Podemos progress stalls but stalemate not resolved

by Dave Kellaway

Rajoy’s PP holds and extends its core vote


The headline writer in El Diario probably summed it up best – “Todos Pierden, Rajoy menos” all parties lost but Rajoy’s PP less than the others. Some of the British press assume it is a clear victory for Rajoy’s Popular Party which indeed gained nearly 5 percentage points and 600,000 votes on the December result. It benefited perhaps from a desire for governability after the long drawn out haggling of the last 6 months. However, even if the PP works out a deal with the centrist right party, Cuidadanos, which lost nearly 400,000 votes (partly to the PP), it still does not have the numbers to form a stable government. And Rivera, the Cuidadanos leader, has vetoed any deal with the PP if Rajoy stays on as leader.

Unidad Podemos(UP) increased the number of seats to 71 but lost around a million votes given that this was in an alliance with the United Left (IU) which won over 900,000 votes at the last election. The PSOE (Socialist Workers Party of Spain = new labour) is pumping itself up about holding off the expected relegation to third party behind UP. But it conveniently forgets that as the official opposition to an unpopular, pro-austerity and very corrupt government it lost 100,000 votes and barely changed its percentage share.

An increased abstention – 30% vs 27% – reflected a certain weariness with politicians of all types, partly due to the long effects of austerity and the failure of UP to galvanise people this time.

A setback but not big defeat for Podemos

Pollsters seem to get it wrong everywhere at the moment since the pre-election polls and the TV exit polls all suggested that UP would overtake the PSOE and achieve an historic change in the relationship of forces on the left only two years after the foundation of Podemos. Many observers noted that the December elections showed the combined total of Podemos and IU votes were more than the PSOE total.

It was assumed that building a coalition would ensure the IU votes would not be wasted since they gained very few seats for the near million votes they received. It was also believed it would have a mobilising effect so new voters would be attracted. If anything it may have suffered from the increased abstention. In any case the media, the PSOE, PP and Cuidadanos seized on the fact that Podemos, which previously had vaunted their neither right nor left positioning, was now with the communists, the extremists. Whether the acrimony of previous political battles or simmering mistrust contributed to this failure to mobilise the pre-existing constituencies, is difficult to say.

The risk is that those in the Podemos leadership who were most keen on the idea of softening its anti-capitalist, anti-regime aspects will use the setback to suggest going back to that neither left nor right profile with delusions of occupying a national-popular space that can compete with the PP.

Rather misleadingly the tone in both the Spanish media and the British press is to talk about a victory for the PP (while it has no overall majority) and a defeat for Podemos (when it has more or less the same percentage and seats). The result does not represent a catastrophe.

What is clear is that there is a limit to Podemos merely going forward on the electoral level without further consolidation in the rank and file and the neighbourhoods and an upturn in struggles against the forthcoming austerity policies of whichever government is established. Given the difficulties the PSOE have in losing again to the PP and still being vulnerable to Podemos if it chooses to support any government led by the PP the prospects are still encouraging.

Confused response from British commentators

In the British press and social media there appears two opposed responses to what is going on in the Spanish state. Journalists like Giles Tremlett in the Guardian (27/6/16) write a whole piece from a PSOE point of view, blaming the intransigence of the Iglesias leadership for not coming to a deal with PSOE in the previous negotiations and for supporting Catalonia’s demand for a referendum. He fails to mention how the PSOE deal was for a government including Cuidadanos in which very few of Podemos’s radical but not revolutionary demands were included, particularly on increasing public spending. True, some votes may have been lost where people attributed the failure to the Podemos red line on such issues but such a government might have been the Tspiras capitulation moment and that is no use to anybody.

On the other hand there have been sectarian responses to the Podemos leadership’s central proposal for a government of change and progress based primarily on the two main left parties and some radical nationalists. I have read posts on social media saying this is proof that Podemos is some sort of incipient Syriza –that it has already gone over to moderate policies. The fact is Iglesias stood up to his formidable number two Errejon, sacking one of the latter’s key supporters, and to the popular mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmen who wanted a softer approach to the PSOE.

Podemos leadership presents shifting political identity
This does not mean there is nothing to criticise in the line and practice of Iglesias. As noted by Jaime Pastor (article in Viento Sur, 27/6/16) the continuing churn in the presentation of what Podemos stood for has been confusing for voters. From the national populist project, people against the caste, to plurinationality and then in these elections to a more conventional alliance of the left approach where the PSOE was a bit uncritically included in the forces for change. He seemed to veer between praising former discredited PSOE leaders like Zapatero in order to win PSOE supporters to evoking the ‘proud’ traditions of the Spanish CP so that he could gain votes among that milieu. So the message was not as clear as in December.

Iglesias also vaunted Podemos’s credentials as a guarantor of stability for the Spanish state and its institutions. Nevertheless his overall approach for a government of the lefts is a correct one.

What next?

The nationalities question is still very important. UP with its support for a referendum in Catalonia was the first party both there and in Euskadi so a small victory for Rajoy is combined with a continued radicalised opposition to the constitutional arrangements in the Spanish state. Up to now Podemos has rejected any agreement with the PSOE that excludes a referendum and indeed has had some success is winning several prominent Catalan PSOE leaders to its position. Any new right of centre led government has to also implement what is calculated to be 10 billion euros of cuts to the state budget. Such a task is harder if there is minority government.

Consequently the situation is anything but stable. For the left, Podemos needs to turn to the war of position and build itself in opposition at the same time reflecting and deciding on a form of organisation that generates self-organisation on the ground rather than only building an electoral war machine.

More programmatic discussion is necessary since you can only take Yes we Can so far (see Manuel Gari’s article on the Viento Sure website). The internal differences of the PSOE over whether to support a big coalition PP led government will continue and will provide opportunities for Podemos to grow its support. What is really absent from the political scene is a resurgence of the sort of social movements we saw a few years ago. Such a development could unblock the stalemate in a positive direction.

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