. But in a follow-up election that November, both Unidas Podemos and the PSOE were punished by voters: the former reached a nadir of 12.8%, while the latter declined to 28%. Rattled by this poor showing, plus the strong performance of the Francoist Vox party, Sánchez changed tack and struck a deal with Iglesias, granting Unidas Podemos the powerful Ministry of Labour as well as greater policy influence. Since then, the left has continued to see its electoral support ebb away; yet it has also had a rare opportunity to put some of its ideas into practice.

Labour Minister Yolanda Diaz, a representative for the Spanish Communist Party who ran as part of the Unidas Podemos coalition, has achieved a series of impressive policy victories during her two-year tenure. In the first weeks of the pandemic, she introduced the Expediente de Regulación Temporal de Empleo (ERTE) – the functional equivalent of the UK’s furlough scheme – which covered 3.6 million workers and was praised for its faultless rollout. She subsequently introduced a historic labour reform to limit the use of temporary contracts, which Iglesias described ‘the most important law in the legislature’. The bill, which has so far tripled the number of permanent contracts in the Spanish job market, passed with a majority of just one, after a Popular Party MP accidentally voted in favour by pressing the wrong button. Diaz has also increased the minimum wage by 33.5% and issued a €200 cheque to poor households to help with the cost-of-living crisis. Podemos’s guaranteed minimum income programme has now been officially adopted, with poorer households eligible for an ‘Ingreso Minimo Vital’ ranging from €560 to €1,400 per month.

But these successes have been offset by many disappointments. Podemos has seen its policies consistently watered-down or obstructed by a Socialist Party whose economic agenda remains unabashedly pro-market. The roll-out of the Ingreso Minimo Vital, overseen by the Socialist Minister for Inclusion and Social Security, has been incompetent at best. A combination of underfunding, bureaucratic complexity and a lack of personnel to process the applications means that the benefit reaches only half the households it is supposed to cover. Meanwhile, the PSOE Economy Minister Nadia Calviño – a deficit hawk with close ties to the financial sector – has stonewalled Podemos’s fiscal policies and refused to countenance new wealth taxes. The Socialists have fought tooth-and-nail against the introduction of rent controls and dragged their feet over a windfall tax on energy companies. Such recalcitrance speaks to their broader refusal to reform Spain’s broken economic model, which remains over-reliant on construction and an unproductive service sector. There has been little progress in addressing high unemployment rates – close to 14% – or expanding the undersized manufacturing industry, since fixing such problems would require a level of interventionism which the PSOE is unwilling to contemplate.  

Podemos has therefore been forced to confront both the obstinate realities of institutional politics and the inertial tendencies of Spain’s rentier capitalist economy. This hasn’t helped its poll ratings, which hover at around 10%. Many erstwhile supporters are frustrated with the party’s ineffectual performance and feel that it has been duped by its coalition partners. Meanwhile, its failure to establish workable democratic structures continues to damage its credibility. The fact that Podemos cannot properly manage factional conflict means that internal struggles frequently break out into the open, damaging the organization as a whole. In the run up to the recent Andalusian elections, the Anticapitalistas – a Trotskyist outfit which played an important role in Podemos’s formation – decided to break away, claiming that the party had strayed too far from its original principles. When the vote was held, the left suffered heavy losses.

A further blow for Podemos came with its defeat in the Madrid regional elections of May 2021. Iglesias had stepped down as Deputy Prime Minister in order to lead the campaign, which was meant to rally grassroots support and secure a local foothold for the party. But his decision to focus his attacks on Vox, and present Podemos as a bulwark against the far right, failed to cut through. After winning a paltry 7% of the vote, he abandoned institutional politics altogether and returned to media punditry. In Iglesias’s absence, Yolanda Diaz may become the most important player in the party’s regeneration. She is currently trying to forge a new electoral platform called Sumar (meaning ‘to sum up’ or ‘unite’). As the name suggests, its mission is to overcome both the ideological and geographical divisions that have constrained the Spanish left. It has already secured the support of Izquierda Unida, Más Pais and Podemos, as well as regional formations such as the Valencian Compromis and the Catalunyan Comuns. Bringing these forces into a single political entity will be crucial to winning back the million or so voters that Podemos has lost since 2016, while also gaining the support of subaltern classes who typically shun the ballot box. If this ambitious strategy succeeds, it could open the door to a sorpasso of the kind that Podemos unsuccessfully attempted several years ago – relegating the PSOE to the status of junior partner in a left-led government.

Diaz’s profile may help her to carry out this momentous task. According to opinion polls, her record as Labour Minister has made her the most popular politician in Spain. Although her policies are radical, she has an instinct for pragmatic dealmaking and a softer rhetorical style than Iglesias. To her supporters, this makes her the perfect figure to reconcile Podemos’s institutionalization with its foundational idealism. But her approach also has its detractors in the party leadership, who believe they will continue to haemorrhage support if they retain their agreement with the PSOE after the next election. Further cracks have emerged over the Ukraine conflict, with Diaz proving more reluctant to criticize NATO than many of her comrades. Such cleavages reflect the basic fact that winning over disenchanted voters and unifying the left are two very different aims. Diaz wants to do both; but by moderating her position to appeal to wavering parts of the electorate she may end up alienating vital sections of her progressive bloc. It remains to be seen how she will attempt to solve this electoral puzzle. Recapturing the spirit of the Indignados will be no small feat when confronted with a recalcitrant PSOE, a demoralized electorate and a rising far right. Yet the Spanish left has already demonstrated a unique ability to defy the odds – and Diaz may do so again.  

Read on: Pablo Iglesias, ‘Understanding Podemos’, NLR 93.